Toasts, Warnings Greet Abbas

Times Staff Writer

Mahmoud Abbas, president-elect of the Palestinian Authority, didn't wait for election officials to formally announce his victory. Instead, he was on the job first thing Monday morning -- perhaps because he knows he has his work cut out for him.

Abbas, the 69-year-old successor to the late Yasser Arafat, received a daylong procession of dignitaries offering congratulations for his win in Sunday's landmark elections in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. He also received swift and pointed reminders from all sides of the expectations being placed upon him.

Israel insisted that the new Palestinian leader take immediate steps to fight terrorism. President Bush invited him to the White House, and U.S. officials said they were considering expanding assistance to the Palestinian Authority. The militant group Hamas urged him not to waver from core Palestinian demands. And ordinary Palestinians, having put their hopes in his hands, wondered whether Abbas would indeed be able to change their lives for the better.

"We want freedom and security and peace, and for fighting to end," said Rajah Zalatimo, a 59-year-old Palestinian who runs a pastry shop in Jerusalem. "I want a decent life for my children, without bullets flying over their heads."

At midafternoon, the Palestinian Central Election Commission announced the official results, which were similar to unofficial results and exit polls released soon after voting ended Sunday night. Abbas had claimed victory on the basis of those measures.

Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, received 62.3% of the vote, more than three times the 19.8% garnered by his nearest rival, Mustafa Barghouti, a physician and democracy activist, according to the commission's figures. The other five contenders scored in the low single digits.

Former President Carter, who came to help monitor the vote, was Abbas' first caller at the Muqata, the battered headquarters where Arafat spent most of the last three years of his life as a virtual prisoner.

After Arafat's death Nov. 11, Abbas quietly ordered the removal of some of the detritus of the fighting that had taken place in recent years: rows of sandbags, makeshift fortifications of cement-filled barrels and piles of automobiles crushed by Israeli tanks during incursions.

Arafat had left the wreckage in place as symbols of defiance. Abbas, by contrast, sounded conciliatory themes at talks throughout the day at the Muqata.

"We extend our hand to our neighbors," he told international observers at an evening reception, according to aides. "We are ready for peace -- peace based on justice. We hope that the response will be positive."

Aides to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have indicated that they expect the two leaders to meet soon, perhaps next week. Abbas is to be sworn in as early as Wednesday.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who often speaks for Sharon on policy matters, called Abbas' election a "historic opportunity" but stressed that the Palestinian president-elect bore the responsibility to rein in militant groups, including the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas.

"Abu Mazen should now do what the entire international community expects him to do: fight terror with full force," Olmert told Israel Radio. "When it comes to this matter, there will be no concession."

Abbas got a warmer reception from Israeli Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, who is also a deputy prime minister in Sharon's new government.

Peres telephoned Abbas early in the day and told him that Israel would do all it could to help him establish an orderly and democratic government that would allow the two peoples to live side by side.

Yoram Dori, a Peres aide, said Abbas told Peres he was certain the two sides would be able to work together and resolve their differences at the negotiating table.

In Washington, Bush said he was heartened by Abbas' victory, but administration officials have been playing down expectations for quick progress toward Middle East peace.

A Republican congressional staffer said the State Department was exploring the possibility of a special aid package to the Palestinians of as much as $200 million, up from the current $75 million in annual assistance. The staffer said the White House had not yet signed off on the request.

Bush also said he was looking forward to an international conference in March to be held by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, aimed at helping the Palestinians make reforms needed for statehood. Bush has promised Blair that he will make Mideast peace a priority of his second term.

Dennis Ross, an envoy to the region during the Clinton administration, said a permanent Israeli-Palestinian settlement would have to address the status of Jerusalem, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their former lands now under Israeli control, and the borders of a Palestinian state.

"Abu Mazen can't take on any of the 'permanent settlement' issues

Hamas, meanwhile, pledged to cooperate with Abbas while issuing a thinly veiled warning against making too many concessions to Israel.

"Our interest is in Palestinian unity, and we will cooperate with Abu Mazen to achieve the Palestinian national interest," said Gaza-based Hamas spokesman Mushir Masri. "As long as he is faithful to the Palestinian fundamentals."

The election commission declined to provide an official turnout figure for Sunday's vote, citing confusion over the number of eligible voters because of a past inability to conduct an accurate census. Unofficial estimates put the turnout at close to 70% -- high by Western standards but lower than the 81% who voted in municipal elections last month.

The polls stayed open for an extra two hours Sunday evening, reportedly in response to pressure on election officials from Abbas' Fatah faction. Fatah, whose powerful political machine helped propel Abbas to victory, sought a high turnout to demonstrate a decisive mandate for him.

Hamas seized on the turnout issue, sharply questioning the 70% figure and declaring that Abbas lacked the legitimacy to make major decisions without a referendum. "He does not speak for the people," Masri said.

Abbas' associates said that if his administration was to succeed, Israel must take swift steps to ease Palestinians' daily lives and make goodwill gestures such as freeing prisoners.

"I think the first 100 days are crucial," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said. "People will judge the first 100 days."

Israeli leftists, too, put the onus on Sharon's government to make concessions that will boost Abbas' credibility with his people.

"If all Israel does is sit in the gallery and watch Abu Mazen perform, it won't be long before he fails," said Yossi Beilin, a chief architect of the Oslo interim peace accords of 1993. "This dream of having a democratically elected, pragmatic man leading the Palestinian Authority and winning the sympathy of his people and the world will become a passing episode."

Arafat's demise and the advent of new Palestinian leadership dictate that both sides must begin living up to promises made under the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map, some Israeli observers said.

"There will be no justification for either side continuing to duck its responsibilities," commentator Ofer Shelach wrote in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot. "There will no longer be anyone else on whom to pin the blame for failure."

Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.

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