Mahmoud Abbas has to tackle several major issues as the newly-elected President of the Palestinian Authority.
Experts on Middle Eastern affairs say the 69-year-old Palestinian takes over as leader of the Palestinian Authority at a critical time in its history. Mr. Abbas replaces Yasser Arafat, who died last November and who was the undisputed Palestinian leader for decades.
Nathan Brown, an expert on Palestinian politics with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based research firm, says Mr. Abbas's election is a positive step in the search for a lasting peace in the Middle East. "There are many, many, many more steps that will have to be taken before there's a peaceful resolution of the conflict," he said. "But I think what he represents above all, are two things: first, a real difference in style. He simply knows how to present himself to an international audience. He talks to an Israeli audience in a way that they can listen to much more easily than with Yasser Arafat. He's not that different on strategic goals, but he simply presents himself better. And the second thing that he represents is a willingness to build Palestinian institutions, to reform them and so on and to really build the sort of Palestinian Authority that would be an effective negotiating partner."
Many analysts believe Mr. Abbas will be a more effective negotiating partner because his views are more moderate than those of Yasser Arafat. In addition, the Israeli leadership and the Bush administration made clear they were not going to negotiate with the Palestinians as long as Mr. Arafat was in power. That effectively brought the peace process to a halt.
Mr. Brown says Mr. Arafat's death and Mr. Abbas's election may provide new momentum to the peace process. "There is no question that Mahmoud Abbas is the kind of Palestinian leader that the Americans want," he said. "And there are some initially very strong signals from the United States that the level of attention, even at the presidential level, was going to be much higher. At the same time, there is a different precedent here. Mahmoud Abbas was Prime Minister last year for some months. The United States rushed in to support him, but then very, very quickly lost interest in him and concluded perhaps that he was ineffective or whatever, attention shifted elsewhere. So the main question for the United States is does it have the political will to sustain an involvement in this process and not simply step in at the beginning immediately after or in the wake of the enthusiasm provoked by the election."
During her confirmation hearings to become the new Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice said the election of Mahmoud Abbas represents a moment of opportunity and the United States must seize it. "I look forward to personally working with Palestinian and Israeli leaders and bringing American diplomacy to bear on this difficult but crucial issue. Peace can only come if all parties choose to do the difficult work and the time to choose peace is now," he said.
Many analysts say the role of the United States is crucial to move the peace process forward. One of those experts is Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.
"For the last three years, the position of the United States and Israel has been that Arafat was a major hindrance to the peace process," he said. "Ariel Sharon used the existence of Yasser Arafat as a justification not to engage the Palestinians politically. Well, Arafat is out of the picture. Now let's see whether the United States is genuine about really becoming more actively engaged in pushing Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiating table. Let's see if the President's, that is President Bush's vision for two viable states living side by side in peace, will basically materialize in the next two or three years. Let's hope that the Bush administration becomes much more actively engaged in the Palestinian-Israeli peace making, that the Bush administration becomes much more serious about exerting pressure, not just on the Palestinians, but also on the Israelis, that the Bush administration invests what I call 'credible political capital' in bringing about a settlement between Palestinians and Israelis."
Mr. Gerges says Mahmoud Abbas must convince the Palestinians that there is a ray of hope for the peace process and the Bush administration has a vital role to play in keeping that ray of hope alive.