Positive signs on the road to peace

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The Independent Online

The Palestinian elections that take place tomorrow are reason for a degree of guarded optimism about the prospects for peace in Israel and the occupied territories. Mahmoud Abbas is the only credible candidate in the presidential race. He enjoys an overwhelming lead in the opinion polls and, in all likelihood, will be returned.

Mr Abbas has firmly criticised violence against Israel. During the campaign, he has occasionally used language designed to please militant factions among the Palestinians, but this has been a political tactic rather than a signal of intent. And, crucially, it has not provoked an angry response from Ariel Sharon's administration. Mr Abbas has, in fact, made it clear that he is prepared to do business with the Israeli government, and has called for peace talks to be held after Sunday's vote.

Another cause for hope is that the Israeli government has signalled an intention to reach a compromise with Mr Abbas. Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli defence minister, told The New York Times that if the new Palestinian leader can deliver a ceasefire from militant Palestinian factions, Israel will pull out of major towns in the West Bank and hand full security responsibility to the Palestinians.

There will be a trial run of these arrangements this weekend, when Israel implements a 72-hour pull-back from Palestinian population centres in the West Bank to facilitate the smooth running of the election. For the Palestinian leadership, this is an encouraging indication that the planned Israeli evacuation of the Gaza Strip is not the only prize on offer, and that a genuine two-state solution could be a step closer after Sunday.

Mr Abbas has managed to draw a tentative commitment from Hamas to observe a ceasefire, but there is no guarantee over how long it will hold. As we have seen so often in the past, everything can unravel very rapidly. And the Israeli government must deliver on its side of the bargain, too. A question mark remains over what Mr Sharon's intentions are, beyond pulling out of Gaza.

But there is a growing desire among Palestinians for a respite from the killing. The intifada has badly damaged their economy and many are profoundly weary. This might be the best reason for hoping that the election will constitute a step forward on the long road towards a permanent settlement.