- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

JERUSALEM — Israel and the Palestinians signaled that they are ready to resume talks as officials yesterday confirmed Mahmoud Abbas’ landslide presidential victory in balloting a day before.

The voter mandate won by the former Arafat deputy is stoking hope for an end to four years of violence. The new Palestinian leader was embraced by President Bush, who invited Mr. Abbas to the White House — a gesture denied to Yasser Arafat, who died Nov. 11.

The opening of the next chapter in Palestinian politics coincided with the parliamentary approval of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s new coalition with the Labor Party, installing a government that will back Mr. Sharon as he pushes for final approval of his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

A spokesman for Mr. Sharon said a meeting with Mr. Abbas would be scheduled within days. The talks will focus on resuming security coordination, but any resumption of political negotiations is conditional on the Abbas administration’s showing an effort in fighting terrorism.

“They need to take real steps,” Sharon spokesman Ra’anan Gissin said. “While we congratulate and support the democratic election of a new leader, we also expect them to take a new path.”

Mr. Abbas said the Palestinians are “ready for peace” with Israel.

“We are extending our hands to our neighbors. We hope that the response will be positive,” he said.

International election monitors gave the Palestinians high marks for organizing an orderly vote within two months, saying that glitches were minimal and that the competition among the seven candidates was genuine.

Even though Mr. Abbas outpolled his nearest competitor, Mustafa Barghouti, 3-to-1, the monitors said the election was more than a mere vote of confidence in the candidate of Mr. Arafat’s Fatah party.

“I do think the elections allowed the Palestinians to freely choose their next leader,” said former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, co-leader of the National Democratic Institute’s monitor delegation. “This was an election, it was a choice, it wasn’t a coronation.”

Election monitors on Sunday had questioned why the Palestinian Central Elections Commission had exposed the proceedings to voter fraud by allowing Palestinians to cast ballots even if they were not listed on the election registry. But former President Jimmy Carter said the decision had not affected the outcome significantly.

There also was praise for the Israeli government and army, which withdrew from Palestinian cities in the West Bank and eased up roadblocks to permit free access to voting places. Mr. Carter said coordination with Israeli authorities had improved since 1996, the election that confirmed a mandate for Mr. Arafat.

“There was better cooperation between the Israeli government and the monitors,” Mr. Carter said. “There were very rare occasions when any interruptions occurred.”

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