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In wake of Palestinian election, leaders move forward

JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Monday night won his battle to create a new coalition government to help him realize his controversial goal of removing Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip this year.

Several miles away in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Mahmoud Abbas, the president-elect of the Palestinian Authority, basked in the limelight of his landslide win of 62.3 percent of the vote the night before, receiving a stream of foreign dignitaries in his compound as well as an invitation from President Bush to visit the White House.

Abbas also received a congratulatory call from Sheik Hassan Yousef, a West Bank leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, who said Hamas would work with the new president despite its boycott of Sunday's election.

The developments put Israel and the Palestinians on more secure political footing, offering the best chance in 18 months to renew contact and possibly leading to efforts to find a way out of the bloody conflict that's killed nearly 5,000 people.

"We extend our hand to our neighbor, and we hope the answer will be positive. We are committed to the peace process," said Abbas, as quoted on Al Manar, the Lebanese television station run by the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, after meeting with election observers.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who came to the region as one of 800 international election monitors, said Monday that Sharon planned to ask Abbas to meet with him. "I asked him if he meant days or weeks, and Prime Minister Sharon said days," Carter said.

Despite the improved atmosphere, the difficulties both sides still face were apparent on Monday. Sharon's new government barely won approval—by 58 to 56 votes—in the Israeli parliament. Sharon's Gaza withdrawal agenda, which the legislature must also approve, faces an even tougher political battle. Many Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip are threatening violence to prevent a handover of the coastal region to Palestinians.

Thirteen of Sharon's own Likud Party voted against his new government. One of these rebels, Knesset member Gilad Erdan, told state-run Israel Radio: "We are talking about a government whose purpose is to implement a plan that we feel is bad and dangerous to the state of Israel."

To overcome these obstacles, Sharon needs a peaceful environment, which would require Abbas to persuade Palestinian militants to abandon their armed uprising against Israelis. That won't be easy, since he still needs to consolidate his power and assert control over Palestinian Authority security forces, which he needs to control the militants.

Questions over voting irregularities in Sunday's first Palestinian presidential election in nine years also could damage Abbas. One problem that's unlikely to be resolved anytime soon involves dueling lists of eligible voters, which led to wildly different tallies and robbed Abbas of the 70 percent turnout that analysts have said he needed to push forward his anti-violence agenda.

"He does not speak for everyone. This is not a high percentage of Palestinians who elected him," said Yousef in an interview.

Yousef said Abbas should take care not to make any "individual decisions" to soften the Palestinian line on core issues, such as Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, Israeli occupation, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to family homes in what's now Israel, and other issues on which Israel is seeking Palestinian compromise. He added that Hamas is opposed to any unconditional cease-fire against Israel.

Senior Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher said talks between Sharon and Abbas will likely lead to little more than coordination of the Gaza withdrawal. "The prospects of peace with these two gentlemen are nil," he said.

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(Nelson reported from Ramallah and Jerusalem. Special correspondent Churgin reported from Jerusalem).

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050110 Abbas elect

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