Victory for Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian presidential elections will pose a huge challenge to the Palestinian leadership.
By being voted chairman of the PLO executive committee hours after Yasser Arafat’s death, Abbas clinched the support of the organization that represents all Palestinians, including the Diaspora.
The Popular election as president of the Palestinian National Authority give him the grassroots legitimacy to carry out his political program.
That program, while similar to Arafat’s, differs in key ways.
Abbas has been publicly and consistently critical of what he calls the ‘militarization of the intifada’. Even before Arafat’s death, he argued that the use of force by militants weakened the Palestinian negotiating position.
He stuck to that position throughout his electoral campaign, in defiance of hard-line Palestinian factions.
The business-like Abbas supports the rule of law and the need for civilian governance to assume pre-eminence in Palestinian politics. In this he also differs from Arafat, who said the revolutionary mindset had to continue as long as Palestinians lived under an illegal foreign occupation. Until liberation, there could be no business as usual.
If elected on an anti-violence, rule-of-law platform, Abbas will have the mandate and the responsibility to carry out this policy. He must make it clear to every armed Palestinian that there will be no tolerance of any unofficial group carrying arms or conducting military attacks from Palestinian territory.
To preserve national unity, Abbas will need to use all his persuasive skills to convince radical groups (including some in his own Fatah movement) to respect that approach.
As chairman of the PLO, he will be under extreme pressure not to delegitimize the internationally sanctioned acts of resistance to Israeli military targets. In order to counter that pressure, he will have to show that a cessation of violence is in the higher interest of Palestinians.
Abbas will find it equally challenging to apply rule-of-law principles to a traumatized community that is reeling after nearly five years of violence, oppression and draconian travel restrictions imposed by the Israelis.
This is not a simple matter, as it concerns forces outside the control of any Palestinian government. Nevertheless, internal policies will be of grave importance. The day-to-day lives and livelihoods of Palestinians need immediate improvement. Israel’s West Bank barrier means Palestinian unemployment will continue to rise and living standards will continue to fall.
To counter this, Abbas will have to seek external Arab and international support.
The real need is to encourage investment, primarily from Palestinians and Arabs, but that is unlikely without legal and administrative reforms, and, more generally, good governance and ironclad application of the rule of law.
The key to establishing civil order is peace, and no matter how persuasive Abbas is in convincing radical groups to lay down their arms, a ceasefire will not last long if it is unilateral.
The role of the Israeli occupation forces will be crucial in determining the success of Abbas’s daunting mission. Indeed, the task he faces will become impossible if the Israeli policy of targeted killings is allowed to continue while Palestinian leaders are working seriously to put an end to acts of violence.
Ultimately, the main agenda for the new Palestinian president in negotiations with Israel will be to push it to make good on repeated international assurances that a viable, contiguous Palestinian state is a realistic goal in the near future.
If left to Israelis and Palestinians alone, the goal of independence within the 1967 borders of Palestine will most likely remain out of reach. The international community, led by the US, must invest effort and political capital to realize this goal.
The new Palestinian president faces a challenging agenda and high popular expectations. Much will depend on how he handles himself and how he governs.
The ultimate question is what Israel and the international community will do if he fulfils his pledge to end the violence and apply the rule of law in a functioning democracy. If the Palestinians choose that path, the world must do so as well.
* Daoud Kuttab is director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah.