PALESTINIAN presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas has been a strong and courageous opponent of violence against Israel and a supporter of Palestinian compromises to move toward a two-state solution. He was the first political leader to speak out publicly against suicide bombings and the use of arms against Israelis. Unlike Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he endorsed without qualification President Bush's "road map" for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. That's why some of Mr. Abbas's words and actions in campaigning for Palestinians' votes on Sunday have been so disturbing. Rather than reject armed militants, he has clambered onto their shoulders, called them "heroes" and vowed to protect them. Rather than prepare Palestinians for compromise, he has reiterated Yasser Arafat's unachievable commitment to "the right of return" for refugees. Angered by an exchange of fire between militants and the Israeli army that killed several apparently innocent Palestinian youths, he referred to Israel as "the Zionist enemy."
Many Palestinians and some Israelis brush off Mr. Abbas's declarations as campaign rhetoric. Some say it might even be helpful if it succeeds in creating a popular political base for a 69-year-old politician who has lacked one until now. But Mr. Abbas didn't need to appeal to hard-line Palestinian opinion. Marwan Barghouti, the representative of that view and Mr. Abbas's only competitive opponent in the presidential race, withdrew his candidacy several weeks ago. On Thursday the front-runner tacked back to the center, promising to negotiate with Mr. Sharon after the elections and reiterating his willingness to "implement" the road map "completely." To do that, however, Mr. Abbas will have to persuade Palestinians to abandon the hoary slogans and maximalist demands that he has just been shouting -- and disarm the militants who have been firing salutes in his honor.
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The new Palestinian leader, unlike Mr. Arafat, does seem to have a positive strategy. It is to co-opt secular and Islamist militants by persuading them to declare a unilateral cease-fire and participate in the Palestinian political system. Mr. Abbas would seek, in exchange, their protection from what has been a deadly Israeli campaign of targeted killings and the freedom of those now in Israeli prisons. The virtue of this plan is that it could, in theory, lead to the separation of radical Palestinian political movements from terrorist networks and the creation of a truly democratic government. But the militants -- and in particular the Islamic movement Hamas -- may not go along; Hamas is intent on its own goal of forcing Israel to conduct a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip "under fire." Even if some groups give up violence, Mr. Abbas will eventually face an irreducible core of combatants. If he does not neutralize them, the road map will never get past its opening steps.
Mr. Abbas will need a lot of help to crack this problem. To begin with, Israel must give the new president time to pursue his political strategy and be willing to answer a Palestinian ceasefire with at least a tacit truce of its own. Mr. Sharon may need prodding on that point from the Bush administration. Meanwhile, it will be essential that Arab governments such as Egypt and Jordan make clear that they will treat any group that continues to act violently as an enemy of Palestinian statehood. None of this will work unless Mr. Abbas sets a new tone as the elected Palestinian leader. On Sunday he will inherit leadership of an influential but perpetually self-defeating cause. From the beginning he must show that he intends to lead it down a different path.