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Challenges, Opportunities Await New Palestinian President

Mahmoud Abbas won a landslide victory in Sunday's Palestinian presidential elections with over 60 percent of the votes. His election has already been hailed by some world leaders, but he now faces challenges as well as opportunities.

Palestinian Central Election Commission Chief, Hanna Nasser, announced the official vote count Monday - confirming a decisive victory for Mahmoud Abbas, also widely known as Abu Mazen.

Mr. Abbas won with 62.9 percent of the votes, somewhat lower than initial exit polls had predicted late Sunday, but still enough to classify as a landslide. His closest rival, independent candidate Mustafa Barghouti received nearly 20 percent of the votes while the remaining five candidates shared the rest.

The 69-year old president-elect may lack the dramatic appeal of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, but he is apparently what most Palestinian voters felt they wanted at this time. Mahmoud Abbas is widely considered a moderate and a pragmatist. He has called for an end to violence, but has also vowed not to concede Palestinian rights in any future peace negotiations with Israel.

His election victory received almost instant praise from President Bush, who said the United States stands ready to help the new Palestinian administration. Similar praise came from the British government, which said it looks forward to working with Mr. Abbas. And, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier is quoted as saying, Mr. Abbas's election is a "victory for democracy and a first victory for peace."

There was also a welcome from the Israeli side. Speaking on Army Radio, Labor Party leader, Shimon Peres praised Mr. Abbas as an experienced leader.

"Give him a chance," he said. Mr. Peres added the new government must be given an opportunity to take action towards peace.

Israel has said Mr. Abbas is a man it could do business with, but the government has also been adamant about certain conditions.

"We would like to see them implementing their commitments in the road map, in phase one. There are not going to be any shortcuts," said Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Mr. Shalom is referring to reigning in Palestinian militants and dismantling their network, which is part of the internationally sanctioned Road Map peace plan.

Reigning in the militants will be among Mr. Abbas first and maybe biggest challenges. He has called for an end to militant attacks against Israel, but also made it clear that he wants a "national dialogue" to bring the militants into the political fold.

Abbas campaign manager, Mohammed Shtayeh told VOA that dialogue has already begun and will continue. He also said halting the violence is not only a Palestinian obligation.

"One should not look at the symptoms … , one should look at the causes of violence and I think looking at the causes of violence, it means the ball is in the Israeli court rather than the Palestinian court," he said.

In more than four years of conflict each side has consistently blamed the other for perpetuating the violence. But, Mr. Abbas has said Palestinians are ready to discuss peace.

Campaign manager Shtayeh says that first and foremost the new government must address the people's main concerns.

"The most important focus is actually addressing the Israeli occupation, the living conditions of the people, the Israeli checkpoints," explained Mr. Shtayeh.

Palestinian voters had their say on Sunday. The clear challenge for Mr. Abbas will be to fulfill their expectations.