Letter: New leader, new hope

Sunday, the Palestinian people voted overwhelmingly in support of Mahmoud Abbas to assume the presidency of Palestine, the position formerly held by Yasser Arafat who died in November.

His successor, Abbas, employed some of the same militant lingo in campaign speeches just before the election. Earlier this month, he denounced an Israeli military attack that Palestine contends targeted innocent civilians, including children. Abbas referred to the attackers as the “Zionist enemy” – drawing sharp criticism from Israel and Washington. However, such expressions were simply campaign rhetoric that is not backed up with action. Abbas was the first Palestinian Liberation Organization member to publicly condemn suicide attacks carried out against Israeli civilians, and he has long been viewed as a moderate genuinely interested in peace.

But his true position, in relation to Israel, is evident in Israel’s uncharacteristically warm support for him. Prime Minister Sharon called Abbas on Tuesday to congratulate him “on his personal achievement and his victory in the elections” and to wish him luck, according to a statement from Sharon’s office. The two leaders also set peace talks in motion. That conversation was the highest level of contact between the two governments in years.

Abbas is also supported by President Bush, who said he expects Sharon’s government to “improve the humanitarian and economic situation” in Palestine and continue its withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip areas. Despite heavy opposition from Israelis, Sharon appears intent on following through with the withdrawal.

When viewed in combination, these factors represent a significant improvement in the underlying political situation. Instead of making death threats, Sharon is now calling his Palestinian counterpart on the telephone. Instead of supporting suicide bombings, the new Palestinian leader is calling for dialogue. Washington now supports both leaders.

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This is not to say that peace is only a matter of time. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is complex and entrenched. A very real hatred exists, and that cannot simply be wiped away with political legislation or a change in office.

Be that as it may, the millions of people directly suffering from this conflict are in a better position today.

Peace is a two-way street, and it is good to see traffic now moving – albeit slowly – in both directions. We can only hope that it continues.

Staff Editorial

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