Rewarding the Palestinians

For years, Washington has been pressing Palestinian leaders for democratic reform.

Sunday's election for a new Palestinian leader to succeed the late Yasser Arafat is a significant step in that long-delayed process. If there is any hope that this move toward participatory government will lead to lasting peace, though, it must be rewarded with swift, visible support from others - the US and Israel, most important, but also from Europe and the Arab world.

President Bush should not hesitate to send a tranche of aid to the Palestinians, who are in desperate straits. There's nothing like the prospect of an improved standard of living to encourage support for a new government. The day after the elections, Mr. Bush should be in the White House briefing room announcing a major package.

The region also deserves a high-level visit from an administration official at the earliest opportunity - preferably Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice. That visit should be followed by regular visits from US officials who can show the Palestinians that the US is committed to Palestinian statehood - and not distracted by the war in Iraq.

Israel, too, needs quickly and decisively to reward the Palestinians' progress toward democracy - which has the potential to also encourage elections in the Arab region.

It can begin by addressing the most often heard complaint among Palestinians: the difficulty of moving between the occupied territories and Israel proper to get to jobs. With intifada II, Israel has greatly restricted checkpoint crossings.

The Europeans can assist with economic aid, and, so, too, can the Gulf states, which are newly flush with oil revenues.

That aid is desperately needed in Gaza, virtually cut off from Israel now, and the stronghold of terrorist activity by such militant groups as Hamas.

The subject of violence brings the circle back to the expected presidential winner, Arafat successor Mahmoud Abbas. In the run-up to the election, Mr. Abbas made disturbing comments defending Palestinian militants. Let's hope that's just campaign talk. But he must succeed in putting - and keeping - a lid on violence.

Outsiders can help him by not waiting for total dismantling of all groups promoting terrorism, but responding with encouragement to this first step. In that way, a first step leads to a second one, and eventually, a Palestinian state.

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