Abbas puts ball back in Israel’s court

Mahmoud Abbas did more than just win an election this week. He redefined several important notions about Palestinians and their desire to achieve peace, and their ability to embrace fundamental Democracy.

Abbas won 66 to 70 percent of the Palestinian vote to succeed the late President Yasser Arafat, according to unofficial election results.

By Western standards, the vote represents a landslide that gives Abbas a clear mandate to pursue his political agenda to re-engage the Israelis at the negotiating table and to seek to control violence.

Not only did Abbas win a majority in a field of seven candidates, Abbas also won a clear majority in the Gaza Strip where Hamas has asserted control. Hamas boycotted the election, urged followers not to vote and refused to field its own political candidate.

The Abbas victory exposes some weakness in Hamas which has recently won regional elections taking a majority of the country’s 26 municipal council seats in December.

Hamas officials immediately criticized Abbas’ vote saying that with only 66 percent of eligible Palestinians voting, they argue Abbas only has the backing of 34 percent of Palestinians.

But Hamas logic is faulty, and typical of an organization that has feared placing its name on a national ballot, concerned that a national loss would undermine its own credibility.

And, the Hamas logic also reflects less the fundamentals of a Democracy and more the traditions of an Arab tyranny where presidents-for-life are expected to win more than 99 percent of a vote. The 66 percent turnout is higher than turnouts in most American elections.

The election proved that Democracy is alive and well in Palestine, one of the few Arab countries where it is practiced so effectively.

Mustapfa Barghouti, the president of HDIP a health services organization in Ramallah, received almost 20 percent of the vote. Despite his loss, Barghouti managed to help define the election beyond existing political parties and on issues of concern for Palestinians.

The public debate was substantive and addressed all of the major issues.

It was only the second Democratic election in Palestine since Arafat’s election in 1996.

Immediately, President Bush announced plans to invite President-elect Abbas to the White House. And rightwing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also said he hoped to meet with Abbas soon, although Abbas insisted any such meeting should be substantive.

The election puts the pressure on Israel to deliver on its unfulfilled promises.

Although Abbas reached out to all Palestinian voters, including those engaged in the insurgency and guerilla war with Israel, Abbas has vowed to pursue peace and has called on the individual militias and those led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to end their attacks against Israeli civilians. And during the campaign he came out strongly against suicide bombings, saying the violence of the past four years has undermined not strengthened Palestinian national aspirations.

Abbas, more than anyone, has given the hope for a negotiated end to the conflict its first real breath of life since Sharon scuttled the peace process and provoked the Intifada with his combative visit to the Haram al Ash-Sharif in Sept. 2000.

But as in the past, Hamas can operate independently and launch suicide terrorist attacks against Israel, giving Sharon the excuse he needs to ignore the election results and continue to falsely place the blame for the collapse of peace these past four years on the shoulders of Palestinians.

Abbas has a tough challenge ahead. He must organize his government and clearly define his post-election goals in a clear manner not only to Palestinians but to the Americans who more than any other people, have the power to push Israel to make the hard concessions that will result in a viable Palestinian state that includes the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.

Abbas also has a mandate to explore a reasoned compromise on the thorny issue of the Palestinian Right of Return.