An election that offers a rare chance for some positive thinking about the Middle East

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The Independent Online

There have not been many occasions in the past 12 months when it has been possible to say that a significant event on the international calendar has passed off better than expected. But there have been bright spots. One was the election in Afghanistan which confirmed Hamid Karzai as President without the violence that had been widely feared. Another was undoubtedly the Palestinian presidential election held this past weekend.

There have not been many occasions in the past 12 months when it has been possible to say that a significant event on the international calendar has passed off better than expected. But there have been bright spots. One was the election in Afghanistan which confirmed Hamid Karzai as President without the violence that had been widely feared. Another was undoubtedly the Palestinian presidential election held this past weekend.

This was not a perfect election. There were complaints from residents in East Jerusalem that their names had not been registered and they had to travel far into the suburbs to cast their votes. There was some bunching of would-be voters at Israeli checkpoints. And the poll organisers changed the rules in the course of the day in a way that permitted unregistered voters to take part, but may also have artificially boosted the turnout and the majority of the winning candidate.

When all is said and done, however, this election proceeded far more smoothly than had been expected. International observers were satisfied that it had more than reached the required standard. The head of the EU monitoring team noted that it was "unique ... to have general elections conducted democratically under foreign military occupation". The Israeli authorities, who - for the most part - honoured their promise not to hinder the elections in any way, deserve some credit for this.

But so do the Palestinians. This election has given the lie to the commonly-held prejudice that Arabs and democracy are somehow incompatible. Many observers remarked on the civic pride and sense of responsibility shown by those who voted: the same pride in participation, we would note, that was shown by black South Africans in the first post-apartheid vote, in Afghanistan earlier this year, and in Ukraine last month.

With almost two-thirds of the vote from a turnout just short of 70 per cent, Mahmoud Abbas has obtained a thoroughly credible mandate. At the same time, the 19 per cent won by his closest rival, Mustafa Barghouti, is large enough to prevent the result being dismissed as a Soviet-style landslide. Nor were Israelis the only ones to keep their word. While boycotting the poll, the militant Hamas organisation honoured its pledge not to obstruct the election and says it will work with Mr Abbas.

The smooth running of the election, and the result, provide the best possible basis for progress towards peace with Israel, and Palestinian statehood. Mr Abbas has a popular mandate to serve as President and negotiate on the Palestinians' behalf. The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, believes that in Mr Abbas he has a serious partner. From now on, however, the mountains to be climbed only become steeper.

The immediate call of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, for the new President's focus to be on action to combat terrorism conflicted with Mr Abbas's own immediate call for peace talks. Hawks on either side were quick to recite all the familiar stumbling blocks: the status of Jerusalem, the Palestinians' claimed "right of return", the territory that will remain under Israeli occupation even if, as seems certain, Israel withdraws from Gaza by the summer, the need to curb violence and corruption in areas under the Palestinian Authority.

Yet the prevailing mood is, and should remain, one of optimism. In the afterglow of this election, it is worth recalling how much has changed, and how quickly. Only two months have passed since the death of Yasser Arafat - yet the time when Arafat's name and the fate of the Palestinian cause were synonymous already seems long ago. Mr Abbas consigned it further to history when he dedicated his victory to "Arafat's soul".

The Palestinian election results afford a rare opportunity for positive thinking about the future of a region that has been troubled for as long as most of us can remember. It is now up to Israel and the Palestinians, as well as all outsiders with influence - from President Bush to the Europeans and the moderate Arab countries - to use it to the best possible effect.

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