Palestinian election ends, challenges begin

Mahmoud Abbas's victory Sunday gives new impetus to negotiation with Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas's election victory has opened a new window for Middle East peacemaking, but the new president's ability to deliver a better life and gains toward statehood for Palestinians hinges largely on Israel and the armed Palestinian factions, analysts say.

Since Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was clear during the campaign about his intention to end the armed intifada and restart peace talks with Israel, his victory is seen as a willingness by the public to give that approach a try.

"Yasser Arafat's reference was that of the negotiator and the fighter at the same time," says Gaza Strip political analyst Hassan al-Kashif. "Abu Mazen's reference will be the political option only."

Nabil Amr, a Palestinian legislator and close ally of Abbas concurs: "He will start immediately to open the political track with the Israelis, and he must reach immediate agreement with Hamas and the other factions to calm the situation, to convince [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon to open a new page for the new Palestinian leadership."

Mr. Amr says that for Abbas's way to work, he will have to reduce the suffering of the Palestinians. That, he says, is dependent on Israel lifting checkpoints and curbing military operations, both of which Israel says are needed to stop attacks against Israeli targets. "If Abu Mazen succeeds in getting a real easing of conditions, I'm sure he will create a new atmosphere and people will support his strategy," he says.

Abbas, says Amr, will have another request of Mr. Sharon: Dropping the demand specified in the international peace blueprint, known as the road map, that the Palestinian Authority dismantle "terrorist capabilities and infrastructure" and instead accept a cease-fire by the armed groups. "Sharon must look at the results."

"If Abu Mazen succeeds in reaching a cease-fire and containing all these groups, the Israelis must be satisfied. We will not punish any group; we will contain them by our own way, not Sharon's way," says Amr. Abbas said repeatedly during the campaign that he would persuade, not coerce, the factions into a cease-fire and that civil war was a "red line" he would not cross.

But Sharon made clear Monday that this would not be enough. "The Palestinians are not fighting terror, and while Abbas's declarations in the framework of the election campaign were encouraging, he will be tested by the way he battles terror and acts to dismantle its infrastructure."

Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, says a cease-fire can bring at best a temporary halt to terrorism. "The cancer will come back. You can't tell Israelis they have to have more people die so that Abbas is able to get along with the factions and establish a cease-fire."

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office Monday, President Bush said Palestinian leadership must revamp its security forces to "fight off those few who still have the desire to destroy Israel as a part of their philosophy." Mr. Bush also invited Abbas to the White House, an invitation he didn't extend to Mr. Arafat.

While Abbas's election victory of 62.3 percent of the vote compared to about 20 percent for the next highest candidate, Mustafa Barghouthi, reflects backing for trying a reduction in the armed intifada, it is in no way a mandate for Abbas to move against the armed groups, says Hisham Ahmed, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University.

"If he does so, forces within Fatah would stand up against him," he says, particularly since Sharon has ruled out meeting Abbas's demands for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and accepting what Palestinians view as the right of refugees to return to former homes inside Israel. Israel views the right of return as a formula for destroying its character as a Jewish state.

Abbas's win doesn't end challenges from Hamas, which boycotted the polling, says Palestinian analyst Hani Masri. "It's an important victory and it gives him strength, but not really a lot of strength. He definitely will not be able to impose any deal on Hamas, he will need to dialogue with it."

Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri said: "Resistance is the legal right of the Palestinian people and this election gives no one the authority to impose his vision without consulting his people."

Abbas faces a major test when parliamentary elections are held in July. Hamas, which scored well in municipal elections, may run in those elections. Moreover, Mr. Barghouthi's left-wing opposition can also draw away votes. If Fatah fares badly, "Abbas won't be able to move, he'll be restricted," Hani Masri, the analyst, says. "If Israel and the United States want to help Abu Mazen, the time is now," he says. "Checkpoints have to be lifted, the economy has to be revived, settlement outposts need to be removed, military incursions have to stop. Without this, it will be impossible for Abu Mazen, or any man who believes in peace."

Mr. Gissin says the onus is on the Palestinians. "You cannot move ahead unless real steps are taken to eradicate terrorism. Their hope that international pressure will make Israel's demand on this evaporate is a delusion and they need to come back to reality. One thing should be clear about Ariel Sharon: There will be no compromise on terror."

Labor Party leader Shimon Peres was more upbeat. "A moderate man was elected, an intelligent man, an experienced man," he told Army Radio. "Let's give him a chance."

In the view of Leslie Susser, a correspondent for the Jerusalem Report weekly, the Israelis and Palestinians will remain deadlocked over whether a cease-fire is sufficient. "The question will become what does the international community do. Will it back Israel in sticking to its demand or say Abbas has done enough?"

Wire reports were used in this article.

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