The death of Palestine Authority President Yasser Arafat opens the door to new possibilities in the troubled Middle East. While Mr. Arafat was the embodiment of Palestinian aspirations, he had also become an obstacle to peace. His most important interlocutors — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. President George W. Bush — had no faith in him. Even though he was the democratically elected head of the Palestinian people, neither man was willing to deal with Mr. Arafat and they preferred to let the peace process languish rather than expend precious political capital on negotiations with him. A new Palestinian leader, genuinely committed to peace, could break the paralysis.

The rest of the world must be prepared to meet and assist him. During his visit with Mr. Bush last weekend, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said bringing peace to the Middle East is the single most important thing the two men can do. Mr. Bush agreed, and promised to mobilize international support to make that happen. He said he would like to see a Palestinian state in four years.

The first step in the process is holding democratic elections to pick a successor to Mr. Arafat. By law, Mr. Rawhi Fattouh, the former speaker of the Parliament, becomes president of the Palestinian Authority until elections are held. Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, the negotiator and former Palestinian prime minister, was named chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The election, which must be held within 60 days of Mr. Arafat’s death, is likely to pit Mr. Abbas against Mr. Marwan Barghouti, the popular leader of Fatah, Mr. Arafat’s faction within the PLO. Mr. Barghouti is currently in an Israeli prison serving five life sentences on charges of involvement in killings of Israeli citizens. Mr. Barghouti’s backing for armed struggle against Israel — which landed him in prison — has made him a hero among ordinary Palestinians. It is questionable whether Israel or the United States would be willing to negotiate with him. (It is also worth remembering that being in prison did not stop Mr. Nelson Mandela from making peace with South African President F.W. de Klerk.)

Nor is it likely to be a two-way race. Hamas, the militant Islamic organization, may break with tradition and participate. Hamas has a big following in the Palestinian territories. It has won support from hardliners for its opposition to Israel, but it has established an even bigger base as a result of its civic activities. Hamas has provided many of the social services that a real Palestinian government should have provided. The Palestinian Authority’s failure — and that of Mr. Arafat — has been Hamas’ gain.

Hamas has not participated in previous Palestinian elections because of its opposition to the Oslo accords. Palestinian official Mr. Nabil Aburdeinah has said that the forthcoming ballot would be open to all candidates as long as they accept the two-state formula embodied in the Oslo agreements. In other words, Hamas would be allowed to nominate a candidate for the election if it abandoned its goal of destroying Israel.

No matter who wins the election, the vote must be free, fair and democratic. Friends and allies of the Palestinian people must work with the Palestinian Authority to ensure the vote is all of those things. Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair said they would do anything necessary to make that happen. A valuable aid would be the resuscitation of the road map, which was put together by the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. The road map originally envisioned a Palestinian state by 2005, but it has been folded up for a year as deadlines have passed. The four sponsors should meet soon to see how to get the road map’s timetable back on course.

Given the U.S.’ historic role and influence on Israel, a special burden falls on Mr. Bush. He has been suspicious of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. He saw the Clinton administration waste time and energy — and the reputation of the White House — on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Mr. Bush took office with animus toward Mr. Arafat, and those feelings only grew stronger during the four years of his first term. The Palestinians’ resort to terror confirmed the U.S. president’s own feelings and strengthened his sense of solidarity with Israel.

An equally big burden falls on Israel. It must pull back its forces to allow the vote to take place and to allow all Palestinians to participate. It should not influence the elections, but it should make it clear to the Palestinian people that this is the opportunity to make a new beginning. A vote for peace will be met with equal efforts by Israel. That is the only way to build an enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

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