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This article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday, Jan. 16, 2005.

Seven candidates representing a range of political views on internal reform, the future of the state, and the role of the United States. A campaign run in a short period of time under challenging and occasionally violent circumstances, where the ability to move freely to campaign and vote was weighted against the controlling authority's security concerns and a boycott.

The Jan. 30 elections in Iraq? No, the presidential elections conducted in the Palestinian territories on Jan. 9, where I was part of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) international observer delegation led by President Jimmy Carter, former Governor Christine Todd Whitman and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt.

This election, combined with Prime Minister Sharon's success on Jan. 10 in forming a new government in Israel to move forward with disengagement from limited areas in the Palestinian territories, opens a window of opportunity for the people of the region and the United States.

Consider the choice of the Palestinian people to elect Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who has openly endorsed negotiations to reach a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the transparent way in which the campaign and election were conducted, and the internal negotiations within Abu Mazen's dominant party, Fatah, to commit to reforms within the Palestinian Authority.

Their choice was certainly a step forward in the peace process, but the next six months are critical. Palestinian Legislative Council elections are set for July 17, and they will tell a more complete story of the mindset of the Palestinian people with respect both to internal reforms and external relations with Israel, the United States, and neighboring countries. Islamist groups, such as Hamas, may participate in those elections—as they did in recent local elections—despite boycotting the Jan. 9 presidential elections. Various factions within Fatah will also compete against each other for popular support.

This presents an opportunity and a challenge for the United States and for our commitment to democratic reform in the region. We should welcome the broadest range of voices into a democratic electoral process. We should work with the Palestinian leadership, the Israelis, and others to see that moderate voices are able to deliver tangible results within this six month window. Such tangibles will increase the likelihood of an elected legislative body that will support Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations, and will help educate and lead constituents through some difficult decisions.

What does this mean in concrete terms for United States policy?

We need to continue to press the Palestinian Authority to prevent the attacks on Israel that Abu Mazen has denounced. We should watch how quickly and in what ways he and his prime minister reorganize security forces and designate leadership.

The United States also needs to provide assistance that will bolster the reformers within Fatah and the PA more broadly. The U.S. funded the NDI international observer delegation, complemented by a larger EU delegation, which was a good start. Representing a bipartisan and internationally diverse group, the delegation demonstrated the international community's continued interest in and support for the development of viable democratic institutions, and provided Palestinians and the international community with an impartial and accurate assessment of the election process and surrounding political environment.

As observers, we heard from Palestinians staffing the election commission and polling stations about the importance of a court system that can enforce the rule of law, with respect to electoral processes as well as daily aspects of life, so that the forces of armed struggle are not the sole actors who can maintain order in local communities. The United States has supported various assistance programs in this area over the years, but too often in fits and starts, and without sufficient knowledge, appreciation, and ability to build upon existing Palestinian legal structures, history, and professional resources.

We need to figure out how Israel's security concerns can be addressed while minimizing the appearance of and impact on the daily lives of Palestinians of the Israeli military checkpoints that control Palestinians' movement throughout the West Bank and Gaza, so that children can get to school, the infirm to the hospital, and average Palestinians to their jobs in another village or in a major city so that they can earn the money to keep their children in school, fed and clothed, and with some hope for a better future. Toward that same end, we should support robustly effective economic development and education programs. In short, we must help the Palestinian government ensure that its citizens' lives are better and easier than they are today.

These specifics would reflect a renewed commitment to a negotiated two-state solution. Lifting Israeli travel restrictions, rebuilding the shattered economy, supporting reform measures within the Palestinian Authority, and imposing law and order while preventing armed attacks in Israel are necessary steps to create a viable Palestinian state, a toe-hold for democracy in the Arab world, and a safer and more secure Middle East.

Mara Rudman is the Senior Vice President for Strategic Planning at the Center for American Progress.

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Mara Rudman

Former Senior Counselor