Victory for the point of equilibrium
Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has been elected the President of the Palestinian Authority with 62.3% of the vote, against 19.8% for Mustafa Barghouti and single-figure results for the other five candidates.
Cultivating as wide a base of support as possible within the Palestinian Authority with such phrases as aiming "to establish a state and to solve the problems of our independent nation with a capital in Jerusalem", or "The small jihad, which was the armed struggle, has ended and now begins the large jihad, which will be the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the building of our homeland" thus the Fatah candidate steps into the shoes of Yasser Arafat who died on November 11th.
Abu Mazen has the support of the international community and at least for now, the benefit of the doubt from Israel, which will have to be seen working positively with him if Tel Aviv wants to continue to enjoy the support it is receiving today.
While the election result is convincing, it is not without complaints of massive electoral fraud by Palestinian human rights organizations, some of which have declared they will contest the decision to prolong the election process for two hours due to a low turnout (65%) and due to the Central Election Committee (CEC) deciding to allow unregistered Palestinians to vote, as the afternoon of Sunday drew on. This, according to opponents of Abu Mazen, allowed some people to vote up to five times as they were bussed around the polling stations.
Nevertheless the CEC defended its position, countering that the extension was due to Israeli hampering of the electoral process, in clear violation of previously reached agreements between the sides, holding voters up at checkpoints in the West Bank, a claim refuted by international observers.
Mustafa Barghouti has complained that the indelible ink used to mark voters' thumbs was replaced with a type of ink that could be easily washed off, allowing Mazen supporters to vote several times.
With the CEC prepared to investigate these allegations, the wider stage is set for a substantial move forward. Israel is expected to make several demands of Abu Mazen before a summit, namely that he review the security situation in the Palestinian Authority, something which the new President of the P.A. had referred to during the electoral process.
Israel has made it clear that it is prepared to respond in kind, by withdrawing its security forces from certain areas if the P.A. security forces can step in and enforce their authority. If Abu Mazen is seen to be taking measures to control the extremists and to avert possible terrorist attacks by Hezbollah, it is likely that Ariel Sharon will invite Abu Mazen to a summit meeting to kick-start the Road Map.
Also seen as an important step towards any settlement is an immediate strengthening of Abu Mazen against HAMAS, which could force Israel to release security prisoners and to redeploy to pre-September 2000 lines.
Abu Mazen, born in 1935 in Safed, Palestine (now in northern Israel), has been a Member of the Palestine National Council since 1968 and the PLO Executive Committee since 1980. Briefly Prime Minister of the Palestine National Authority in 1993, he was also a Member of the Fatah Central Committee from 1964 to 2003, when he resigned after disagreement with Yasser Arafat.
He was a co-founder of Fatah with Arafat and accompanied him in exile in Jordan, the Lebanon and Tunisia. He graduated in law in Egypt, before going to Moscow to do a doctorate, going on to become Director of the PLO Department for National and International Relations in 1980.
Cultivating powerful alliances among Arab leaders and security forces as well as among the Israeli left wing and peace movements, Abu Mazen was perhaps the main architect of the Oslo peace process, accompanying Arafat to Washington in 1993 to sign the Oslo Accords.
The crucial issue in the near future will be how much control Abu Mazen can exert over the security forces - the sticking point in his relationship with Yasser Arafat in recent years.