On Sunday, Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will go to the polls to choose the successor to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in a Paris hospital in November. With the Middle East locked in a vicious cycle of hatred and bloodshed, it is hoped that the election is completed successfully and paves the way for enduring peace in the region. During the campaigning that ended Friday, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), maintained an overwhelming lead over six other candidates. A victory for Mr. Abbas, the candidate of the PLO’s leading Fatah faction, is regarded as a certainty.
The ballot matters a great deal not only to the Palestinian electorate but to the international community as well. It is widely believed that, with Mr. Abbas at the helm, the stalled Middle East peace process will get back on track. Three reasons can be given for this:
First, Mr. Abbas, a moderate, is in favor with both Israel and the United States, which has played a mediatory role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. During the campaign, Mr. Abbas called for a total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, saying Israel should leave the territories it occupied in the third Middle East War of 1967.
It is only natural that he should have emphasized that principle to gain the broad backing of Palestinian residents. At the same time, however, Mr. Abbas expressed a strong desire to resume talks with Israel, emphasizing that Palestinians want peace.
In a recent interview with an Arab newspaper, Mr. Abbas called for an end to the “armed resistance” against Israel, making it clear for the first time that he will seek peace through dialogue, not violence. Such a positive initiative — which has created a favorable international image of Mr. Abbas as a prospective peacemaker — would have been unthinkable during Arafat’s day.
Second, the political environment in Israel has also changed in favor of peace. Last year, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a hardliner, found himself in a tight spot following his decision to withdraw Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip. The decision provoked angry protests from within his ruling Likud Party.
After that, though, Mr. Sharon established a coalition government with the Labor Party, the largest opposition group, which supports the withdrawal of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. This week he further bolstered his political base as religious parties agreed to join the coalition. Thus Mr. Sharon is now in a better position to push his pullout plan.
The Israeli leader has made no public comment on the election, presumably to avoid any criticism that he was meddling in Palestinian politics. There is little doubt, however, that Mr. Sharon sees Mr. Abbas as a prospective partner in peace and hopes for the birth of an Abbas regime.
And third, with the Palestinian situation turning for the better, the international community is willing to provide active support for the resumption of the peace process. In December, British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed with the U.S. to hold a foreign ministerial meeting on Mideast peace in London following the Palestinian election. Mr. Blair then engaged in some diplomatic spadework in the Middle East, holding talks with both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas.
The British Foreign Office has announced that the meeting will be held in early March and that it will be attended by, among others, representatives from the Palestinian Authority, the U.S., Japan, Russia, the European Union, Egypt and Jordan. Israel, however, has said it will not attend.
The absence of Israel, a principal player in the peace process, is to be regretted. Yet the conference will provide Mr. Abbas with an opportunity to make his full-dress debut on the diplomatic stage. As such, the London meeting will be an important occasion for him to gain international recognition as the Palestinian leader. Late last year, Mr. Sharon said 2005 will be a “historic year” for Israeli-Palestinian relations. To make that happen, though, the two sides must sit down at the negotiating table. The prevailing view in the international community is that Mr. Sharon will meet Mr. Abbas to resuscitate the dormant U.S.-initiated peace plan for the Middle East.
The so-called road map, which spells out steps to create a Palestinian state, was practically put in mothballs after Mr. Abbas resigned as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in the autumn of 2003. The election Sunday, if conducted successfully, will help revive the peace plan and smooth the way for enduring peace in the Middle East.
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