Analysis by Peter Hirschberg
(IPS) JERUSALEM -- Mahmoud Abbas must have unleashed a great sigh of relief when the results of the Palestinian election were announced Monday and it became clear he had won over 60 percent of the vote -- a result he can present as a broad, popular mandate. But the electioneering was the easy part.
Whether the new Palestinian leader is able to establish his authority and win recognition from his own people as their legitimate leader now depends less on his actions and more on the generosity of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and of militant groups like Hamas.
On the campaign trail, Abbas reiterated his long-held view that armed attacks undermined Palestinian national interests and that these interests would best be served by returning to the negotiating table with Israel. Now that Palestinians have put him in office, they will be scrutinizing Abbas to see whether his approach improves their lot.
His first challenge will be to convince armed Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to agree to a ceasefire. He will prefer to achieve this by dialogue, rather than accede to the Israeli demand that he order Palestinian security forces to crush these groups -- a move he fears could spark widespread civil strife.
Representatives of all the Palestinian factions, including Abbas's ruling Fatah party, are expected to head to Cairo in the coming weeks for ceasefire talks sponsored by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Abbas's line will be simple: four years of the Intifadah uprising have not brought the Palestinians closer to their dream of an independent state; that goal can best be achieved by travelling the political route.
Will Hamas, which boycotted the Palestinian elections, listen? The movement is still licking its wounds after Israel assassinated many of its senior leaders last year, including its spiritual leader and founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and might be ready to accept a truce.
Hamas leaders have also intimated they are ready to compete in Palestinian parliamentary elections in July. Abbas is hoping they will, and that this will signify the inclusion of the militant Islamic group in the political process. Hamas has carried out most of the suicide bombings, and still does not recognize Israel's right to exist.
Ariel Sharon could be a tougher customer. The last time the two men met was in August 2003, just weeks before Abbas resigned as prime minister, in part due to his inability to extract concessions from the Israeli leader.
When, after much wrangling, Sharon did finally release some Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails as a confidence-building gesture, it left Palestinians smarting and Abbas undermined in the eyes of his own public. The prisoners released were those nearing the end of their jail terms, or Palestinians arrested for being in Israel without a permit. Long-serving security inmates viewed on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza as the vanguard of the Palestinian struggle for national liberation were not released.
Will Sharon be more generous this time round? He telephoned Abbas Tuesday to congratulate him, and told ministers at a cabinet meeting that he would soon meet the new Palestinian leader. But he also reiterated his long-standing litmus test: "The Palestinians are still not fighting terror and while (Abbas's) declarations in the framework of the election campaign were encouraging, he will be tested by the way he battles terror," he said.
There have been hints on the Israeli side of more prisoner releases and the lifting of stifling travel restrictions in the occupied territories.
In Abbas's favour is the U.S. perception of him as a moderate, pragmatic leader with whom it can do business. The day after the elections President George W. Bush invited him to the White House -- an honour he never extended to Yasser Arafat. Sharon will not want to disappoint his main strategic ally, and that could amount to more substantial confidence-building measures than the ones he offered 18 months ago.
Ultimately, though, Abbas wants to bring Sharon back to the negotiating table to discuss a lot more than travel restrictions. But it is not at all clear that Sharon is willing to join him there.
After declaring Yasser Arafat "irrelevant" and dismissing him as a negotiating partner, the Israeli leader last year declared his plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank. Since Arafat's death in November, he has said he is ready to coordinate the pullout with the Palestinians -- this entails the dismantling of all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank. But he has yet to talk seriously about a return to full-fledged negotiations aimed at ending the conflict.
Sharon seems to have become an enthusiast of the unilateral approach, which enables him to determine the rules of the game, and he will not be easily persuaded to return to the Oslo days of bilateral talks with the Palestinians. For now, though, that may be in Abbas's interest.
For all the talk of Abbas being a moderate, suit-wearing technocrat -- in stark contrast to Arafat -- and of the ideological softening of Sharon, a deep chasm still separates the two men.
Sharon is opposed to a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza, to East Jerusalem being the capital of that state, and to the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel -- all demands that Abbas will bring to the table. Rather than do that now -- a sure recipe for disagreement -- the new Palestinian leader may choose to wait until after the Gaza pullout before pushing for a return to negotiations over the most controversial issues at the heart of the conflict.
Abbas may be largely dependent on Sharon, but he is not impotent. He has already done much to shatter the Israeli leader's 'no partner' mantra and if he is able to significantly dampen the violence, pressure on Sharon to return to the negotiating table will grow -- at home and abroad. It will intensify further if the new Palestinian leader can make good on his pledge to reform the multiple Palestinian security forces and unite them under a single command.
Abbas's strategy is to win international support by reforming the Palestinian Authority and eradicating corruption, and to put pressure on Sharon by limiting the violence and inviting him to talk. He is unlikely to say it out loud, but he firmly believes this is a shorter route to realising the Palestinian dream of an independent state than that travelled by his predecessor.
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