Can Mahmoud Abbas deliver the goods?

What the foreign papers are saying.
Jan. 10 2005 1:21 PM

"Great White Hope"?

World papers ask if Mahmoud Abbas can deliver the goods.

World media have been following Sunday's Palestinian elections with great interest. Few reporters or commentators were all that concerned with who would win the race—Mahmoud Abbas' victory was all but guaranteed weeks in advance—but the international spotlight has turned to the morning after with great interest.

In an editorial, the Daily Star of Lebanon said the region faces a new chance for peace, but warned that the opportunity "must not be squandered." 

The seeds of a new beginning have been sown with these elections, and the momentum must be maintained. Positive action must follow quickly or the elections will be meaningless, hope will be dashed once again, and the seedling of peace will, like so many others before it, wither in barren ground. All those with the power to encourage positive action, such as the European Union, should do what is necessary to ensure this does not happen. And there must be consequences if Israel poisons the ground from which peace must grow.

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In an editorial, Saudi Arabia's English-language Arab News praised the orderly manner in which the elections were held. "[I]t should be remembered that the poll and the campaign leading to it went extremely smoothly. It was in keeping with the calm that prevailed in the wake of Arafat's death as predictions of civil strife and possible civil war never came close to reality," the paper's editors wrote. The paper went on to state what everyone has been saying—that Abbas is hardly a charismatic leader, but that he nonetheless has a tremendous opportunity to change the world for Palestinians: "It is ironic that Abbas, dwarfed as he is when compared to Arafat, might eventually deliver to the Palestinians what the legend himself never did."

In its leader, the Guardian of Britain noted that "The new president has a mountain to climb. His first test will be handling the 30 percent of Palestinians who back Hamas, the Islamist group that pioneered suicide bombings, as well as militants of his own Fatah group who find him too moderate. A ceasefire would be a great prize. But his recent use of the phrase 'Zionist enemy' was a reminder that he cannot afford to be seen as Israel's poodle."

At home, Palestinian papers expressed pride in their democratic achievement. "Maybe our military and political struggle is not liked by some, but our Palestinian democracy is liked by everyone, friend as well as foe," said the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam. "Today, the Arab peoples are feeling envious of the Palestinians." Addressing the new leader directly, the Palestinian Al Hayat Al Jadidah wrote, "You are the hope of the honest, simple, poor and truly nationalist people. We congratulate you." (Translations from the Arabic courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

A columnist in Israel's Haaretz wrote, "The new PA chairman's legitimacy problem is manifold. His primary challenge was to muster a sweeping electoral majority, which he could translate into a mandate for resumption of peace talks with Israel, institution of measures to head off terrorism, and implementation of reforms to trim rampant corruption within the Authority." Noting that Abbas won over 62 percent of the vote, the commentator nonetheless noted, "the task ahead promises to be uphill, if not Sisyphean. … [I]f Palestinians widely perceive Israel and the United States as actively shoring up Abbas, he will soon be attacked at home as serving as an agent of the Sharon and Bush administrations."

A political columnist in Israel's Ma'ariv noted that Abbas' isn't the only new government taking form in the region this week. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new, expanded government came together over the weekend, and now, the columnist said,

Both of them have their backs up against the wall. The opposition is pushing, the extremists are threatening. Nevertheless, Sharon's situation is much better. He has a state, an army and a public. What does Abbas have so far? Not much. Plans, dangers … He has to transform quickly from a gray politician to a popular leader, to the great white hope of his nation, of our nation, of the whole region.

Carl Schrag, formerly the editor of the Jerusalem Post, is a writer and lecturer.

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