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Palestinian Vote for Hope

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The man elected president of the Palestinian Authority on Sunday, Mahmoud Abbas, is no Yasser Arafat. That’s the good news -- and the bad.

Abbas’ win was about as anticlimactic as could be; his only real competitor, Mustafa Barghouti, trailed badly. But both men campaigned extensively in the Palestinian territories, and the election should be a model for Arab nations: Voting was free and fair, there were international monitors, women were allowed to cast ballots (unlike in Saudi Arabia) and there was no guaranteed winner (unlike in Egypt).

Abbas supported the 1993 Oslo accords that brought hope for Mideast peace. He has denounced the ongoing Palestinian uprising that buried that hope. Israeli and U.S. officials, who refused to meet with Arafat in the years before his death two months ago, say they can work with Abbas. President Bush was effusive Monday in his praise for the election and said he’d be happy to have Abbas come to Washington, quite a contrast with his shunning of Arafat.

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But Abbas lacks Arafat’s charisma and appeal to the Palestinians. If Arafat was afraid that making too many concessions to Israel would cause hard-line Palestinians to revolt, how much more chary will Abbas be?

Israel and the United States can help Abbas show the Palestinians that peace brings rewards. Israel relaxed, but did not remove, its tough restrictions on Palestinian movement during the election campaign. If the Palestinians refrain from violence, impediments like checkpoints and locked gates that prevent people from getting from home to school or work should be removed.

The U.S. can help by insisting on reform of the Palestinian Authority’s finances and security services and providing expertise to reach that goal. The finance minister, Salam Fayyad, has made progress in opening the books of an administration famed for its corruption under Arafat. The security forces, which Arafat refused to merge lest a streamlined entity threaten his hold on power, should be overhauled. There is no need for nine separate entities known as much for feuding and doing the bidding of politicians as for professional law enforcement. Abbas also will need to ensure that consolidated and better trained security forces act against terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza.

The election of a new president and municipal elections in the occupied territories earlier this month make this a season of renewed hope for settlement of a decades-old conflict. Realism is needed too. Abbas won’t solve the problems of Jerusalem, the return of refugees to Israel and the borders of an independent Palestinian state anytime soon. But the absence of Arafat and the election of a man willing to work with Israel can start the process of recovery from more than four years of violence. That’s a necessary prelude to building corruption-free civil institutions and an effective government en route to an independent, peaceful country.

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