With Sunday's elections, the Bush administration got something it demanded from the Palestinians: the beginnings of a democracy. Whether that produces a real, functional democracy remains to be seen -- and as that drama plays out, the administration faces some tough decisions and some big policy snares.
Mahmoud Abbas won the battle to replace the late Yasser Arafat as undisputed Palestinian leader, after a campaign that included both examples of his vaunted "moderation" and statements suggesting that he isn't so different from his predecessor, after all -- such has his insistence that he will never abandon the demand for an unlimited Palestinian right of return, a guaranteed deal breaker.
Peace process supporters in this country say that was just an acknowledgment of the political realities he faces; critics say it's the same old Palestinian line in a new package.
All of this will create some huge challenges for the Bush administration in the months ahead. Here are a few of the big questions officials here will face:
How Much Democracy?
When, exactly, will the Palestinians have achieved enough democratic reform to justify a serious, new U.S. peace push, not just feel-good talk about Palestinian statehood?
Abbas will probably be a big improvement over Arafat, but he will be setting up his government in a society seething with undemocratic forces and in a region where democracy is regarded as toxic by autocratic leaders.
The transition will be uneven and incremental, providing the perfect excuse for those here and in Israel who want to use the democracy demand as a way to bar any new peace negotiations or any new U.S. pressure on Israel.
Finding a realistic democratic threshold that encourages the Palestinians to move forward and strengthens Abbas, without letting him get away with just the trappings of democracy, will be one of the toughest tasks for the administration in the next few months.
What About Hamas?
In recent municipal elections, the terror group decided to engage in the electoral process and did much better than analysts predicted. It boycotted the presidential election but did nothing to interfere, and has promised to cooperate with Abbas.
What will the U.S. attitude be if Hamas involvement grows, especially after parliamentary elections in June?
Will the Bush administration make the judgment that these groups are moving toward peaceful coexistence with Israel, and that participation in the emerging Palestinian democracy could accelerate the process? Or will it react according to its post-Sept. 11 view of a world sharply divided between terrorists and their uncompromising opponents?
A lot of that will depend on how Hamas leaders respond. Softening their rhetoric, curbing attacks and indicating a willingness to accept Israel's existence will make it easier for the administration to give a cautious yellow light to their political involvement, or at least not to regard it as the poison pill of Palestinian democracy.
The Corruption Conundrum.
International donors have met in recent weeks to discuss a big infusion of aid to help a Palestinian population mired even more deeply in poverty, and President Bush has given $20 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, with promises of more to come.
But this time, international donors are demanding mechanisms for accountability and transparency to make sure that the money doesn't end up lining the pockets of P.A. officials or financing new weapons. But financial responsibility -- not exactly the norm in the Arab world -- won't come overnight, and the need for an infusion of aid is immediate and overwhelming.
Just how accountable do the Palestinians have to become before they get the aid that's been dangled before them? Without aid, the plight of ordinary Palestinians will not improve, spawning new terrorism and dimming hopes for new negotiations. But throwing more money at corrupt officials could undermine the Palestinian experiment in democracy.
Dealing With Sharon.
With Abbas' election, there is a widespread assumption that the administration will become a little firmer in pressing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to fulfill his part of the Mideast "road map" peace plan, including freezing settlements and rooting out illegal outposts. But Sharon is also in the middle of a ticklish Gaza disengagement plan, which the administration has incorporated into its road map.
Just how hard can Washington push without creating a domestic backlash in Israel that will make it harder for the premier to get out of Gaza quickly?
Too often in the past, Sharon has used the specter of domestic opposition to turn aside prodding from Washington, but with settlers in open revolt and the threat of virtual civil war looming, there's little question he faces an unprecedented domestic challenge.
Pressure is a matter of fine tuning that will test the talents of incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Too much pressure could topple Sharon's shaky coalition and derail the Gaza plan; too little could damage U.S. credibility in the region.
What About Europe and the Arab Nations?
How can the Bush administration encourage these countries -- too often the willing enablers of corrupt, reckless Palestinian leaders -- to play a more constructive role?
Without U.S prodding, these nations could lapse back into their unhelpful role, but too much prodding will only play into the reflexive anti-Americanism that leads many to oppose almost anything America proposes, with especially disruptive results in the Middle East.
That will require nuanced diplomacy, not the brute-force approach to international relations that characterized the first Bush administration.
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