A political vacuum created in Palestine after the death of its veteran leader Yasser Arafat (November 11) has been filled with the announcement of the preliminary results of the Sunday’s election that has put the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), Mahmoud Abbas, as the new president of the Palestinian Authority with a record 62.3 per cent of the votes. With this victory, Abbas, who had been propounding the resumption of the long overdue peace talks with Israel and to bring forth sweeping reforms in the Palestine government, has become Arab world’s first democratically elected chief in what is observed to be by and large a “free, fair and democratic election.” Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, now has the backing of the international community, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has welcomed his victory. Considered “an intelligent and an experienced man” by world leaders, the 69-year-old was born in Safed in British Mandate Palestine and is a founding member of Fatah, the main political faction within the PLO. The highly educated leader also has a wide network of contacts around the world. Widely regarded as the architect of the Oslo peace process between Israel and Palestine, he had accompanied Arafat to the White House in 1993 to sign the historic Oslo Accord.
Though the Palestinian people’s wide participation in the poll amidst bombings and Israeli roadblocks is in itself a remarkable feature in the political history of that country, what lies ahead for Abbas in a country whose economy is in a shambles and where unemployment is high and corruption rampant, is indeed challenging. Internal problems aside, Abbas will not only have to make his people ready for compromises in order to initiate a meaningful peace negotiation with Israel, but also have to come down heavily on the militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This is difficult. Abbas, despite his political credentials and manifold contributions to the Palestinian cause, does not have the same charisma that Arafat had nor does he command similar popularity, either. A peaceful settlement and the formation of an independent state of Palestine are contingent upon a pragmatic diplomacy on the part of Abbas and his team. In the changed context of the world politics, he has to maintain that delicate balance in the triangle that includes his country, Israel and the US, which has dominated the Israel-Palestinian affairs since decades. Therefore, Abbas’ triumph will be judged not for his popular mandate and words alone, but for what concrete reforms and end-results that his government can produce for the establishment of peace in the region that the Palestinian people so desperately seek.