01/10/2005, 00.00
PALESTINE – ISRAEL – HOLY LAND

Abbas's win, an invitation and challenge to Israel

by Arieh Cohen
People voted for him "because the US and Israel want him, and we hope they can start to negotiate an end to the occupation. Catholics hope for full freedom and equality between Muslims and Christians. The return of the lock to the Basilica of the Nativity is a sign of good will towards the Catholic Church.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – The election of Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) to the presidency of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) came to no one's surprise. Voters chose him to invite if not challenge Israel to restart peace talks with its Palestinian neighbour in order to find a final solution to their conflict. This is what emerges from a survey of the Palestinian and Israeli press and discussions with experts and ordinary Palestinian citizens.

Hitherto Israel and the West saw the late Yasser Arafat as an unreliable partner. Objectively, they were wrong because Mr Arafat not only was the historic leader of the Palestinian national movement but was also the democratically elected of the PNA (in 1996).

In recent months, Israel and the US had almost openly endorsed Mahmoud Abbas. This outside support played a key role in the election since Mr Abbas is not a charismatic figure and is not known for whipping up crowds.

The most commonly heard comment among Palestinian is: "We elected him because the US and Israel want him, and we hope they are happy and can start to negotiate to end the occupation and make us free".

Surveys show that most Palestinians want nothing more than fast-track negotiations to reach a peace treaty that would free them from Israeli occupation which has lasted since 1967.

Everyone—experts and ordinary people—agrees that if Israel does not take up the challenge and jumpstarts peace talks, which broke down in early 2001 when Sharon was first elected Prime Minister, Abbas's administration would be short-lived, its legitimacy in tatters, its raison d'être gone. However, after this election, some optimism is possible.

For its part, the Catholic Church expects the new PNA President to fully respect the agreement the Palestinian Authority signed with the Holy See in February 2000 which guarantees full freedom to the Church and equality to Palestinian Christians (just over 1 per cent of the population) as well as a special legal status to the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

As a sign of good will, the Church expects Mr Abbas to have the lock to the Basilica that was stolen two years ago by Bethlehem Greek Orthodox returned.

The Catholic Church officially asked then President Arafat for the lock's return in accordance with the 2000 agreement but he was unable to do it in time. This obligation to the Catholic world now falls on Mr Arafat's successor.

The reliability of the new Palestinian administration is now at stake, at least in its relations to the Catholic Church.

Good will by Abbas's new government is all it takes to respect the Church's title to the lock. In no way can the authorities hide behind economic difficulties, the occupation or international problems.

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