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With Abbas’ Apparent Victory, a Fresh Start, but It May Be Tough


With Yasser Arafat a receding memory and landmark Israeli withdrawals looming, Palestinians are hoping their new leader will bring them statehood — or, at least, stability. Exit polls from Sunday’s election in the West Bank and Gaza Strip showed Mahmoud Abbas, the main Fatah faction’s candidate, easily taking the Palestinian Authority presidency after a campaign in which he won international plaudits for his cease-fire and reform calls.

“This proves that the Palestinian people are moving toward democracy,” Abbas told reporters after casting his ballot in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “There are obstacles but the people’s determination is stronger.”

Speaking in a suit and glasses, Abbas cut a far more statesmanlike figure than the fatigue-and-kaffiyeh-clad Arafat.

With some 800 foreign notables, among them former President Carter and 2004 U.S. presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, flocking in to serve as monitors of the first Palestinian election since 1996, Israel pulled out the stops in easing movement. The army scaled back its deployment in the West Bank and Gaza, while the Foreign Ministry situation room attended to complaints by Palestinians held up at military checkpoints.

But some saw turbulence ahead.

Despite his more moderate appearance and his views that terrorism does not serve the Palestinian cause, Abbas has made no secret of policies similar to those held by Arafat, who died in a French hospital last November, shunned as an obstacle to peace.

These include demands that are deal-breakers for Israel — such as Palestinian statehood in all of the West Bank, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem, and a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and millions of their descendants to lands now inside the Jewish state.

“These things that Abu Mazen said are not acceptable, as far as we are concerned,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. “It will certainly be impossible to reach accommodation with someone who thinks this way.”

Shalom reiterated Israel’s demand that Abbas implement the first stage of a U.S.-backed peace “road map” by cracking down on Palestinian terror — in stages, if necessary, by stopping the firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip at Israeli targets.

Abbas has ruled out a crackdown, preferring to talk Hamas and other terrorist groups into giving up arms. But in an early show of defiance, the Islamists boycotted the election. Then, midday Sunday, terrorists believed to be from Hamas fired at least two rockets from Gaza at the Israeli town of Sderot, but caused no casualties.

Despite these problems, Israeli officials have indicated a willingness to meet with Abbas after the election to discuss issues, including Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank later this year.

Abbas, 69, faced a less-than-lethal challenge from the runner-up candidate, Mustafa Barghouti. A former Marxist, Barghouti hinted that there may have been irregularities in the polling stations. But even an 11th-hour recount looked unlikely to bring Barghouti, who had a showing of around 22 percent in popularity polls, even close to Abbas’ lead.

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