Sunday’s Palestinian presidential elections inspired hope and hesitation about the future of Middle East peace talks among University students and faculty as Mahmoud Abbas was elected leader of the Palestinian Authority.
Abbas’s election has stimulated international talk of renewed peace efforts in the Middle East. Moreover, Abbas has been portrayed by the media as more moderate than his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who died on Nov. 11.
“I would say that his election is a good sign for both peoples to restart the peacemaking. There are very high hopes for both sides,” said Sammy Smooha, visiting professor of Judaic studies.
In contrast to Arafat, Abbas is capable of being a partner for peace, Smooha said.
Carmel Salhi, president of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a pro-Palestinian student group, disagreed, saying Israel, not Arafat, has been the obstacle to peace.
“The question is not if (Abbas) is willing for peace, because Arafat was willing to give up many things for peace,” he said.
“The question is whether or not the Israelis will allow a just peace. There can be no peace without a just solution for the Palestinians,” Salhi added.
Nevertheless, students and faculty said Abbas is more likely than Arafat to take steps to reduce the violence committed by Palestinian militant groups.
“(Abbas) believes that it is possible for both peoples to come to terms with each other. He really believes that. He also believes that it is impossible to reach this goal by violence,” Smooha said.
Since Arafat’s death, Abbas has appealed to Palestinian militant groups to lay down arms and facilitate peace talks, Smooha said. “What he is doing is saying to them, ‘Let’s make a ceasefire for a year or half a year and see if I can deliver,’” Smooha added.
Smooha also said Abbas will be different from Arafat, as he is accepted by the international community, including the United States and Israel. “(He is) fully accepted by everybody. He is also legitimate because he was elected,” he said.
Or Shotan, chair of the Israeli Student Organization, was also hopeful that Abbas will be a leader that can work with Israel and the international community to come to a peace agreement.
“Israel is really excited to have someone like (Abbas) leading the Palestinians. He is someone that we hope (will) put an end to the fighting and the violence from both sides,” Shotan said.
Some Palestinian students are less optimistic about prospects for peace. Salhi said Abbas’s differences with Arafat have been exaggerated.
“Much of what we see in the media is a statement to overplay the difference between Arafat and Abbas. From (Arafat) who was totally against peace and made effort to go against it, to (Abbas) who is willing to make concessions,” Salhi said. Like Arafat, Abbas maintains that the goal of the Palestinians is a state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
“(Palestinians) will have a leader,” said Abeer Odeh, political chair for the Muslim Students’ Association.
“But if the (Israeli) occupation doesn’t change there will have been no purpose for it,” she said.
Shotan agreed and said, “The Israelis have to change their policies toward the Palestinians and have to continue to dismantle the settlements and remove the soldiers and checkpoints.”
Smooha said this might not be far away. He pointed to recent changes in the Israeli government that will enable Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to carry out his plan to pull Israeli settlements out of the Gaza Strip. “This is good for both sides,” he said.
University alum Arik Chesin, who advises the Israeli Student Organization and is a coordinator of the Israeli Community of Ann Arbor, agreed, saying negotiations will resume under Abbas. “Trust is going to have to be built up,” Chesin said, “but at least there is not the condition of mistrust that was there before.”
In spite of worries of violence during the election, Palestinians and Israelis alike are encouraged by the election itself, which took place Sunday without major problems.
“I’m happy with the elections,” Odeh said, adding that it shows the Palestinian people want to vote to elect their leader.
“I think it’s a great hope. I am happy to see that Israel is not going to be the only democracy in the Middle East,” Chesin said.