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Palestine’s Moment of Decision

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED BEFORE JANUARY 10

The victory of Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian presidential election poses a huge challenge to the Palestinian leadership. By being voted chairman of the PLO’s executive committee hours after the death of Yasser Arafat, Abbas clinched the support of the organization that represents all Palestinians, including those in the diaspora. Popular election as President of the Palestinian National Authority gives Abbas the grassroots legitimacy to carry out his political program.

That program, while similar to Arafat’s, differs in key ways. Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) has been publicly and consistently critical of what he calls the “militarization of the intifada.” Even before Arafat’s death, Abbas argued that the use of force by militants weakens the Palestinian negotiating position. He stuck to this position throughout his electoral campaign, refusing the demands of hard-line Palestinian factions that he apologize for his previous statements.

Abbas conducts himself in a business-like manner, and he strongly believes in the rule of law and in the need for real civilian governance to assume preeminence in Palestinian politics. In this he also differs from Arafat, who believed that the revolutionary mindset must continue so as long as Palestinians lived under an illegal foreign occupation. Until liberation, there could be no business as usual.