On 9 January 2005, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories elected Mahmoud Abbas president of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas claimed victory over six other candidates with 62 percent of the vote. The organized, transparent election surprised many in the international community, however for Palestinians it was a day carried out with respect for the rule of law, similar to the smooth transfer of power within the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Fateh following the death of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
With the election behind him, Abbas now faces several challenges from his own people and the international community. Can he build on the mandate given to him and widen his base among Barghouti supporters? Will Israel enable him to deliver on promises made to the international community?
The Challenges Ahead:
Palestinians will almost immediately look to Abbas to improve their quality of life. After over four years of violence, the Palestinian economy has greatly deteriorated, as has Palestinian civil society. Israeli closures, military incursions and hundreds of checkpoints-“which separate Palestinians from Palestinians, and Palestinians from vital services-“have pushed the Palestinian economy to the verge of collapse. For this to change, Israel must cooperate with Palestinians and allow the free movement of people, goods and the delivery of vital services. Israel must allow Palestinian laborers, many of whom Israel does not consider to be security risks, to return to their jobs in Israel. Israel should remove checkpoints and cooperate with Palestinian officials regarding border crossings. Such moves by Israel are necessary to create the positive atmosphere among Palestinians that Abbas needs to resume political negotiations with Israel.
On his part, Abbas will have to act on his words. He will have to begin taking steps to end the lawlessness in many parts of the Occupied Territories-“a condition created as a result of Israel’s destruction of the PA and Palestinian security forces. Abbas should immediately begin reforming the security forces by consolidating the various services and launch a weapons collection campaign. These two factors will bring an end to the “militarized” uprising. As conditions improve and negotiations resume on the basis of international law, Palestinians will be able to give negotiations a chance.
Abbas must also address Palestinian grievances regarding corrupt government officials. He will need to create a government of competent ministers and strengthen and support democratic institution-building. He must allow freedom of political expression and continue to dialogue with Hamas, which expressed its opposition to the presidential elections by discouraging, not forbidding, its members from voting. Hamas’ decision not to use arms to disrupt the election and its participation in last month’s municipal elections, as well as its planned participation in the upcoming legislative election, are encouraging signs that Abbas may not face insurmountable difficultly in bringing Hamas closer to national political participation.
The United States should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past with Abbas. He will need political and financial support from the U.S to help him strengthen his mandate and sustain the credibility he gained in the election. The U.S. should ensure that Israel take immediate, concrete steps to withdraw its aggravation of daily life in the Occupied Territories. At the same time the U.S. must bring the two sides back to the negotiating table and ensure that the Gaza Disengagement Plan is a part of, not separate from, the Road Map. The U.S. mediators must listen to Palestinian concerns and not adopt carte blanche Israeli positions regarding the final status issues such as Jerusalem, borders, refugees and settlements.
A U.S. financial package for vital services such as health care, schools, infrastructure and job creation will ease Palestinian hardship and help Abbas as he heads into negotiations with Israel.
The main challenge for Abbas, Israel and the U.S. is to not allow the democratic process in Palestine to slip into anarchy but to build on the opportunity to achieve peace and justice. The election, praised by international observers as fair and free was carried out under occupation. The three sides must now work together to make the Palestinian state a free, democratic, viable, and independent state that can continue to serve as a model to the Arab world.