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Palestinian Leader Faces Internal Challenges

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, travels to Washington next week for talks with President George Bush.

Mahmoud Abbas has been leading the Palestinian Authority for nine months, following his election as president in January. Receiving 62 percent of the votes cast, he succeeded Yasser Arafat, who died last November.

Many Western analysts covering Middle Eastern affairs say Mr. Abbas has just begun addressing some of the major internal problems facing the Palestinian Authority. But they also say a lot more needs to be done in order to reform that body.

An expert on Palestinian affairs, Middle Eastern Studies Professor Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College, says rooting out corruption is Mr. Abbas's most difficult challenge.

"Corruption is widespread," he said. "Palestinians believe that their government is not transparent, believe that politicians are corrupt, and many Palestinians accuse the prime minister, Ahmed Queria or Abu Ala, as being at the helm of one of the most corrupt governments in Palestinian history. So Mahmoud Abbas has a great deal to do, and to address, and to tackle on the question of corruption."

Middle East expert Nathan Brown, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says to fight corruption Mr. Abbas must set up effective judicial and legal procedures.

"The corruption issue really has a lot to do with the absence of clear procedures, the failure to distinguish between a public position and private gain, and so on," said Mr. Brown. "And he certainly has talked about the need to end it, but what we have not seen are some high-level prosecutions, referring prominent people to the prosecutor for investigation or trial, or that sort of thing. So his attitude sort of seems to be a little bit more of 'let's stop this now', rather than 'let us ferret out the past cases of corruption.'"

Experts say Mr. Abbas must continue to tackle another key challenge facing the Palestinian Authority, reform of the security services.

Seth Jones is a Middle East analyst with the Rand Corporation.

"The real issue and the concern while Yasser Arafat was chairman, was that there were a number of competing security forces, depending on how you counted, somewhere between eight to 12 in the West Bank and Gaza each, and that these were largely responsible and looked to the executive branch, that is the Palestinian Authority, rather than the people," said Mr. Jones.

Mr. Jones says some steps have been taken to decrease the number of security forces. But he says they have to be placed under various ministries in order not be susceptible to pressure from the executive branch.

Professor Gerges, from Sarah Lawrence College, says Mr. Abbas must also improve the lives of the four million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

"The social and economic situation is extremely difficult," explained Professor Gerges. "Let us remember here, the Palestinians live under occupation. Israel, even though Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza, still controls the airways and the borders - that is the Palestinians are besieged, whether they are on the West Bank or Gaza. I do not think the Palestinians have come a long way in terms of social and economic reforms, because, first of all, the occupation is still there, the international community has not invested as much as it has promised to do. And of course, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has a great deal to do in order to institutionalize Palestinian government and politics, and begin the serious process to really reform the institutions and ministries and empower Palestinians in order to take charge of their own destiny."

Mr. Gerges says the challenges facing Mr. Abbas are daunting.

Hudson Institute Middle East expert Meyrav Wurmser says Mr. Abbas is in a difficult position, because he replaced a towering figure, Yasser Arafat.

"Arafat had the kind of status in Palestinian society, he so symbolized the plight of the Palestinians that he let anarchy happen," she said. "But the bottom line, when he wanted to stop something, he was able to exercise the kind of control that was needed to control things. We cannot say the same for Mahmoud Abbas. He is a man with much better intentions, I think, than Arafat, but he just does not hold the same status in Palestinian society. People just do not regard him as highly."

Analysts agree Mr. Abbas cannot resolve all of the internal problems facing the Palestinians by himself. They say he will need the help of the international community to build a viable, democratic and peaceful Palestinian state.