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Yossi Beilin is one of Israel’s leading doves. He was an architect of the Oslo Accords and an initiator of the Geneva Accord. He is now chairman of the Yahad party.

By Yossi Beilin

JERUSALEM — The results of Sunday’s election for Palestinian Authority president won't come as a surprise to anyone. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will be elected to this position, and Dr. Mustafa Barghouti will finish second, by a large margin. Four other candidates will obtain negligible results.

And yet these are the first democratic elections in the Arab world: For the first time ever, the leader is not being chosen as part of a dynasty, nor by a referendum in which he is the sole candidate, but as the result of a suspense-filled election campaign in which the various candidates presented their platforms and fought over them until the very end.

Abu Mazen is Yasser Arafat's natural successor. For many years, Abu Mazen was Arafat's number-two man in the PLO. It was Abu Mazen who spearheaded the Oslo Accords on the Palestinian side, and he signed them on the White House lawn Sept. 13, 1993.

Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find anyone more different from Arafat. He is not a charismatic or passionate leader, he does not attempt to imitate Fidel Castro's military attire or prolonged speeches, and he is the first Palestinian leader who has spoken out against the armed intifada, which he did as early as 2000. He is a quiet man who hates being interviewed, does not crave power and is capable of listening to others, and even of being persuaded by them.

Despite his lack of charisma, Abu Mazen will assume the leadership of the Palestinian Authority accompanied by the legitimacy that he acquired as one of the "founding fathers" of the PLO in Qatar. In addition, he is well-liked by the U.S. administration, there is ample European willingness to assist him and Israeli willingness to conduct a dialogue with him,and he is viewed favorably by Egypt and the Arab world.

Never before have the Palestinian people had such a leader: not at the time of the Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, not in the days of Ahmed Shukeiri and not during Arafat's time. Upon Abu Mazen's election, a rare opportunity will present itself to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Will this opportunity be realized? It is hard to tell. Abu Mazen will be standing at the head of a seriously weakened system whose infrastructure has been almost totally destroyed over the past four years. He will be required to immediately rehabilitate and unite the Palestinian security forces,and to find a way to halt the violent actions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

If the violence doesn't stop, it will be very difficult for him to lead his people. The cease-fire may be created by combating the extremist Islamic elements or by reaching an agreement with them. The agreement might come at a high cost, because it will entail power-sharing. The battle might be very tough, because the Palestinian policing forces do not have Israeli permission to use arms and because the anarchy in the territories is severe, and no one knows whether the forces will obey the new leader.

In the near future, Abu Mazen will be walking this tightrope between an attempt to reach an agreement that will not be too costly from his standpoint, and a violent struggle.

This is why the outside powers have such a potentially important role. The more the Palestinians feel that during times of peace they enjoy a better life, their economy develops and they have something to lose, the more they will realize that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza is only the beginning of a negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinians that will culminate in a permanent status agreement in line with the Clinton administration’s plan, George Bush's vision and the Geneva Accord. In this way, the chances will increase of the extremist forces being assimilated so that they won't present an obstacle to Abu Mazen.

The Bush administration and the Sharon government, both in their second terms, will have to make great efforts to assist the pragmatic elements within the Palestinian Authority. If they confine their roles to that of observers standing on the sidelines, the historical revolution that has taken place on the Palestinian side will generate nothing more than a round of applause for being a nice example of a democratic process with a prudent and responsible leader. And then, unfortunately, this process will be toppled by the extremists, the fanatics, the vengeful and the violent.

(c) 2005, Global Viewpoint
Distributed by Tribune Media ServiceS, INC. (Distributed 1/5/05)