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Last Updated: Friday, 14 January, 2005, 21:55 GMT
Analysis: Chinks of light in Mid-East

By Martin Asser
BBC News, Ramallah

That Mahmoud Abbas would win the Palestinian election was never in doubt. The question is how will his victory change a conflict that has in recent years crushed the Palestinian population and brought waves of terror to Israelis.

Ramallah street scene - taxis and a newspaper stand
Palestinians will judge Abbas on how their daily lives improve
His election was probably the moment of greatest hope for the two sides since the Taba talks of early 2001 but behind any optimistic words it prompted in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Gaza or Washington lay one uncomfortable fact.

The intractable differences that have beset peacemaking all along remain unchanged.

Mr Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, has pledged to be as unyielding as Yasser Arafat on the Palestinians' minimum conditions for peace:

  • Israeli withdrawal from all the West Bank and Gaza Strip, equating to 22% of Palestine before the creation of Israel in 1948

  • East Jerusalem to be the capital of the new Palestinian state

  • A negotiated resolution for Palestinian refugees based on their right of return to homes in what is now Israel.

There is no sign that Israel is ready to accept any of these, leaving prospects for a final peace settlement seemingly as remote as ever.

Decisive choice

Some Palestinians have been saying, therefore, that it won't be long before Mr Abbas will be singled out by Israel and the United States as an "obstacle to peace" just as Yasser Arafat, the previous elected Palestinian leader, was.

That said, there have been chinks of light opened up by the election of Mr Abbas.

Mahmoud Abbas
Abbas has said he wants to meet Ariel Sharon as soon as possible

Palestinians - so long accused by Israel of nursing a pathological culture of hatred towards it - have decisively chosen a man who favours negotiation and openly opposes what he sees as the counter-productive violence of the intifada.

That man can now finally step out from behind the shadow of Arafat - a figure who was seen by many as an obstacle to Palestinian aspirations to build a modern, democratic state, despite his centrality to the Palestinian national cause.

He is promising to reform the chaotic, corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority created by Arafat, bring order to the unruly security forces and rein in the armed militias that seized control of some Palestinian towns during the intifada.

A revival of peace talks may follow these things.

Meanwhile Israel - aware that it needs to do something to bolster the leadership of a man it says it can do business with - may begin easing some of the measures that make life in the occupied territories such a misery that it fuels Palestinian militancy.

Unique opposition

The election itself - some administrative irregularities and problems with Israeli restrictions notwithstanding - was open and transparent enough to set standards in a region not known for democratically electing its rulers.

Moderate head of main political faction Fatah
Seen as someone Israel will talk to
Willing to talk peace with Israel
Wants end to Palestinian armed uprising
Pledges to stick to key positions of late Yasser Arafat

Criticism is rife, not least for the two-hour extension in voting and the mid-stream modification in registration rules that went with it.

Some critics believe it was prompted by the ruling Fatah movement's desire to increase the turn-out - and therefore the credibility of Mr Abbas's election - and it may have allowed multiple voting.

But the very fact that one of those critics, runner-up Mustafa Barghouti, was able to run a vigorous campaign in opposition to Fatah, and win a respectable share of the vote, is almost unique in the Arab world.

It must be stressed, though, that in many cases electors were unwilling to be identified by the BBC as his supporters "until after the result" - a sign that they viewed the vote as secret but nevertheless feared repercussions for supporting the wrong candidate.

And we must remember that the militant group Hamas, which represents large swathes of the Palestinian population, boycotted the vote.

Israel will now be waiting for signs of Mr Abbas tackling the militant groups who spearheaded the intifada that has cost approximately 1,000 Israeli lives since September 2000.

Palestinians - who have had more than 3,000 people killed by Israeli forces in the same period - will look for solid improvements in their lives, both from Israel and from the institution-building and reform programme promised by Mr Abbas.

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