Monday 10 January 2005

Abbas wins Palestinian presidency

Hopes high for new peace negotiations

Monday, January 10, 2005

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

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Ramallah, West Bank -- Mahmoud Abbas declared victory late Sunday in the election to succeed Yasser Arafat as Palestinian Authority president, raising hopes of a new era for the Middle East.

"We offer this victory to the soul of the brother martyr Yasser Arafat and to all Palestinians," Abbas told jubilant supporters here shortly before midnight. "There is a difficult mission ahead to build our state, to achieve security for our people ... to give our prisoners freedom, our fugitives a life in dignity, to reach our goal of an independent state," he said.

Abbas' words gave an indication of the difficulties he faces -- persuading Palestinian militants to stop attacking Israel and persuading Israel to lift the military occupation that makes ordinary life all but impossible in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, rooting out the endemic corruption that marked Arafat's presidency, rebuilding Palestinian institutions and putting the economy in order. The former Palestinian prime minister, who has vocally opposed armed conflict with Israel, must forge a working relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to revive the peace process and rebuild ties with the United States that frayed badly during Arafat's final years.

Exit polls gave Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, more than two-thirds of the vote in the first democratic succession of the Palestinian Authority leadership. The election was called to fill the post left vacant in November by the death of Arafat, who was elected as the first president in 1996.

The elections committee said turnout exceeded 65 percent of the 1.8 million eligible voters. Official results were to be announced today, followed by Abbas' swearing-in ceremony at the Palestinian Legislative Council.

"I think this vote shows a change in the Palestinian street," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon. "We certainly welcome this and hope that from this mandate Abu Mazen will lead the Palestinian people on the path of reconciliation."

Sharon had said before the election that he would begin talks with the winner on his plan to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

President Bush also welcomed Abbas' victory, calling it "a historic day for the Palestinian people."

"Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza took a key step toward building a democratic future by choosing a new president in elections that observers describe as largely free and fair," Bush said. "The United States stands ready to help the Palestinian people realize their aspirations."

Polling began at 7 a.m. Sunday at nearly 3,000 sites in schools and public buildings in the West Bank and Gaza, and six designated post offices in East Jerusalem. Sunday's vote was monitored by nearly 20,000 domestic observers, representing each of the seven candidates, and nearly 1,000 foreign observers headed by former President Jimmy Carter and former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard.

Israel relaxed checkpoints and removed several earthen barriers on main roads in the West Bank and Gaza, allowing Palestinians greater freedom of movement between some cities for the first time in months. A national holiday was declared, and many Palestinians took the opportunity to travel to visit relatives after they had voted.

Mustafa Barghouti, who finished second in the balloting with about 20 percent of the vote, according to exit polls, accused Abbas supporters of "massive voting fraud." He said he had washed off the supposedly indelible ink smeared on voters' thumbs to prevent multiple voting.

"People are being bused in and are voting four or five times," said Barghouti's campaign spokeswoman.

There was no independent confirmation of the accusations.

The Palestinian Central Elections Committee extended voting by two hours because of what it called logistical problems caused in part by Israeli checkpoints. The Associated Press, citing an unnamed election official, said the extension came under pressure from Fatah, Abbas' party, which was concerned a low turnout could weaken their candidate.

Barghouti and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights both protested the two-hour extension and the sudden decision in midafternoon to allow balloting by people who did not appear on registration lists.

The views of voters highlighted the challenges ahead. Peace and effective government were on their minds, but so were the stumbling blocks that have interfered with achieving a final peace deal, such as the fate of Palestinians who fled or were ousted from Israel in its multiple Arab wars and establishing a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.

Nihad Abu Ghosh, 70, wearing a dark jacket and traditional kaffiyeh headdress, voted at the Friends Boys School in central Ramallah. He said he was a refugee from the West Bank village of Amwas, which was destroyed by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

"I don't think this election will achieve anything," he said. "Bush and Sharon have already decided they will not allow refugees to return, they will not give back Jerusalem and they will not return to the pre-1967 borders. The only way there will be peace is to change the mentality of the Israelis."

But Hanin Yousef, a 20-year-old student at Bir Zeit University who was voting for the first time, was optimistic. "I hope we are putting Palestine on the right track," she said as she stood with her mother at the same polling site. "We need a good, strong government. We need peace."

Across town, in the battered Mukata compound where Arafat spent his final years, Khaled Shawish slipped out of hiding to a polling booth 50 yards across the courtyard to vote for Abbas.

Shawish, 32, a founder and commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant wing of Arafat's Fatah group, has been hiding in the compound for nearly three years, confined to a wheelchair after taking nine Israeli bullets in a gunbattle in 2001. But he was determined to vote for Abbas, a man he hails as his "symbol and leader," as he once did Arafat.

And so, with a pistol concealed in a holster under his flak jacket, he was carried downstairs and wheeled across the courtyard to the Mukata's meeting hall, where British Prime Minister Tony Blair greeted Abbas two weeks ago.

"Everyone said that after the death of Arafat, there would be chaos and the Palestinians would fight each other over the transfer of power, but that didn't happen and it won't happen," said Shawish. "If Abbas calls on me to lay down my gun, then I will, because I trust him not to do that until he has secured all my rights and the rights of my people."

Israelis were divided on the effect Abbas' election would have on the peace process.

"We can only welcome the conclusion of the first democratic election in the Arab world, but now the true test of that election is whether the new Palestinian president can eliminate the culture in which terrorism thrives, including the constant adoration of 'martyrs' in Palestinian media and school textbooks," said Michael Oren, author of "Six Days of War" and a senior fellow of the Shalem Centre think tank in Jerusalem.

Yossi Beilin, leader of the dovish Yahad party and architect of the Oslo Accords, the 1994 pact between Israel and the Palestinians that led the way to establishment of the Palestinian Authority, said he hoped Israel would seize the opportunity presented by the election of Abbas.

"It is the beginning of a new era of partnership," said Beilin. "This is the biggest change in the past four years. Our prime minister can no longer say he has no partner. I'm afraid that Sharon is not too happy to have a partner. He is still mourning the death of Arafat, because Arafat was Sharon's best alibi for doing nothing.

"Abu Mazen is a very honest person," said Beilin. "He is modest, even shy. He hates politics and he hates campaigning. But he sees his duty as a mission, and he has a real commitment to peace."