World leaders welcome Abbas victory in Palestinian presidential vote


Published: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 1:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 1:56 p.m.

World leaders on Monday welcomed the election of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Authority president, saying it showed Palestinians want to reform their government and find a negotiated solution with Israel.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said his country and other European nations would do everything possible to help Abbas create an "independent, viable and democratic" Palestinian state.

"I trust that the Palestinian people will follow the path you have chosen of renouncing violence and carrying out comprehensive reforms," Schroeder wrote in a telegram to Abbas, whom he invited to visit Germany.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also sent a message to the Palestinian leader, looking forward to cooperation on achieving "a just Palestinian-Israeli settlement on the basis of the 'road map' (peace plan) and resolutions of the UN Security Council.

"I am sure that your example of political experience will permit you to effectively perform the lofty mission entrusted to you by the Palestinian people," Putin wrote, according to his press office.

President Bush said he would welcome Abbas to the White House, extending an invitation he refused to offer to the late Yasser Arafat.

"I look forward to welcoming him here to Washington if he chooses to come here," Bush said, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office.

Abbas, who has spoken out against violence, is widely seen as a pragmatist committed to resuming peace talks with Israel, although he faces the tough task of reining in powerful armed groups.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw congratulated Abbas after the landslide victory in the vote to replace Arafat, who led the Palestinian movement during four chaotic and corruption-riddled decades until his death Nov. 11.

"The Palestinian people have already demonstrated their commitment to democracy," Straw told a news conference. "The challenge now is for the new president to use his mandate to lay the foundations for a new Palestinian state."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair planned to speak to Abbas by phone later Monday, Blair's spokesman said. The two politicians met last month in Ramallah to discuss a March 1-2 conference in London on reconstructing Palestinian institutions.

Final results later showed that Abbas won 62.3 percent of the vote.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said the peaceful vote was "a victory for democracy, a first victory for peace."

"No incident, a strong turnout: It's a proof of responsibility and maturity that the Palestinians have given," Barnier told the French daily newspaper Le Parisien.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the election of the pragmatic Palestinian "adds to the credibility of the peace process."

"The elections went well. We await the final outcome" that pivots on a 'Road Map' peace plan drawn up by the United States, the EU, Russia and the United Nations, said Barroso.

The EU deployed some 200 election observers for the Palestinian vote in its largest election monitoring program ever. The operation cost $18.3 million.

Austria's foreign minister, Ursula Plassnik, called Abbas' election "an encouraging step toward peace" in the Middle East

Top Chinese and Japanese officials also congratulated Abbas on his victory.

"Japan will work actively to support the Palestinian Authority's efforts at peace," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said in a statement released by the Foreign Ministry.

Japan has supported Palestinian state-building efforts since 1993 and was actively involved in helping the elections. It sent international observers and earlier announced $65 million in aid to help support the new leadership, as well as fund education and infrastructure.

The election, the first Palestinian presidential vote in nine years, proceeded largely without incident. In one incident, gunmen fired in the air in an election office and in Jerusalem, voters complained of confusing arrangements.

There was some confusion about voter participation, a possible point of contention between Abbas' Fatah movement, which was pushing for a high turnout, and the Islamic militant group Hamas, which had called for a boycott.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said Monday that Beijing will "continue as always to support the efforts of the Palestinian people as they strive to reclaim their legitimate national rights."

"China is happy about the smooth election. We accept the choice made by the Palestinian people and sincerely hope that the newly elected leader will lead the Palestinian people to the early achievement of their goal of establishing their own state," he said in a written response to journalist's questions published by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Bush says he would welcome Palestinian leader to White House

President Bush said Monday he would welcome newly elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to the White House, extending an invitation he refused to offer to the late Yasser Arafat.

Bush said he was heartened by the Palestinian elections and offered his congratulations to Abbas, who was elected by a landslide.

"I look forward to welcoming him here to Washington if he chooses to come here," the president said, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office. He referred to Abbas as Abu Mazen, as he is commonly known among Palestinians.

Abbas' victory is widely seen as the opening of new possibilities for peace after four decades of corruption-riddled rule by Arafat. Bush had branded Arafat an impediment and refused to deal with him. Abbas has spoken out against violence and had the backing of the international community.

When he was prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas visited with Bush at the White House for a working lunch and press conference on July 25, 2003. He also attended a summit with Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Aqaba, Jordan, June 4, 2003.

Israeli leaders have welcomed Abbas' victory, but said they will watch closely how hard he tries to subdue militants. Bush said Israel "can play and must play an important part" in the development of a Palestinian state.

"I think it's going to be very important for Israel to fulfill its obligation on the withdrawal from the territories that they have pledged to withdraw from," the president said.

Bush said, "It is essential that Israel keep a vision of two states living side-by-side in peace; and that, as the Palestinians begin to develop the institutions of a state, that the Israel government support the development of those institutions and recognize that it is essential that there be a viable economy, that there be a viable health care system, that people be allowed to start building a society that meets their hopes and needs."

Bush also said the Palestinian leadership must revamp its security forces to "fight off those few who still have the desire to destroy Israel as a part of their philosophy and those few who fear there to be a free vote amongst the Palestinian people."

Bush pledged support for a March conference in London on Palestinian reform. He also noted that the Palestinian election was just weeks before the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq.

"This is an extraordinary year, when you think about it," the president said. "In the first month of a new year, there will be an election in the Palestinian territory and there will be an election in Iraq."

In a written statement Sunday, Bush said Abbas' election was a key step toward the establishment of an independent and peaceful Palestinian state.

"The United States stands ready to help the Palestinian people realize their aspirations," Bush said in the statement. "The new Palestinian president and his cabinet face critical tasks ahead, including fighting terrorism, combatting corruption, building reformed and democratic institutions, and reviving the Palestinian economy."

Bush said the United States will help Abbas and the Palestinian people address the challenges and help create two states, Israel and Palestine, side-by-side in peace. He said other countries, including Israel, must do their part to create peace.

After decisive victory in Palestinian election, Abbas faces long list of challenges

Mahmoud Abbas was elected Palestinian Authority president by a landslide, results showed Monday, giving the pragmatist a mandate to resume peace talks with Israel - but also leaving him with the tough task of reining in powerful armed groups.

Israeli leaders welcomed Abbas' victory, but said they will watch closely how hard he tries to subdue militants. Abbas could easily lose his political capital over a major bombing or shooting attack, and while most militant groups signaled they are willing to give him a chance, not all have signed on to a truce with Israel.

Still, Abbas' victory held out the promise of a new era after four decades of chaotic and corruption-riddled rule by Yasser Arafat, who died Nov. 11. Abbas, who has spoken out against violence and has the support of the international community, promises to reform the government and the unwieldy security services.

Many Palestinians had high expectations of Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen. "Today is the beginning of a new future," said Sami Radwan, 55, a restaurant owner in Gaza City. "Abu Mazen is the right choice. He is the one who can bring us peace, good business and security."

Abbas won 62.3 percent of the vote, the Central Election Commission said. His main challenger, independent candidate Mustafa Barghouti, won about 20 percent. The remaining five candidates scored in low single digits.

About 3.8 percent of the ballots were deemed invalid, and 3.2 percent were blank, Hanna Nasser, head of the Central Election Commission, told a news conference. Nasser declined to give a turnout figure, citing confusion over the use of outdated residency records.

Questions about voter participation are a possible point of contention between Abbas' Fatah movement, which was pushing for a high turnout, and the Islamic militant group Hamas, which had called for a boycott.

In his acceptance speech, Abbas said he faces a difficult mission, but he reiterated that he would not go after militants. Instead, he said, he wants to "give our fugitives a life of dignity," referring to those wanted by Israel.

"I present this victory to the soul of Yasser Arafat and present it to our people and to our martyrs," Abbas added.

President Bush said Monday he would welcome Abbas to the White House, extending an invitation he refused to offer to Arafat.

Bush said he was heartened by the Palestinian elections.

"I look forward to welcoming him here to Washington if he chooses to come here," the president said, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office. He referred to Abbas as Abu Mazen, as he is commonly known among Palestinians.

Abbas visited with Bush at the White House in 2003 while prime minister. He also attended a summit with Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Aqaba, Jordan, earlier that year.

"It is essential that Israel keep a vision of two states living side-by-side in peace; and that, as the Palestinians begin to develop the institutions of a state, that the Israel government support the development of those institutions and recognize that it is essential that there be a viable economy, that there be a viable health care system, that people be allowed to start building a society that meets their hopes and needs," Bush said.

After exit polls predicted a sweeping Abbas victory, cheering supporters took to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza late Sunday. Gunmen fired in the air, motorists honked horns and members of Abbas' ruling Fatah movement, wearing checkered black-and-white headbands, danced in the streets.

The Islamic militant group Hamas, the largest opposition group, announced Monday it will work with Abbas, despite misgivings about what it said were voting irregularities, including a decision to keep polls open two hours longer than planned. Hamas had called for a boycott of the election, but did not try to disrupt the vote.

A U.S. observer team headed by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., and John Sununu, R-N.H., said in a statement that the Palestinians "have conducted a clean, open and fair election, largely unimpeded and without interference."

David Pearce, the U.S. consul in Jerusalem, said he was struck by the civic pride of the voters and their new sense of hope. "There are immense challenges. A million things can go wrong. But for the first time in a long time, there is a chance that something can go right," Pearce said.

In Israel, a new, more dovish coalition was to be approved by parliament Monday, another step toward a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements in the summer.

Sharon's new coalition partners, the moderate Labor Party and a small ultra-Orthodox faction, ensure a parliamentary majority for the pullback, despite fervent opposition from hardliners.

Labor leader Shimon Peres praised Abbas as a wise leader, and expressed hope that peace talks could resume with new Israeli and Palestinian governments. "If he (Abbas) makes a maximum effort to fight terror, in my view this is good enough to return to negotiations," Peres told Israel Radio on Monday.

Peres congratulated Abbas in a telephone call and told the Palestinian leader he would do everything he could to help, said an official close to Peres.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli vice premier, said Abbas needs to take immediate action against militants. "Will he fight against the terrorists? Will he try to stop this bloody, violent war against the state of Israel? This is the main question," Olmert told CNN.

Sharon plans to meet with Abbas soon, the Israeli leader's aides said.

Most Palestinian militant groups have indicated they are willing to halt attacks against Israel. The Islamic Hamas, which called for an election boycott, did not try to disrupt the vote, and local militant leaders demonstrated their support for Abbas.

However, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, who fund some Palestinian militants, are trying to sabotage a possible truce, according to people close to the group. On Sunday, Hezbollah carried out a cross-border attack, setting off an exchange that resulted in the deaths of an Israeli soldier, a French U.N. observer and a Hezbollah fighter.

Abbas' victory capped a peaceful transition after Arafat's death. However, Abbas' goals are the same as Arafat's: a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, and a solution for Palestinian war refugees.

"There is a difficult mission ahead to build our state, to achieve security for our people ... to give our prisoners freedom, our fugitives a life in dignity, to reach our goal of an independent state," he said after declaring victory.

The Central Election Commission changed voting procedures midway through the election, keeping polling stations open an additional two hours and allowing voters to cast their ballots at any location, not just in their hometowns

One election official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the changes came after heavy pressure from Fatah, which feared a low turnout could weaken Abbas.

The election, the first presidential vote in nine years, proceeded largely without interruption. In one incident, gunmen fired in the air in an election office and in Jerusalem, voters complained of confusing arrangements.

Palestinian Cabinet ministers said Abbas won a strong mandate. "The Palestinian people have transmitted a message of peace to Israel and to the international community," said minister Ghassan Khatib.

Many gunmen followed rules barring weapons in voting stations, but in a sign of the difficulty the new president will face in controlling them, Zakariye Zubeidi, a militant leader, refused to give up his M-16 assault rifle when he walked into a polling station in the West Bank town of Jenin.

In Jerusalem, Palestinians and international observers complained of confusion over registration lists, and Palestinians accused Israel of trying to intimidate them.

By prior agreement with Israel, only about 5,000 of 120,000 eligible voters in Jerusalem - a city both sides claim as their capital - were permitted to vote in post offices in the city. The others had to vote in suburbs.

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