RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The election of a new Palestinian president presents a sharp contrast to the violent run-up to Iraqi elections.
Something very important is happening here. The man who won Sunday's vote, Mahmoud Abbas, looks like a gray-haired technocrat and lacks the populist charisma of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. Yet the reforms Abbas has proposed in the way Palestinians run their affairs and the way they deal with Israel offer the last slim hope that negotiations for a peace settlement can be revived.
Abbas is a pragmatist who wants to make things happen, not spout rhetoric. Watching his campaign and talking to Palestinians around him give the clear impression that real change for the better is possible. But these positive changes won't happen unless Israel and the United States want them enough to back Abbas to the hilt.
This was not a flamboyant American-style campaign. It was difficult for the candidates to travel around in a West Bank cut by Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints. But there were billboards and posters plastered around cities and towns with photos of Abbas and a handful of lesser hopefuls.
At a Ramallah women's rally, about 800 women crowded into Salim Effendi hall. They ululated and waved Palestinian flags and shout, "Abu Mazen is our choice." (Palestinians refer to Abbas as Abu Mazen.)
A huge cloth banner of the candidate draped the stage wall, and the small size of the adjacent banner of Arafat made clear that we have entered a new Palestinian political era. In a hoarse voice, Abbas repeats Palestinian demands for a state with Jerusalem as its capital. But then he talks bluntly of the need for Palestinians to carry out serious political, economic and security reforms:
"We need strong courts and respect for law and no one above the law."
In the post-Arafat era, "rule of law" has become a Palestinian buzz phrase meant to underline the need to shift from an era in which Arafat made his own laws. At another rally, a young Palestinian fighter tells me: "In the past, President Arafat was the institution. Now everyone has to build the Palestinian institutions."
The Palestinian president will not have the exclusive control of money and security forces that Arafat did. Abbas has worked to unify the leading Palestinian political party, Fatah, behind a single platform stating that the struggle for a state should be waged by peaceful, not military, means.
And so far -- though it may not last -- he has gotten even Fatah militants to agree. In Nablus, a hotbed of violence, he told young activists at a rally last week: "We support the intifadah, but we are against the use of arms in the intifadah."
In fact, Abbas opposed the violent intifadah from the beginning. Since Arafat's death, however, he has been holding a dialogue with the militant Islamist group Hamas in an effort to convince its members that the independence struggle must revert to negotiations. He hasn't yet succeeded.
But here is where the role of Israel and the United States becomes essential.
Israel wants Abbas to crush Hamas. But Palestinian officials close to Abbas, who support his stand, say it is impossible to wage a civil war at this point.
Polls show that Palestinians will support an end to the violence if they think that will lead back to negotiations. But they won't support a real crackdown on Hamas unless they believe the Islamists are blocking positive change.
The Palestinian public will be looking for Abbas to produce a freeze in the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. (West Bankers fear Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is meant to cement Israel's hold on the West Bank). They want clear signs that peace talks will resume at some point.
So the success of Abbas -- who won't have the powers of a strongman -- rests on his being able to convince his public that he can deliver the goods. He will need to show such progress in the next few months to avoid being labeled a failure.
"We need the Israeli side (to help), if Israel wants Abu Mazen to succeed," says Qaddura Faris, a Palestinian Cabinet member who supports an end to violence. Faris says that the Palestinians and Israelis are like a prisoner and a guard bound together with handcuffs. One cannot move forward without the other.
X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.