Winning Is the Easy Part
The results of the elections for the position of chairman of the Palestinian Authority won't come as a surprise to anyone.
Mahmoud Abbas will be elected to this position, and Mustafa Barghouti will be second, by a large margin. Four other candidates will obtain negligible results. And yet these are the Arab world's first democratic elections: For the first time, the leader is being chosen not as part of a dynasty, nor by a referendum in which he is the sole candidate, but as the result of a suspense-filled election campaign in which the various candidates have presented their platforms and are fighting over them, until the very end.
Abbas is Yasser Arafat's natural successor. For many years, he was Arafat's No. 2 man in the Palestine Liberation Organization. It was Abbas who spearheaded the Oslo agreement on the Palestinian side and who signed it on the White House lawn on Sept. 13, 1993.
Still, it would be hard to find anyone more different from Arafat – he is not a charismatic or passionate leader, he does not try to imitate Fidel Castro's military attire or prolonged speeches, and he is the first Palestinian leader to speak out against the armed intifada, which he did as early as 2000. He is a quiet man, who hates being interviewed, who does not crave power and who is capable of listening to others, and even of being persuaded by them.
Despite his lack of charisma, Abbas will assume the leadership of the Palestinian Authority accompanied by the legitimacy that he acquired as one of the "founding fathers" of the PLO in Qatar.
In addition, he is well-liked by the administration of George W. Bush. There is ample European willingness to assist him, and Israeli willingness to conduct a dialogue with him. He is also viewed favorably by Egypt and the Arab world.
Never before have the Palestinian people had such a leader: not at the time of the Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, not in the days of Ahmed Shukeiri and not during Arafat's time. Upon Abbas' election, a rare opportunity will present itself to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Will this opportunity be realized? As of now, it is hard to tell. Abbas will be standing at the head of a seriously weakened system, whose infrastructure has been almost totally destroyed over the past four years. He will be required immediately to rehabilitate and unite the Palestinian security forces and to find a way to halt the violent actions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If the violence doesn't stop, it will be very difficult for him to lead his people.
The cease-fire may be created by combating the extremist Islamic elements or by reaching an agreement with them. The agreement might come at a high cost, because it will entail power-sharing. The battle might be very tough, because the Palestinian policing forces do not have Israeli permission to use arms and because the anarchy in the territories is severe. No one knows whether the forces will obey the new leader.
In the near future, Abbas will be walking this tightrope between the attempt to reach an agreement that will not be too costly from his standpoint, and a violent struggle. This is why the outside powers have such a potentially important role.
The more the Palestinians feel that during times of peace they enjoy a better life, their economy develops and they have something to lose, the more they will realize that the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is only the beginning of a negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinians that will culminate in a permanent status agreement in line with the Clinton Plan, Bush's vision and the Geneva accord.
In this way, the chances of the extremist forces being assimilated will increase, so that they won't present an obstacle to Abbas in his steps as head of the Palestinian Authority.
The Bush administration and the government of Ariel Sharon, both in their second term, will have to make great efforts to assist the pragmatic elements within the Palestinian Authority.
If they confine their role to that of an observer standing on the sidelines, the historic revolution that has taken place on the Palestinian side will generate nothing more than a round of applause for being a nice example of a democratic process with a prudent and responsible leader.
Then, unfortunately, this process will be toppled by the extremists, the fanatics, the vengeful and the violent.