Sun, Jan 09, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Abbas expected to easily win Palestinian election

TRANSITION With the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the next Palestinian president a forgone conclusion, all eyes will be on him to work for statehood and peace

AP , HEBRON

A man holds a portrait of the late Yasser Arafat, right, and a holds child a Palestinian flag during a rally in support of presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas, not seen, in the village of Beir Naballah, in the outskirts of Jerusalem, Friday.

PHOTO: AP

This weekend's election to replace Yasser Arafat has the potential to usher in the Arab world's first genuine democracy -- a peaceful transfer of power that will augur well for the dream of a Palestinian state.

But four years of bloody conflict with Israel have deflated expectations. Many say they will settle for simpler achievements: jobs, clean government, an end to ubiquitous Israeli roadblocks.

"We don't need theater," said 68-year-old Saud Jaradat, a village elder in Sair, near Hebron, referring to Arafat's four decades of roller-coaster leadership. "It's time to start solving our problems."

At campaign rallies from Gaza to Hebron, Mahmoud Abbas, the candidate almost certain to win, has been greeted with exuberant shows of support not unlike the emotional farewell Palestinians gave Arafat at his funeral two months ago.

Abbas has begun to chip away at his gray image -- alarming some Israelis with a public embrace of militants but gaining new stature among Palestinians whose backing he'll need for any future peace deal.

With polls showing Abbas with more than double the support of his nearest rival, democracy activist Mustafa Barghouti, today's election is more or less a foregone conclusion.

The question is not if Abbas will win, but by how much -- and the answer will have great impact on Abbas's ability to rein in militants and talk peace with Israel.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society, said the candidate will need 65 percent of the vote to get the mandate he needs.

"Otherwise the Israelis will not respect your position and they will keep you weak and [the militant group] Hamas wants you to be weak in order to bargain," he said.

Arafat's authoritarian rule and corruption-ridden administration were seen as major obstacles to progress and Mideast peacemaking. Palestinians hope the new government will be more transparent and mindful of the rule of law.

"Whoever wins ... will be subject to scrutiny and accountability, which Arafat got away with because he could get away with anything because of his standing," said Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi.

At every campaign stop, Abbas made it clear that his fundamental goal is the same as Arafat's: An end to Israeli occupation and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Abbas says he wants to co-opt militants such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad instead of crushing them as Israel demands.

But he insists the armed uprising against Israel should end. Persuading militants to declare a truce while he attempts to reopen negotiations with Israel will likely be his biggest challenge.

Abbas became interim Palestinian leader after Arafat died on Nov. 11 of still undetermined causes. He spent most of his career in Arafat's shadow, but was instrumental in shaping Palestinian policy and became one of the first to favor dialogue with Israel.

Israelis hope the harsher elements of Abbas' campaign -- referring to Israel as the "Zionist enemy," for instance, or being hoisted aloft on the shoulders of militant gunmen in Gaza -- can be chalked up to politics and that his customary sobriety will ultimately win out.

But Hadi of the Palestinian Academic Society said he has "come to see Mahmoud Abbas discovering a new Mahmoud Abbas."

"He's speaking for the first time, eye to eye, contact with the people, which he has never done," he said. "This campaign ... is giving him confidence and courage."

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