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Israelis Hopeful but Wary As Polls Give Abbas Victory


Edna Bar-Or wants to be optimistic about the prospects for peace after this week’s Palestinian elections, but like many Israelis, she is not sure she can. “I very much hope it will bring good,” said Bar-Or, 55, surrounded by stacks of laundry and hangers full of pressed shirts at her dry cleaning shop. “I want to be optimistic but I don’t think anyone knows what will be.”

Israelis followed news of the Palestinian elections Sunday, pausing to listen to radio and television news broadcasts and to read newspaper front pages plastered with large photographs of Mahmoud Abbas, known better as Abu Mazen. According to exit polls, Yasser Arafat’s former deputy won the vote by a wide margin and will become the next president of the Palestinian Authority.

The low-key, silver-haired Abbas, who has repeatedly spoken out against the armed struggle of the intifada, appears to be a leader Israel might be able to negotiate with. Abbas’ moderate comments give Israelis a measure of hope that his election could be an historic turning point, but they know an uphill effort lies ahead for Abbas.

“I’m not jealous of him at all; he has so many problems to handle,” Bar-Or said.

Israelis, like the Palestinians, are keenly aware of the tall order that lies ahead for Abbas: uniting security forces to crack down on extremist Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, renewing peace efforts with Israel in an effort to achieve the Palestinian goal of independent statehood, and instituting reforms to quash corruption within the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli officials said it was in Israel’s interest for the Palestinian elections to go as smoothly as possible. Army bulldozers removed roadblocks throughout the West Bank to ease freedom of movement for voters, and international observers said movement was relatively unfettered.

The army also stopped operations across the West Bank with the exception of the villages in the area where an Israeli soldier was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting and four others were wounded over the weekend. .

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel hoped for a smooth election process “so that starting from tomorrow, the new Palestinian leadership will be able to do what it is required to do,” Shalom told journalists.

“I think that the leader who is elected will have to wage a genuine struggle against terror immediately,” adding that Israel expects a “new, different Palestinian leadership that will be prepared to move in the direction of peace,” Shalom said in comments broadcast on Israel Radio.

But some Israelis remained unmoved by the potential for change following the death of Yasser Arafat two months ago.

“Do you really think these elections will mean something?” asked David Weinberg, a Tel Aviv lawyer as he walked past the memorial marking the spot where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was slain in 1995. “Anyone with half a brain can see this is the same group of terrorists. Maybe some people see change, but Abu Mazen says he will start talking, he is not saying he will actually do anything,” he said.

Weinberg also said he had little faith in the new Israeli unity government set to take power this week.

“I only see more of the same continuing, and maybe even worse things to come,” he said.

Afu Badawi, 48, an Israeli Arab from Nazareth, works at a falafel stand making pita bread. Working the pita dough, his hands covered with flour, he said Abbas will have to make some tough choices if he wants to succeed.

“He needs to do the right thing for his people, to focus on rights, the economy and make sure everything” is free of corruption,” said Badawi. “Otherwise he will just be a continuation of Arafat.”

Golan Shiri, 30, who works at a different falafel restaurant, is skeptical that Abbas will be able to do anything at all.

“Abu Mazen can want to make changes all he wants, but does that mean he will really be able to make a difference? It’s not so much up to him,” he said. “It’s the warlords who really control things, not the officials.”

Shlomo Tenami, a 58-year-old office clerk, also has little hope that an Abbas victory will lead to a revolution in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“I hope but I don’t have a lot of hope because we have tried so many times before. Every time we give them land the violence just continues,” he said.

Ben Caspit, a political commentator for the Ma’ariv newspaper, wrote a column Sunday titled, “His Victory, Our Hope.’ He wrote of the great expectations and challenges that accompany the elections and new governments soon to emerge, both in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

He writes that both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “have their back up against the wall. The opposition is stepping up its pressure and the extremists are threatening,” adding that “the coming weeks will be fateful, the greater the hopes, the greater the dangers.”

However, Caspit writes, “If there is any kind of hope out there, now is the time for it.”

At a Tel Aviv bookstore cafe called The Bookworm, the store’s owner, Eliana Ydov, said Abbas’ and the Palestinians’ success — and in turn Israel’s — is linked to what Israel does to help facilitate changes.

“If the new government supports” Abbas, “maybe this time there will be something,” she said.

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