Standing in the Muqata, Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah, on his funeral day made me believe that we Palestinians must overcome a hurdle if we are to move forward.
Our youth face uncertainty, our people feel lost and beaten and our elders are sad to think that their children and grandchildren will share their same destiny -- never to live in peace in an independent Palestinian state.
Events on the Palestinian streets will have to be shaped by the combined efforts of Palestinian, Israeli and American leaders. Palestinians must rise to the occasion, put aside our differences and make unity a top priority.
Israelis must act to ease Palestinian conditions so that a new, legitimate leadership can be elected. And Americans must seize the opportunity and invest serious efforts with heavy backing from President Bush to bring about a fair and honest solution to the table.
What kind of change is Israel willing to make in an effort to ease conditions and allow Palestinians to elect a new leadership?
In the short term, Israel will play a pivotal role in the transition period by allowing Palestinians to elect a new leadership. It is crucial that Israel follows through and facilitates Palestinians holding free elections.
Unless there is full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and Palestinians in East Jerusalem are allowed to take part in the elections, it will not only be impossible to hold elections, but it is a safe bet that we are heading toward a more chaotic situation -- something that Palestinians and Israelis can no longer afford.
Despite the anger and despair among our people and the actions of militants, the Palestinian leadership is prepared to work for peace. The first step is to elect a new leadership with a mandate to make peace. This was a very clear point Rawhi Fatooh, acting president of the Palestinian National Authority, stressed in a meeting I attended with him a few weeks ago in Ramallah.
The only person in the Palestinian leadership that I believe embodies the kind of leader that can maintain continuity and bring us to the next stage is Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. Are we more concerned about electing another leader that we can rally around and "worship," or are we concerned about a leader that can rally international support and deliver what others could not?
People I spoke with believe that Abbas will be the right candidate, especially because of the deep desire and understanding that we must be realistic in order to move forward.
We cannot afford to elect a new leader who is serving time in an Israeli jail and make our focus an effort to free the president, rather than a national agenda for statehood. Marwan Barghouti should withdraw his candidacy for president, and instead Abbas' agenda should include Barghouti's release.
Every step Palestinians take must be coordinated on the Palestinian national level and international Arab level. Abbas is already taking a step toward that.
Talks with Hamas and other Palestinian groups, as well as talks with other Arab leaders, such as King Abdullah of Jordan, President Bashar Assad of Syria and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, are being conducted. Such talks must remain and continue to be the focus of any effort as we head for a new path.
The only person that can actually deliver this task is Abbas. He enjoys the support of the Arab countries, which is extremely important in any future negotiations with Israel. And beyond that, he is already working to strengthen the Palestinian-Arab relations as seen in his visit to six of the Gulf states.
The fact that a person from the old guard may be elected as president is irrelevant. Palestinians have a clear desire for reforms that must and will have to be included in the agenda of the next Palestinian leadership. Abbas has been one of the first people to speak of reforms and move toward implementing them.
Barghouti on the other hand is a man that everyone I spoke with seems to trust -- even security service personnel who were in charge of the funeral arrangements for Arafat in Ramallah spoke highly of Barghouti. Nonetheless, Barghouti's intentions to run for president from an Israeli jail cell, where he is serving a life sentence, will not only weaken the Fatah movement, but will also weaken the prospects of peace with Israel. It could also affect international support that is crucially needed to make the transition for the next stage in the peace process.
The problem is this: Every person I spoke with, whether they are a student, a mother, a father, young or old, had the impression that it is hard to trust Abbas and Ahmed Qurei, also known as Abu Ala, as leaders, because of the medical, political and economic confusion that surrounded Arafat's final days. Nonetheless, the fact that Barghouti and Abbas are tied in the polls shows that despite the obscurity that surrounds the death of Arafat, the idea that he may have been poisoned has not impressed itself on many Palestinians.
This is a clear indication that people are willing and ready to move on.
Abbas may or may not be the best candidate from the standpoint of legitimacy, but this is not the point Palestinians must be concerned with. I believe Palestinians are aware that Abbas is a transitional figure and represents the candidate of continuity, not dramatic change. That must come later.
We must consider the fact that the formal succession process is less important than the changes that are now possible in Palestinian politics -- changes that include the shift from politics based on individuals and the cult of personality to institutions. We need a leader we can respect and hold accountable; this will introduce the change from governance based on centralized and arbitrary authority to governance that is good, transparent and accountable.
Finally, for any overall improvement in the situation, a clear, sincere and serious American involvement must be present to help rebuild the Palestinian Authority's institutions and exert the necessary pressure on Israel to move forward. Although it came in his last days in office, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the region was important, but the president must put full weight and personal effort to make this work.
All parties have so far endorsed the "road map" peace plan, but as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, "The road map was never taken out of the glove compartment."
The road map should be the framework from which the Gaza pullout plan is implemented and a good starting point for any further negotiations to come.
Whether the results of the elections will be seen by Palestinians and the international community as a vote for peace and reform is another factor in determining what comes next for the Palestinian people. Giving the new president the ability to move forward with a mandate for internal and external action should remain our focus as a united people, as we make our path toward a brighter future.
Fadi A. Elsalameen, 20, is founder and co-director of Voice of Arab Youth and a full-time college student in the United States.
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