It was only thanks to strong Palestinian desire for democracy, their good organisation and the presence of 800 foreign observers that any kind of Palestinian elections were possible. The very idea of "elections" implies the ability to move about freely and vote in a peaceful atmosphere.

These conditions did not apply in Sunday's election for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, won by Mahmoud Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen. Throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, the iron grip of the Israeli military occupation is in its 38th year. Normal elections are impossible in circumstances where Israeli military permission is necessary simply to travel from town to town. In the recent first phase of Palestinian municipal elections, several candidates were arrested while some presidential candidates were roughed up or detained by Israeli troops.

There is little reason to believe that the election for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority (or the ongoing municipal and planned legislative elections) will substantially change the existence of 3.6m Palestinians in the occupied territories. These include Israel's continued occupation of East Jerusalem and most of the West Bank; its continued control over the Gaza Strip (to be exercised from without if Israel withdraws) and the relentless expansion of illegal West Bank settlements and the network of fortifications, walls and bypass roads that hem in the shrinking islands of land left to the Palestinians. All the signs are that Abu Mazen will be free to negotiate with Ariel Sharon's government some terms of Israel's continued control of Gaza Strip and its occupation and settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. However, control, occupation and settlement per se are non-negotiable. In other words, we are not on the brink of peace, nor of Palestinian statehood in any meaningful sense.

The electoral process will, however, have a positive impact, although largely on Palestinian internal affairs. It has already opened a debate among Palestinians about their national goals and strategies. This debate has been frozen for more than 15 years, first as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation led the Palestinians into the dead end of Oslo, and then as the violence of the Israeli defence forces and attacks by militant Palestinian factions led to the dead end of the second intifada.

Elections will furthermore begin the overdue process of renewing Palestinian leadership, replacing the older generation of PLO former exiles who dominate Palestinian politics with younger West Bank and Gaza-based leaders. It may bring Hamas and other militant groups into the political system, possibly to share power, reducing their incentive for armed action - although resistance in some form will continue as long as occupation remains. Finally, the Palestinians may be able to further the sorely needed establishment of a rule of law, accountability and stable government that Oslo and the old PLO leadership failed to produce. It is impossible to create sovereign institutions under occupation. But institutions can be created, vulnerable though they may be to the same destruction by Israel that has taken place since 2000. And while the occupation can be blamed for many things, it cannot be blamed for corruption, cronyism, featherbedding and other ills introduced by the PLO.

These potential positives can only play out if powerful external actors do not sabotage them. For the Palestinians to have truly free elections, there must be at least a partial Israeli withdrawal and a binding ceasefire. Even if Palestinian armed factions can agree, Israel - which has in the past refused a formal ceasefire or to restrain its death squads and military incursions - must relent. Its refusal to do so was the main reason for Mr Abbas's failure as prime minister in 2003. If he is not to fail again, final status negotiations must be rapidly initiated to deal with the real issues: borders, sovereignty, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, water. A profoundly ill-conceived American-Israeli veto has kept these issues from the negotiating table for most of the past 15 years (the abortive Camp David negotiations and their Taba sequel were the sole exceptions).

The US cannot just smile benevolently as Israel evacuates the tiny sliver of the occupied territories represented by the Gaza Strip and demand that Palestinians accept Mr Sharon's vision of the continued occupation of much of the West Bank. If this is where Mr Sharon and Mr Bush intend to try to take the Palestinians, the current optimism will be short-lived. There is an opportunity, but seizing it would require a new approach by Israel and America. Failing this, we can look forward to the final burial of the two-state solution and the establishment of permanent Israeli control within a single conflict-ridden entity encompassing the entirety of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

The writer is professor of Arab studies at the Middle East Institute, Columbia University

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