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Abbas faces long list of challenges

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Mahmoud Abbas was elected Palestinian Authority president by a landslide, results showed Monday, giving the pragmatist a mandate to resume peace talks with Israel -- but also leaving him with the tough task of reining in powerful armed groups.

Israeli leaders welcomed Abbas' victory, but said they will watch closely how hard he tries to subdue militants. Abbas could easily lose his political capital over a major bombing or shooting attack, and while most militant groups signaled they are willing to give him a chance, not all have signed on to a truce with Israel.

Still, Abbas' victory held out the promise of a new era after four decades of chaotic and corruption-riddled rule by Yasser Arafat, who died Nov. 11. Abbas, who has spoken out against violence, promises to reform the government and the unwieldy security services.

"We extend our hands to our neighbors," Abbas said. "We are ready for peace -- peace based on justice. We hope that their response will be positive."

Many Palestinians had high expectations of Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen.

"Today is the beginning of a new future," said Sami Radwan, 55, a restaurant owner in Gaza City. "Abu Mazen is the right choice. He is the one who can bring us peace, good business and security."

Abbas won 62.3 percent of the vote, the Central Election Commission said. His main challenger, independent candidate Mustafa Barghouti, won about 20 percent. The remaining five candidates scored in low single digits.

About 3.8 percent of the ballots were deemed invalid, and 3.2 percent were blank, Hanna Nasser, head of the Central Election Commission, told a news conference. Nasser declined to give a turnout figure, citing confusion over the use of outdated residency records.

Questions about voter participation are a possible point of contention between Abbas' Fatah movement, which was pushing for a high turnout, and the Islamic militant group Hamas, which had called for a boycott.

In his acceptance speech, Abbas said he faces a difficult mission, but he reiterated that he would not go after militants. Instead, he said, he wants to "give our fugitives a life of dignity," referring to those wanted by Israel.

"I present this victory to the soul of Yasser Arafat and present it to our people and to our martyrs," Abbas added.

President Bush said Monday he would welcome Abbas to the White House, extending an invitation he refused to offer to Arafat.

Bush said he was heartened by the Palestinian elections.

"I look forward to welcoming him here to Washington if he chooses to come here," the president said, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office. He referred to Abbas as Abu Mazen, as he is commonly known among Palestinians.

Abbas visited with Bush at the White House in 2003 while prime minister. He also attended a summit with Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Aqaba, Jordan, earlier that year.

"It is essential that Israel keep a vision of two states living side-by-side in peace; and that, as the Palestinians begin to develop the institutions of a state, that the Israel government support the development of those institutions and recognize that it is essential that there be a viable economy, that there be a viable health care system, that people be allowed to start building a society that meets their hopes and needs," Bush said.

After exit polls predicted a sweeping Abbas victory, cheering supporters took to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza late Sunday. Gunmen fired in the air, motorists honked horns and members of Abbas' ruling Fatah movement, wearing checkered black-and-white headbands, danced in the streets.

Hamas, the largest opposition group, announced Monday it will work with Abbas, despite misgivings about what it said were voting irregularities, including a decision to keep polls open two hours longer than planned. Despite its call for a boycott, Hamas did not try to disrupt the vote.

A U.S. observer team headed by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., and John Sununu, R-N.H., said in a statement that the Palestinians "have conducted a clean, open and fair election, largely unimpeded and without interference."

David Pearce, the U.S. consul in Jerusalem, said he was struck by the civic pride of the voters and their new sense of hope.

"There are immense challenges. A million things can go wrong. But for the first time in a long time, there is a chance that something can go right," Pearce said.

In Israel, a new, more dovish coalition was narrowly approved by parliament Monday, another step toward a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements in the summer.

Sharon's new coalition partners, the moderate Labor Party and a small ultra-Orthodox faction, ensure a parliamentary majority for the pullback, despite fervent opposition from hard-liners.

Labor leader Shimon Peres praised Abbas as a wise leader, and expressed hope that peace talks could resume with new Israeli and Palestinian governments.

"If he (Abbas) makes a maximum effort to fight terror, in my view this is good enough to return to negotiations," Peres told Israel Radio on Monday.

Peres congratulated Abbas in a telephone call and told the Palestinian leader he would do everything he could to help, said an official close to Peres.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli vice premier, said Abbas needs to take immediate action against militants.

"Will he fight against the terrorists? Will he try to stop this bloody, violent war against the state of Israel? This is the main question," Olmert told CNN.

Sharon plans to meet with Abbas soon, the Israeli leader's aides said.

Most Palestinian militant groups have indicated they are willing to halt attacks against Israel and local militant leaders demonstrated their support for Abbas.

However, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, who fund some Palestinian militants, are trying to sabotage a possible truce, according to people close to the group. On Sunday, Hezbollah carried out a cross-border attack, setting off an exchange that resulted in the deaths of an Israeli soldier, a French U.N. observer and a Hezbollah fighter.

Abbas' victory capped a peaceful transition after Arafat's death. However, Abbas' goals are the same as Arafat's: a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, and a solution for Palestinian war refugees.

"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 after declaring victory.

The Central Election Commission changed voting procedures midway through the election, keeping polling stations open an additional two hours and allowing voters to cast their ballots at any location, not just in their hometowns

One election official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the changes came after heavy pressure from Fatah, which feared a low turnout could weaken Abbas.

The election, the first presidential vote in nine years, proceeded largely without interruption. In one incident, gunmen fired in the air in an election office and voters in Jerusalem complained of confusing arrangements.

Palestinian Cabinet ministers said Abbas won a strong mandate.

"The Palestinian people have transmitted a message of peace to Israel and to the international community," minister Ghassan Khatib said.

Many gunmen followed rules barring weapons in voting stations, but in a sign of the difficulty the new president will face in controlling them, Zakariye Zubeidi, a militant leader, refused to give up his M-16 assault rifle when he walked into a polling station in the West Bank town of Jenin.

In Jerusalem, Palestinians and international observers complained of confusion over registration lists, and Palestinians accused Israel of trying to intimidate them.

By prior agreement with Israel, only about 5,000 of 120,000 eligible voters in Jerusalem -- a city both sides claim as their capital -- were permitted to vote in post offices in the city. The others had to vote in suburbs.


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