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Abbas victory comes with high expectations

Newly elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter in his office in the Muqata compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah
Newly elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter in his office in the Muqata compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday. Ruth Fremson / pool via Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority on Sunday in a landslide victory. The election results give the pragmatic leader a mandate, but also what will likely prove a small window of opportunity to re-ignite the Middle East peace process.

NBC News' Ron Allen describes the mood in Ramallah and the high hopes that the Palestinian people have invested in their new leader.

What was the reaction to Abbas' victory in Ramallah?

There was jubilation, especially because the election went off peacefully. There are also high expectations. People are hoping that this is really the beginning of something new, that their lives will improve and that there will be peace — which is ultimately what the Palestinian people want. People are hopeful that this exercise in democracy will be a success.

What was the scene like in Ramallah during the election?

During the day, we didn’t see huge crowds at the polling places. There was a trickle of voters  throughout the day and the crowds seem to build as the day went on. That’s what election officials seemed to confirm as well.

They decided to keep the polls open for two additional hours — it’s still a little unclear why. One version is that they wanted to let voters who were delayed by check points, etc. more time to get to the polls.

Another version is that the turnout was low and they wanted to give more time to voters to get there so that the numbers would be higher and not disappointing or embarrassing.

There were a few problems reported. Most of the problems had to do with bureaucracy — voters who went to the polling places and couldn’t find their names where they thought they would be in registration lists. But, you have to remember that this is the first time that people voted for president in nine years, so some of that confusion is perhaps not to be unexpected.

People seemed to be enjoying themselves — they seemed to be embracing the democratic process. People seemed to be saying that they were trying to take charge of their situation.

When you live under occupation, as the Palestinians do, many of them feel that they don’t have control of their lives. Here during the election, I think many people felt that they were being given something to exercise at least some small measure of power and control that they are denied by the Israelis. The mood was upbeat and business-like.

The one problem I heard of was that at one polling place five gunman shot up a polling place, they didn’t hurt anybody, but they scared a lot of people. They were complaining that some of their relatives were not allowed to vote, and that, I gather, was resolved.

There were also reports that some militant gunmen agreed with the rules and put their guns down before they went into polling places. But, how widespread that was is unclear because there are still some militant groups that boycotted the elections, including Hamas. Hamas boycotted the election and the effect of that is yet to be determined.

There were also some problems in Jerusalem. They had set up special rules that limited the number of people they were allowed to vote inside Jerusalem. There was a lot of frustration and [former President] Jimmy Carter intervened to allow people to vote wherever they could — not just at designated polling places.

So, again, things could have gone a lot worse. They went smoothly and they produced a landslide victory for Mahmoud Abbas. With that mandate comes high expectations and perhaps a small window of opportunity to try to get some results.

What does Abbas' election mean for the future of the Mideast peace process?

The hope here is that peace talks will resume again soon. Abbas is a pragmatist, a negotiator, and someone familiar to the Israelis. It is said that he is against violence and wants the four- year uprising, the intifada, to stop. He has already met with many of the local factions here and the militant groups and he has tried to rein them in.

He has also already tried to negotiate with the Israelis. If the Israelis begin to act the aggressively militarily inside the territories, that will be provocative and that will make it more difficult for the new president to stop the violence, which many here say is only a reaction to what the Israelis do.

With so much hope invested in Abbas' victory from so many divergent groups — the various segments of Palestinian society, Arab leaders, the United States as well as the Israelis – which will it be most crucial in order for Abbas to be successful?

The Israelis are the most important group because they dictate what happens here. They are in control. They control the borders, they control security, they control politics, if you want to talk about something – they control the negotiating table. That’s the bottom line that a lot of people have here. Abbas is the president of an occupied territory, not an independent country.  

How is Abbas' style of leadership expected to differ from Arafat? 

For several decades, the Palestinian people have only known one leader – Yasser Arafat.  A colorful, iconic, almost mythical figure who many see as the father of what many hope will soon be this nation. No one can ever be Yasser Arafat.

Abbas is a businessman, a noted and wise pragmatist. He is not that colorful, he is not that charismatic. That might work to his advantage or disadvantage. Most importantly, is whether or not the Israelis think he can be a partner for peace. They dismissed Arafat for the most part over the last couple of years, as did the United States. Mahmoud Abbas now is in a much better position to talk about the peace process.