A s expected, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas has won elections to succeed Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Abbas is viewed as a moderate and a technocrat; there are widespread hopes that he will make genuine efforts to push for peace with Israel. If he does, he will be dealing with a newly constituted Israeli government whose makeup could lead to its readiness to reciprocate. Those are two big “ifs,” but they provide a foundation for optimism that has been lacking for several years.
Mr. Abbas had been the front-runner to succeed Arafat since the Palestinian leader’s death last November. He was named the temporary president, and victory in Sunday’s ballot was almost assured. The only questions revolved around the margin of his victory and the turnout. Both were critical to Mr. Abbas if he was to claim a mandate to lead the Palestinian people and negotiate seriously with Israel.
The election results show Mr. Abbas receiving two-thirds of the vote (67 percent); his nearest rival, Mr. Mahmoud Barghouti, a human-rights activist backed by the left, won 20 percent. The margin of victory is convincing; the turnout was less impressive.
It is estimated that about only two-thirds of the 1.8 million Palestinian voters cast ballots. Mr. Abbas’ supporters are still claiming a mandate, even though they had originally hoped for a turnout of 80 percent, which would have been roughly equal to that in elections for 26 towns and villages held last month. Reportedly 70 percent of voters had cast ballots; voting was extended by two hours to increase participation. Palestinians blamed Israeli military roadblocks for the poor turnout, conveniently overlooking the Islamic parties’ call to boycott the vote. Fortunately, their opposition was merely rhetorical: The election was free from violence. And there have been no complaints from the 800 international observers.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is reportedly ready to meet Mr. Abbas and revive high-level contacts between the two governments, which have been frozen for over a year. Israel will be watching Mr. Abbas: As in the past, Israelis expect the Palestinian Authority to crack down on the terrorists who continue to wage war against their country.
While Mr. Abbas supports full Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, he has said that he opposes the violent struggle for statehood. That is music to Israeli ears, but it is still unclear if the new leadership has the will or the ability to rein in the extremists. Mr. Abbas has spoken of co-opting the militants rather than confronting them. That raises suspicions in Israel about his long-term intentions.
Still, Mr. Sharon has said this year could provide a historic opportunity. He intends to proceed with the unilateral withdrawal from 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and four from the West Bank. That move is being challenged by Israeli settlers and members of the country’s religious community, some of whom have threatened mass demonstrations.
The fractures in Mr. Sharon’s ruling coalition may increase the prospects for peace. The prime minister lost his parliamentary majority six months ago when conservative allies left the government over the plan to withdraw from Gaza. That opened the door to negotiations with the Labor Party, led by veteran peacemaker Shimon Peres. They struck a deal last month. Last week, a smaller religious party agreed to join the coalition, giving Mr. Sharon a 66-seat majority in the 120-member legislature.
It appears then that the political background is set for improved relations, but progress will ultimately depend on policies. Mr. Abbas will have to crack down on militants and deliver more security, even though the Israelis have systematically dismantled the infrastructure needed to provide it. And Israel will have to give Mr. Abbas something to show the Palestinian people to prove that peacemaking pays dividends. The Israeli hard line — demanding that Palestinians make all the concessions up front — has only undermined support for moderates in the occupied territories. Arafat’s departure gives Mr. Sharon an excuse to take those steps.
Israel could pull back its security forces in some parts of Palestinian territory in return for stepped-up Palestinian patrols in areas where militants have recently launched missile attacks against Israel. Israel began this process during the election. Continuing restraint could prove a confidence-building measure — and give Mr. Abbas a chance to show his bona fides. It is a small step, but this is how the two sides must move forward if they are to make the most of this new political environment.
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