The recent election of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian president is raising hopes that the long-stalled peace process with Israel may soon be revived. While continuing violence has repeatedly derailed the process in the past, some analysts are expressing optimism that there is now a new opportunity to end the bloodshed and improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. Correspondent Meredith Buel has more in this background report from Washington.
Shortly after his landslide victory to replace the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas received congratulations from President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Mr. Abbas has been invited to the White House to meet with President Bush, and talks are expected soon between the newly elected Palestinian president and Mr. Sharon.
Mr. Bush says he expects positive actions from the Israeli government in response to the Palestinian elections.
"I think it is going to be very important for Israel to fulfill its obligation on the withdrawal from the territories that they have pledged to withdraw from. It is essential that Israel keep a vision of two states living side by side in peace. As the Palestinians begin to develop institutions of a state, that the Israeli government support the development of those institutions."
President Bush, who supports the creation of a Palestinian state, says the new leadership must position itself to battle militants who want to obliterate Israel.
"Israel can play, and must play, an important part of the development of a Palestinian state. At the same time, it is essential that the Palestinian leadership consolidate security forces so that they can fight off those few who still have the desire to destroy Israel as a part of their philosophy, and those few who fear a free vote amongst the Palestinian people."
Former U.S. Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross points out that in addition to a new Palestinian president, the Israeli parliament has approved a new unity government expected to help Mr. Sharon move forward on his plan to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and small parts of the West Bank later this year.
Mr. Ross says he expects a new approach from the Bush administration.
"Interestingly enough here, we are also in transition. We are going to have a second term of the Bush administration. But I think on this issue it is not necessarily going to look like the first term. I think you are going to have a much more energetic State Department, I think there is a perception that with Arafat gone, with a national unity government in Israel, you have a real opening and a possibility to do something. So we are going to see a transition or we are in the midst of a transition almost everyplace."
Mr. Ross says the main job of the United States is to help facilitate a meaningful, sustained dialog between both sides, something that has not happened since the current Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began in September 2000.
Mr. Ross says Mr. Abbas will also need the support of Arab leaders in the Middle East to create what he calls an "umbrella of legitimacy" that will allow the new Palestinian president to make compromises with the Israelis.
He says the support of Arab nations will allow Mr. Abbas to challenge those Palestinian militant groups who reject the peace process and use violence to try and frustrate it.
"He is going to hit rough spots. That is a given. The one thing we can absolutely count on is this will not be a linear process. It will not simply unfold the way we want it to. That is the one thing that is a certainty. The one thing that is guaranteed is that there will be problems and he is going to need the kind of support from them to persevere in the face of the problems."
David Makovsky is a lecturer on Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
He says the first step toward confidence building will be to restore coordination between the Israeli army and the Palestinian security forces.
"To me the security coordination between Israel and the Palestinians is vital for doing a lot of the things we all want to happen, which is getting a ceasefire and coordinating Israel's withdrawal from Gaza."
Mr. Makovsky says exit polls suggest most Palestinians are focused not on revenge or a return to suicide bombings, but on a forward-looking agenda of nation-building and a return to normalcy.