The relatively peaceful election of Mahmoud Abbas, nicknamed "Abu Mazen," as president of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) shows a new willingness on the part of the Palestinians to move towards stability, perhaps for going the violence and chaos of the past four decades. Abbas promises to reform the corrupt and mostly unproductive P.A. created by Yasser Arafat, bring order to the unruly security forces, and rein in the armed militias that seized control of many Palestinian towns during the Intifada. His election was never truly in doubt, but Abbas's victory may be short-lived. He must still reign in militant groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon becomes eager to again resume peace talks. But this election, the first recent development in the stagnant Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a ray of light for any type of peace in the Middle East. No matter where the war on terrorism takes us, U.S. leaders should remember that the key is Israel and that the sooner the Islamic world sees a Palestinian state coexisting with Israel, the sooner a lasting peace can be achieved.
The issue of Israel has long since been a source of contention between the United States and the Arab world. Terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and Hezbollah often use the plight of the Palestinians as justification for their brutal terrorist tactics. Although President Bush clearly extended the war on terrorism to include reshaping the Middle East in a democratic image, it is not clear why little attention has been given to resolving the Intifada. Sure, democratic elections in Iraq are fine for the Iraqis and give goodwill points to Americansalthough today it looks so far to be a quagmire of religious turmoil and civil warbut to mediate a truce which guarantees the existence of a Palestinian state while ensuring the integrity of Israel is the one goal that can ultimately heal the Middle East.
This election is a real chance to move forward. Previously, the Bush administration had refused to negotiate with the Palestinians unless they chose a leader other than Arafat. While Arafat's death is seen as a tragedy by the Palestinian people, it does allow for new leadership, renewed hope, and the removal of old corruption.
The transition from one Palestinian regime to another is not going to be easy. Abbas has pledged to be unflinching on the traditional Palestinian conditions for peace, including an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, the creation of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. But before Bush and Sharon brand Abbas as an "obstruction to peace" like Arafat, they must remember that this man is known to be pragmatic: He favors negotiation and openly opposes what he sees as the counter-productive violence of the Intifada. Abbas is the best chance for peace yet, although he too must have an open mind. No longer can there be an "all or nothing" rhetoric from the Palestinian Authority; now is the time to compromise.
But for Abbas's presidency to accomplish something, Israel and the United States cannot just stand idly by and expect results to happen. Patience and compromise are needed on both sides, and for the Palestinians to gain confidence in Abbas, he must come up with concessions and acts of good will, the terms of which Israel is willing to accept. This includes the withdrawal of illegal Jewish settlements from the West Bank and from all occupied territories in Gaza. Sharon accepts this, and was willing to battle with members of his own Likud Party to implement the plan.
The United States, which has promised to increase aid for the Palestinians since Abbas's election, must also be patient and not expect immediate results. Controlling terrorism will not be particularly easy, especially since groups like Hamas boycotted the Palestinian election. Abbas is walking a thin line to placate Israel while not offending Hamas. Yet he should reign in the terrorists, and for Abbas to accomplish that, Bush must come through with the $200 million aid package for the Palestinians. What they need most now is food and medicine. Give the Palestinians something to hope for that won't involve the complete destruction of Israel.
So now, the honeymoon period is over in Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Gaza. The time is now for all parties to act together. Already this week, the Islamic Jihad attacked a Jewish settlement in Morag, in the Gaza, leaving one Israeli civilian and two militants dead, and three Israeli soldiers wounded. Israel wants the terrorist groups under control before negotiations can begin. The militant groups want Israeli forces out of occupied territories. It is a fresh start, a new leader and a new year for a peace settlement. Let us hope that neither side wastes this chance.