IT WOULD BE unrealistic to assume that the ascension of the pragmatic Palestinian politician Mahmoud Abbas -- better known as Abu Mazen -- to the newly created post of prime minister heralds the irreversible democratic reform that President Bush as well as many Palestinians have been demanding from the Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless, Abu Mazen's acceptance Wednesday of powers wrested away from Yasser Arafat by mostly younger members of Arafat's Fatah movement does offer some hope of a turn for the better. Abu Mazen has been known to argue with Arafat and even to break with him for short periods. He has the stature, as a PLO founder, to lead reformers wishing to turn away from Arafat's corrupt, autocratic rule.

What the reformers sense is not merely that Arafat has been leading them from one calamity to another, playing into the hands of Israeli hard-liners, but that his policy of perpetual armed struggle is also playing into the hands of Hamas fundamentalists.

Unfortunately, the powers granted to the new prime minister are more circumscribed than the reformers wanted them to be. Arafat still controls the security services he was allowed to create after the 1993 Oslo accords. This could be a formula for preserving the status quo. And though Abu Mazen has the authority to appoint or remove a finance minister, Arafat retains in his hands a cash flow that can be doled out to armed groups.

Arafat also retains final say over negotiations with Israel. This vestige of his one-man rule could negate possibilities for a negotiated political agreement leading to peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Abu Mazen has made no secret of his assessment that militarization of the current Palestinian intifadah was a terrible strategic error that caused Palestinians great suffering and has left them further than ever from their goal of a viable independent state. Arafat, by contrast, continues to support -- either actively or passively -- this destructive policy of war without end. Sooner or later, the two old comrades will have to have it out.

To help Abu Mazen argue for a cease-fire and a return to the negotiating table, Bush needs to follow through on his promises to implement the so-called road map to peace that envisions the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005. And Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will have to reciprocate any Palestinian movement toward a cease-fire by ending closures, withdrawing troops from Palestinian towns, and ceasing the targeted killings of suspected terrorist leaders.

Abu Mazen may represent Israel's best chance for a long time to negotiate an end to conflict with a secular pragmatist. If Sharon misses this chance, Israel may find itself face-to-face with the fundamentalists of Hamas, with whom no compromise seems possible.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.