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Israelis Watching Outcome of Palestinian Elections

Palestinians are preparing to elect a new president this coming Sunday and many of them, along with many Israelis view the vote as a potentially important opening toward peace. But, rising violence in the Gaza Strip and increasingly tough campaign speeches by front-runner Mahmoud Abbas have some Israelis wondering if anything will change at all.

When Yasser Arafat died last November, Israeli officials did not hide their relief or their hopes for a new era in relations with Palestinians.

Many viewed Mr. Arafat as an obstacle to peace and after his death there was a renewed emphasis on peace efforts.

President Bush said he saw new hopes for peace and sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region to show Washington's commitment. Britain's Tony Blair came here too, as did senior diplomats from several countries.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom spoke of that optimism again just days before Palestinians go to the polls to elect a successor to Yasser Arafat.

"I was thinking for a very long time that if Arafat won't be with us here, it will be much easier for a new, moderate Palestinian leadership to emerge," he said.

But, the peace euphoria has dimmed somewhat in recent weeks largely because of the campaign rhetoric of the leading contender for the Palestinian presidency, Mahmoud Abbas.

In campaign speeches in Gaza this week, Mr. Abbas, who is also widely known as Abu Mazen, praised Palestinian militants and vowed to protect them. In one speech, after an Israeli tank shell killed seven Palestinians in a Gaza raid, he referred to Israel as the "Zionist enemy."

Such words may go down well in Palestinian refugee camps such as Rafah and Khan Younis, but they incensed Israel.

"I must tell you that we are very disappointed in the last statements that were made by Abu Mazen," said Foreign Minister Shalom. "We don't think this is the way to move together, nor to solve our conflict."

A growing Israeli pessimism about Mr. Abbas is nowhere more clear cut than in the Israeli town of Sderot which sits near the Gaza Strip and is the frequent target of Palestinian missile strikes. Sderot Mayor Eli Moyell puts it bluntly.

"Right after I heard what Mr. Abu Mazen said in Rafah, well he's worse than Arafat, if you ask me," he said.

But, aides close to Mr. Abbas blame the tough rhetoric on the campaign and on the need for Mr. Abbas to shed the image many Palestinian voters have of him, that of a non-descript businessman who will be "soft" on Israel. Those close to his campaign say while he will not be a "push-over" for Israeli demands, he is ready to talk peace.

Israeli officials say they will await the outcome of Sunday's elections and they warn that whatever Palestinian government is put in place, it will have to stop the militant attacks - otherwise they say, there will be no peace to talk about.