- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Two Arab-American observers just back from observing Sunday’s Palestinian election declared on Tuesday that “a sense of possibility” was palpable in the region.

Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, the group that hosted a briefing at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, expressed hope at both the process and the result of Mahmoud Abbas’ victory.

He was accompanied by George Salem, chairman of the Arab American Institute, and a veteran of the presidential campaigns of both Bush presidents.

Together, they represented half of the official U.S. delegation to monitor the Palestinian elections, which was headed by Sens. Joseph Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, and John E. Sununu, New Hampshire Republican.

David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, also expressed a “cautious optimism” stemming from the election.

“There is a glimmer of hope that there is an opportunity that presents itself, but this is the Middle East, and few things go as expected,” said Mr. Harris, who did not observe the election. “We have to hope and pray that this time, for once, the Palestinians will make the right decision to go forward in a spirit of coexistence and compromise with Israel.”

The election was watched by more than 800 observers from across the globe, including the European Union Electoral Commission and 80 observers from the National Democratic Institute, headed by former President Carter.

While acknowledging that any familiarity with the tumultuous history of the region precludes unrestrained celebration, Mr. Asali declared that the Jan. 9 election marked the “birth of democracy” in Palestine.

Seventy percent of the eligible population voted in the election, a high percentage by any standard, with Mr. Abbas securing about 63 percent of the vote.

Mr. Abbas’ victory translates into a stamp of approval by the “silent majority,” Mr. Asali said, referring to those Palestinians who do not hold radical political or religious beliefs. The free election of a Palestinian moderate provided a rare opportunity for peace in the region and that the world should not “wait to see if this effort succeeds or fails.”

Mr. Asali and Mr. Salem spoke of long lines and a general eagerness to vote in spite of a boycott by the militant group Hamas. Women were highly represented, they said.

The observers acknowledged “minor glitches,” particularly in Jerusalem, where voting was cumbersome.

Approximately 200,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, which is considered by Israel to be Israeli territory. Here, voting was carried out in post offices, cast as absentee ballots.

Israel, for its part, withdrew many checkpoints to allow Palestinians better access to the polling stations. “I think it’s important that we acknowledge that,” Mr. Salem said.

Just as it is up to the Palestinians to make democracy work quickly, the participation of the United States is “indispensable” to any peace effort, Mr. Asali said.

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