President Arafat hails new era

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Yasser Arafat was elected President of the Palestinian Authority yesterday, with an overwhelming 88.1 per cent of the vote, in the first-ever Palestinian general election. The poll brings the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank close to forming the 23rd Arab state.

The leader of the Palestinians for a quarter of a century, Mr Arafat, 66, has essentially realised his aim of persuading Israel and the world to recognise his people's right to self-determination. He has also ended the Palestinian fear that Israel would absorb the West Bank into a greater Israel, although his opponents say he has made too many concessions.

Mr Arafat will head an interim government in the West Bank and Gaza while negotiations with Israel on the final status of the territories take place over the next three years.

He was elected over Samiha Khalil, a West Bank social worker, who received 9.3 per cent of the vote, in an election that saw more Palestinians than expected turn out to vote for president and an 88-member legislative council. Spoiled ballots accounted for the remaining 2.6 per cent of the vote. After the official count was announced, a "very proud" Mr Arafat said: "This is a new era. We hope that [the election] will be one of the most important efforts on the way to an independent Palestinian state."

Israel said the outcome showed that a decisive majority of Palestinians support the peace agreements signed by Mr Arafat, which have led to a partial withdrawal of Israeli forces from land they captured in the 1967 war.

In a surprise, Israel agreed to allow Mr Arafat to summon the Palestinian parliament-in-exile, the Palestine National Council, to meet in Gaza or the West Bank. Many guerrillas who have fought against Israel belong to the body, which must act on Mr Arafat's promise to remove, within two months of the election, a clause in the Palestinian charter calling for the destruction of Israel.

Unofficial results for 79 of the 88 council seats, gave Mr Arafat's Fatah 50 seats; the allied Fida party 2; independents, 23; Independent Islamic, 2; National Democratic Coalition, 1; and People's Party, 1.

His election drew congratulations from world leaders and scorn from Arab radicals. The Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, congratulated him, while the European Union said the result "justly rewarded" Mr Arafat's peace efforts. Jimmy Carter, who brokered the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, hailed "one of the historic turning points in the history of Palestine and the Middle East".

George Habash, leader of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, criticised "a false success''. A real Palestinian council, he said in Damascus, should be "elected by all Palestinians", including "exiles all over the world".

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