The euphoria that has, for over a week, greeted Mahmoud Abbas' election as president of the Palestinian Authority was perhaps justified. But now it is time for a clear-eyed assessment of what lies before Palestinians, Israelis and, perhaps more importantly, for the wider Arab world.
Such an assessment requires acknowledging that the election was far from flawless: Hamas and Islamic Jihad boycotted the poll, and Marwan Barghouti, a fellow Fatah member with Abbas and the one candidate who could seriously have challenged him, was ungently persuaded by the movement's leadership to withdraw his candidacy in order to present a unified front.
Moreover, Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) succeeded in getting the dozen or so Palestinian security services and militias under his control. This guaranteed his victory, though the parades of armed men brandishing guns at his rallies were not exactly what democratic norms call for.
Yet the fact remains that after decades of Yasser Arafat's autocratic rule, and despite the obvious constraints of continued Israeli occupation, the Palestinians did elect a leader in a relatively free and competitive election. For years, Arafat avoided holding elections, as required by the laws of the Palestinian Authority, under the pretense that they cannot be held under occupation: but, lo and behold, two months after his demise, an election was held -- and with resounding success.
The presidential election will obviously serve as a catalyst for renewed, and possibly more successful, negotiations with Israel. But the impact of the Palestinian vote will also be watched closely in the Arab world, because what happened in the West Bank and Gaza is unparalleled in the annals of Arab politics. Abbas will now bask in the glow of having been elected. Nothing like this has happened in any Arab country. Indeed, Abbas is now the only Arab leader who came to power in a more or less free election.
Is Palestinian society so different from other Arab societies? Not really. But there were several unique factors in the Palestinian context. First, there was strong external pressure: confronted and exasperated by Arafat's deviousness and autocratic style, the US and the EU clearly told the Palestinians that any future support for their quest for independence would depend on their going through a reasonably acceptable democratic process.
Second, most Palestinians perceived that their ability to go through such a democratic process was itself a significant step in their struggle against Israel.
Finally, Palestinians have been exposed not only to the obvious hardships of occupation while living under Israeli rule for the better part of four decades; they were also able to experience, at close range, a liberal democracy at work -- a free press, an independent judiciary and political pluralism. The dialectic of occupation plays strange games, both with occupier and occupied.
The Palestinian elections were seen all over the Arab world on Al-Jazeera and other Arab TV channels.
They must have focused people's minds on their own stunted political conditions. If the Palestinians, under Israeli occupation, can choose their own leaders, why can't the same happen in Cairo or Damascus, in Ryadh or Algiers?
When the jubilation and the justly earned compliments for the Palestinians subside, both Arab rulers and Arab masses (the much hyped "Arab street") may start asking some hard questions. The Palestinians have shown that it is not true that an Arab society cannot progress toward representative institutions. So why can't this progress be emulated in other Arab societies?