Israel hopes Abbas's victory shows 'a change in the Palestinian street'

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 11-Jan-05 | Author: Donald Macintyre| Source: The Independent

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, right, and then-Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, talk prior to their meeting to discuss peace moves, in Jerusalem, in this Tuesday, July 1, 2003 file photo.

Israel extended a cautious welcome to the election of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president yesterday, after official results showed he had secured 62.3 per cent of the vote in a landslide victory over his nearest rivals.

President Bush - who had shunned Mr Abbas's predecessor Yasser Arafat - declared the new president-elect would be welcome in the White House. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, said the recent statements by Mr Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, about ending violence were "encouraging". He would be "tested by the way he battles terror and acts to dismantle its infrastructure." In public and in private however, Israeli officials were more expansive. The Prime Minister's press spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said the vote indicated a move away from violence by Palestinians, adding: "I think this vote shows a change in the Palestinian street. We certainly welcome this and hope that, from this mandate, Abu Mazen will lead the Palestinian people on the path of reconciliation."

Officials said attempts were under way to arrange a congratulatory phone call to Mr Abbas from Mr Sharon, who was last night forcing through a Knesset vote endorsing the new coalition government he has assembled to ensure support for his plan to withdraw more than 7,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza this year, despite the fierce opposition of 13 dissident Knesset members in his own ruling Likud party.

Mr Sharon was on course for victory with the help of a majority of the left-wing opposition party Yahad. Shimon Peres, the Labour leader, who will play a big role in the new coalition, applauded the Palestinian poll result, saying: "A moderate man was elected, an intelligent man, an experienced man. Let's give him a chance".

In private, one Israeli official acknowledged that some reciprocal confidence-building measures would be necessary from Israel if Mr Abbas was to maintain the halt to violence to which he has pledged himself and that he could not be expected to disarm the militant factions from day one.

"The really important thing for him to do first is to stop the Qassam rocket attacks on Sderot," the official said, referring to the spate of attacks launched from Gaza into the nearest town in Israel itself.

Mr Bush told reporters at the Oval Office it was "essential that Israel keep a vision of two states living side by side in peace; and that, as the Palestinians begin to develop the institutions of a state, that the Israel government support the development of those institutions and recognize that it is essential that there be a viable economy".

Despite the even handedness of President Bush's remarks and the warmth of his welcome for Mr Abbas, Palestinian and Israeli leaders are likely also to see them as implying there may need to be a protracted period in which the new Palestinian leadership proves that it can run a viable state before any hope of "final status" negotiations.

At least in the short term, some of the shine was taken off Mr Abbas's victory after admissions by the Central Elections Commission that earlier estimates of turnout did not take account of up to 700,000 Palestinians estimated not to have registered as voters. It also said checks would have to be carried out on 30,000 unregistered electors who were allowed to vote in a change of rules agreed during polling on Sunday, which was eventually extended for two hours.

Mr Abbas cancelled his first planned speech as the newly elected president on the grounds, officials said, that the electoral commission could not yet declare the voting figures as final. It is obliged to allow two days to consider complaints about the ballot and then issue its final figures within five days.

While the commission would not confirm that the total number of those eligible to vote was the widely quoted 1.8 million, it said that, of the 1.1 million who had registered to vote, the total who had done so was 700,000 -a turnout of 63 per cent but one which could be less than half of all those eligible to register.

In addition, the change in procedures on Sunday allowed another 40,000 electors whose names were on a separate "civil register" to vote, along with a further 30,000 on neither register who were allowed to vote after presenting ID cards.

There were no claims even by Mr Abbas's fiercest opponents that the changes affected the results or undermined the scale of his majority. But they prompted the EU's election monitoring team to couple implicit criticism of the Israel occupation with a rebuke for the Palestinian election authorities' decision to institute a "last-minute change of procedures". That had "impacted negatively" on the "administration of voting" in some areas. Hanna Nasser, the commission chairman, said that it had 15,000 calls from people turned away from polling stations and had to choose between making the changes or disenfranchising them.

Campaigners for Mustafa Barghouti, who secured 19.8 per cent of the vote, said they were submitting 46 complaints about irregularities, including the appearance of armed men at some polling stations