Mahmoud Abbas’s convincing victory in the Palestinian presidential election on January 9 provided a piece of good news in an otherwise somber Middle Eastern landscape.  Often described as an old Fatah apparatchik with little charisma and popularity, Abbas managed to win 62 percent of the 775,000 votes cast in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, with about one half of all eligible voters taking part.  His closest challenger, the leftist independent Mustafa Barghuthi, came in second with one fifth of the vote; five also-rans divided the remaining 18 percent.

The man known to his followers as Abu Mazen is, in Palestinian terms, a moderate, which means that he advocates a two-state solution and realizes that “the right of return” of 1948 refugees is a tradeable political commodity, not a program.  He now has an unexpectedly sound mandate to pursue the pragmatic course that marked his four months as prime minister in 2003.  He needs to use that mandate to help revive the stalled peace process, to rein in the militants, and to reform the corrupt and inefficient Palestinian Authority (PA).

All three tasks will entail making unpopular decisions that may soon erode his standing and elicit resistance from the old Arafat loyalists whose support Abbas will need to be successful.  That standing will depend entirely on what he can deliver to his people—and how quickly.  That it can be done was shown over three decades ago by Anwar Sadat, the heir of Nasser, another charismatic but useless Arab leader.  This parallel also points to the most serious threat he faces: assassination.

With Abbas’s election, the post-Arafat era has finally started in earnest, to the relief of all parties—except for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.  Abbas felt compelled to pay lavish tribute to his predecessor in his victory speech, but he knows that Arafat’s inept and corrupt leadership had been the bane of the Palestinians for many years.  In his final years, he was devoid of any power to direct the Palestinian-Israeli crisis and of the imagination and courage to help resolve it.

Arafat’s mendacity and ineptitude had suited Sharon to a tee.  Sharon’s government never seriously intended to evacuate the occupied territories in the West Bank and to dismantle the settlements (except for Gaza, which is outside his ideological purview).  This was obvious when Sharon stated in Aqaba, after a meeting with Abbas in June 2003, that “we understand the importance of territorial contiguity in the West Bank for a viable Palestinian state.”  Of course, “contiguity” could be an issue only in the context of a continued Israeli presence in the West Bank.  Perhaps unwittingly, Mr. Sharon admitted that he wanted a truncated Palestinian “state” with limited self-government within a greater Israel.

It was on that basis that Mr. Sharon accepted the concept of President Bush’s Road Map, and it was for that reason that he made his acceptance conditional on subsequent Israeli provisos and amendments.  The lack of adverse reaction from Washington has enabled him to pursue building the wall of separation, mostly inside the West Bank, that turned the Palestinian areas into a patchwork of easily enclosed enclaves.  Encouraged by Mr. Bush’s tacit support, he went on to consolidate the settlements and to lay the groundwork for further annexations.  Arafat’s death and Abbas’s election—coupled with the new “national unity” coalition in Israel that includes Labor—will make it more difficult for Sharon to carry on as before, however.  If Abbas moves swiftly to halt violence, the Israeli leader will no longer be able to justify such policies on security grounds.

If Abbas also makes progress in reforming the Palestinian Authority, Sharon’s contention that it is just another corrupt Arab autocracy will sound equally hollow.  One little-noticed consequence of the Palestinian election is that Israel’s claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” is becoming tenuous.  The PA is still far from being a “Western-style” democracy, but, compared with the rest of the Arab world, it is doing a good job.  To hold an election under occupation was a challenge, even without the complexities of the Palestinian political and security situation.  There may have been a few electoral irregularities, but they did not affect the outcome.  The preelection media debate in the PA was open and dynamic.  If Iraq is able to hold an election like that, Mr. Bush will be able to declare victory and pack up shop.

The militants did not take part and called for a boycott, but that they did not disrupt the vote is in itself encouraging.  Hamas was in a bind.  On the one hand, it was afraid of losing to Abbas if it fielded its own candidate, and it was loath to create the impression that it accepted the legitimacy of Israel, which is implicit in the acceptance of the Oslo-founded Palestinian Authority as a valid political battleground.  On the other hand, using violence to stop the vote would have been fatal to a later attempt to build up the electoral base, if Hamas enters the political fray.  It may decide to do so a year from now, hoping that, by that time, Abbas’s position will be weakened by Sharon’s intransigence and American timidity toward him.

The United States has an opportunity to help herself by helping Abbas.  His predicament from the brief period of his prime ministership in the summer of 2003 must not be repeated.  Back then, his public commitment to the Road Map was based on the American promise that it would not be open to revision.  When Sharon promptly started rewriting the rules, Abbas could not continue promoting the plan without appearing as a foreign stooge or, worse, a fool.  He felt abandoned by the U.S. administration that claimed to support him but gave him no real breaks.  By September of that year, he had to resign.

The attainment of American interests in the Middle East demands the emergence and survival—political and physical—of a Palestinian leader that we can do business with and whom Israel cannot discount as corrupt or tainted by terrorism.  Those interests are simple: peace and stability, maintained at little or no cost to the American taxpayer.  There are no transcendent American objectives in the region, and no goals that cannot be quantified and subjected to a cost-benefit analysis.  If there were a lasting peace in Israel-Palestine, continued and affordable access to Middle Eastern energy would be less uncertain, and the global war against Islamic terrorism could be waged more effectively.

These are essential objectives that demand cold realism in policymaking, including a break with the notion that there exists an a priori identity of national and security goals of the United States and her “strategic partner” Israel.  Demystifying our relationship with Israel is the key to a more normal U.S. policy in the Middle East.  It is especially important to discard the claim that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is an offshoot of the U.S. war against Al Qaeda.

The absurd notion that Israeli interests and concerns—especially as articulated by Mr. Sharon—are, by definition, “American” interests and concerns has been imposed, systematically, on the American policymaking community and the media to the extent that the debate on the future of “the Holy Land” is more varied, more intelligent, and far more interesting in Israel than in the United States.  Sane Israeli commentators seem to understand far better than their American counterparts that Israel is neither a divine covenant nor the 51st state.

The alternative to Abbas is the rise of someone who will advocate renewed violence against Israel and be sympathetic to the global jihad against the Great Satan.  If that happens, fanatical Muslims will impose the banner of the prophet ever more starkly on what had been a nationalist cause.  There will be no peace and no security.  To prevent such nightmare, to help Abbas stay and prosper, Washington should ensure that the Palestinian Authority is rewarded if it maintains an effective cease-fire and embarks on a comprehensive program of domestic reforms.  A suicide bomb or two should not be allowed to disrupt the process.  (Former Israeli Prime Minister Rabin put it aptly: “[N]egotiate as if terrorism didn’t exist, and fight terrorism as if negotiations didn’t exist.”)

Those rewards need to be both political and financial, and they should come swiftly.  As for the money, what was pledged to the tsunami relief fund last January can easily be pledged to the PA if it stays the course.  Colin Powell noted that humanitarian aid to Indonesia was “in our best interest, and it dries up those pools of dissatisfaction that might give rise to terrorist activity.”  By the same token, support given to a performing Palestinian Authority will yield even greater results, as it will help to lessen the perception in the Arab world that the United States supports Israel unreservedly.  Of course, it will be necessary to develop a mechanism to monitor the aid process and prevent the misuse of funds, but that should be as acceptable to Abbas—who does not appear to be tainted by corruption—as it had been unacceptable to Arafat, who was steeped in graft.

The political reward for an enduring cease-fire should be threefold: an Israeli withdrawal to pre-Intifada positions, the release of nonterrorist Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, and a moratorium on any further settlement “consolidation.”  President Bush should make these promises to Abbas.  Mr. Sharon’s reluctance to go along should be reflected in an immediate reduction of the American subsidy to Israel—a subsidy that is, in any event, unnecessary and should be used as an active tool of U.S. policymaking.

The toughest task for the United States will be to encourage the Israeli government to accept the need for a final settlement within a reasonable time frame.  Unlike Abbas, Sharon thinks that he is in no hurry.  He is mistaken, because Israel cannot maintain her dominant position forever.  Even if his calculus was sound from an Israeli point of view—and his new coalition partners from the Labor Party will likely beg to differ—maintaining the status quo is clearly at odds with the American interest, which should be the sole determinant of U.S. policy.  Pressure from Washington is therefore sorely needed.  The new policy may work if Sharon is finally told that the United States will no longer condone—let alone underwrite with our billions—an open-ended Israeli occupation of many parts of the West Bank and the ongoing expansion of Jewish settlements.  The U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, President Bush declared in June 2003, should be that of “driving both sides along and holding them accountable.”  Almost two years later, he should finally give it a try.

Pressure on Sharon to negotiate seriously is what America needs, it is what the rest of the world hopes for, and it is what many Israelis want.  As Ha’aretz noted a week before Arafat’s death,

The Bush administration’s welcome and unreserved support for Israel in the face of Palestinian terror was frequently also perceived as permission to reject every diplomatic initiative until the baseline conditions of the region had changed . . . [If] this conflict is once again on the brink of a turning point [it] would necessitate the mobilization of a determined U.S. government, which will want to reexamine the policy of shrugging its shoulders that has characterized it for the last four years.

The contours of that final settlement do exist.  Abbas says that the least his people will accept is a Palestinian state on the land that was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, with East Jerusalem as its capital; and he warns that “we cannot accept an agreement which does not offer a fair and negotiated solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees.”  This is not just an opening ploy: His meaning of the term accept is exact.  The Palestinians may be forced to endure an unfavorable truce for a long time, but they are unlikely to let him accept any deal that gives them less than what was on the table at Taba.  The map of January 2001 still provides the outline of a viable territorial settlement.

It is significant that Abbas refers to “a fair and negotiated solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees” rather than to the “right of return.”  He knows that, sooner or later, that “right” would have to be renounced in favor of some compensation formula.  That formula will require a lot of money in order to sell it in Ramallah.  This is where Washington can and should exert pressure on the royal Saudi kleptocrats to chip in a trillion or two.  Other Arab states, especially Egypt and Jordan, as well as the European Union, should be invited to play a more active role in the peace process.  They may be willing to do so if they see that, this time, Washington is serious about “driving both sides equally.”  The Arabs have leverage over the Palestinians, and, in addition to financial aid, they could train Abbas’s security forces.  The Europeans should be the major source of economic aid, and they may exert political leverage if the Palestinians start wavering at the last moment, as Arafat did at Camp David.

In the curious dialectic of the Middle East, Washington needs to be very deeply engaged to impose that settlement, in order to be able to disengage from the region thereafter, which should be the strategic objective.