RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinians vote on Sunday for a successor to Yasser Arafat widely expected to be Mahmoud Abbas, a pragmatist they hope will revive a peace process with Israel after years of bloodshed.
Some 1.8 million Palestinians were eligible to vote in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Balloting will begin at 12 a.m. EST and end at 12 p.m. EST, with initial returns expected on Sunday evening and final results on Monday.
Polls showed Abbas would win the presidential election by a landslide after a crowd-pleasing campaign in which he pledged to uphold the iconic Arafat’s struggle for statehood in Israeli-occupied territories, but by non-violent means.
Israel, which branded Arafat an “arch-terrorist” and shunned him, has sized up Abbas as a man they could deal with and U.S.-led mediators have embraced him as a potential peacemaker.
But Abbas’s prospects are clouded by powerful militants defying his calls to cease fire and Israel’s intensifying settlement of the West Bank, peeling away land Palestinians seek for a viable state.
A pre-election poll found Palestinians evenly split over whether to call off or press on with an armed uprising but also a willingness to let Abbas try to deliver them from a conflict that has impoverished and isolated them.
“Our people are desperate now. Yes, we could continue fighting Israel for decades to come but maybe now there is a chance to get what we want from Israel by negotiating,” said Gaza City university student Mohammed Hassan.
“Let’s give Abu Mazen a chance,” he said, using Abbas’s nom de guerre acquired during his decades in the Palestine Liberation Organization (news – web sites) that he took over after Arafat died.
Abbas was forecast to take 52 to 65 percent of the vote, more than twice the support commanded by his closest challenger, human rights activist Mustafa Barghouthi.
Analysts said to build a popular mandate for talks Abbas would probably need at least 60 percent of the vote and a large turnout — both uncertain because of a boycott by Islamist foes.
Five other candidates, ranging from a Marxist PLO official to a professor under house arrest in the United States on suspicion of funnelling money to Hamas militants, were forecast to garner only a few percent between them.
CARTER, ROCARD HEAD MONITORING FORCE
Around 800 international observers, including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter — who brokered Israel’s 1979 peace accord with Egypt — and ex-French prime minister Michel Rocard, joined 20,000 local monitors for the election.
Their task was not only to help ensure voting was free and fair but verify Israel’s promise to relax its military grip in the territories to ensure all voters could make it to the polls.
The observers were quickly put to the test when Palestinian officials accused Israel on Saturday of breaking its pledge to ease off 24 hours before the election.
“There are more roadblocks today and stricter travel measures,” Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said.
“I have contacted Israeli officials and asked them to honor their commitments. They said they will do their best. We will see on election day. If they don’t, we hold Israel responsible for obstructing our elections.”
Israeli security sources denied Erekat’s accusations, saying raids and patrols had been suspended, many temporary checkpoints and barricades removed and procedures at permanent checkpoints outside cities and at major road junctions significantly eased.
“Major checkpoints are still in place but there was never an intent to remove them. Terrorist threats still have to be dealt with,” said an Israeli military source.
Israel says checkpoints stop suicide bombers. But the Palestinians detest them as symbols of occupation and call them a form of collective punishment.
International monitors suggested it was premature to judge the Israel army’s behavior. “The issue is not about access at a certain checkpoint, it is about whether Palestinians can (actually) vote,” said one observer who asked not to be named.
Palestinian officials announced on Saturday a parliamentary election would be held on July 17 to complete what they hope will be a smooth post-Arafat transition toward democratic reform, law and order and peace talks.