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New leader, new hope.

Byline: The Register-Guard

If there is an Arabic equivalent for the sardonic admonition "be careful what you wish for," it's too late to whisper it in the ear of newly elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

With an impressive 70 percent turnout in Sunday's election, Palestinian voters decisively granted Abbas' wish to lead them. But he steps into his new role with extraordinary - and perhaps unrealistic - expectations for improvements in the prospects for peace with Israel.

No one individual can hope to harness the ferociously complex forces that for half a century have thwarted the earnest diplomatic efforts of U.S., Israeli, Palestinian, Arab and European statesmen. Yet it's hard to blame a war-weary world for using the occasion of Abbas' victory to indulge its grandest hopes that conditions are finally ripe for an outbreak of peace.

After 40 years of Yasser Arafat and the relentless violence that saw both sides bury enough children to fuel an endless cycle of retribution, a cautious optimism is escaping in Israeli and Palestinian conversations. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the Palestinian election opens "a window of opportunity." President Bush said Monday that he looked forward to welcoming Abbas at the White House, a 180-degree turnaround from Arafat's persona non grata status in Washington.

The encouraging overtures from Washington and Tel Aviv are a reminder that Abbas can't hope to fulfill the high expectations for badly needed Palestinian reforms or for a lasting peace agreement without strong support from the United States and Israel.

Israel, in particular, holds the key to Abbas' credibility with the Palestinian people. For Abbas to solidify enough popular support to crack down on militants in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he must demonstrate an ability to win meaningful concessions from Israel. Easing the travel restrictions within the occupied territories that are a crushing burden to Palestinian workers would be an excellent start.

Sharon also needs to send an unmistakable signal to Palestinians that he intends to keep his commitment to withdraw all Jewish settlers from Gaza in the coming year and that he will coordinate the withdrawal with Palestinian authorities.

Abbas confronts the terrible burden of persuading a skeptical and often hopeless populace that they must renounce violence to achieve the goal of an independent Palestinian state. But a poll last month by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that almost two-thirds of Palestinians believe violence has achieved more than negotiations.

For Abbas to have any real chance to succeed, the self-defeating dynamic that has derailed previous peace efforts must be overcome. Israel cannot insist that negotiations depend on Palestinian leaders bringing an end to all violence, and Palestinian militants can't insist that a cease fire is impossible without tangible Israeli concessions, such as a prisoner release.

The United States has a significant role to play in helping both sides make incremental, good faith concessions unburdened by the previous conditions. Though Abbas' election offers ample reasons for renewed hope, it also stands as a reminder that there will never be peace in the Middle East until all of the important players, including the United States, are prepared to make new sacrifices.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Mahmoud Abbas shoulders huge expectations
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 11, 2005
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