Stark Choice for Palestinians

December 6, 2004

After decades of political domination by Yasser Arafat, Palestinians now seem embarked on a wide-open presidential election, which could benefit both themselves and Israel. Election officials announced last week that 10 candidates had qualified to run for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority next month. The two leading candidates offer a stark choice to voters.

Mahmoud Abbas, 69, was in exile for years with Arafat and was the first prime minister of the Palestinian Authority after Arafat caved in to international pressure to create the post in 2003. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who refused to deal with Arafat, has met with Abbas, raising hopes that the Israelis will consider him an acceptable "partner" for negotiations. Unfortunately, he's a cautious politician and drab campaigner.

On the other side is Marwan Barghouti, 45, who hemmed and hawed before finally declaring his candidacy last week. He is perhaps the most popular figure among Palestinians, but he is in an Israeli jail, serving five life sentences after being convicted of ordering attacks against Israelis.

It's unclear how he could possibly be effective as a jailed president. Worse, the election of a leader whom Israel refuses to set free would no doubt intensify a Palestinian sense of victimization. Sharon has declared that Barghouti will remain in prison and can wage whatever kind of campaign his jailers allow him.

Arafat's death last month created an opening for Palestinians and Israelis to end the violence that began more than four years ago, ultimately killing hundreds of Israelis and thousands of Palestinians. The renewed effort of the Bush administration to get both sides together also has helped.

Even if Barghouti stays in the race, a freewheeling campaign among the other candidates could offer Palestinians a look at a better future in which they choose their representatives and Israel loosens controls en route to eventual Palestinian statehood. Arafat was elected president but refused to establish a meaningful government lest it weaken his control.

The Palestinian group Hamas, which both runs charities and murders Israeli civilians, said it would boycott the presidential elections but run candidates for the Palestinian legislature. That stance will ensure that Hamas continues to be regarded by Israel and the United States as a terrorist organization.

On Friday, a Hamas leader announced that his group would accept a Palestinian state in the occupied territories and a long-term truce with Israel. That abrupt softening of Hamas' vow to destroy the Jewish state would enhance peace efforts — if the entire Hamas leadership accepts the change and makes it stick among the wider Hamas membership.

If there is a renewal of substantial violence, Israel will crack down again, eroding the legitimacy of the elections and costing Palestinians their best chance in years to resume a dialogue with Israel and end the occupation.

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