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Cautious optimism

President Bush and other world leaders on Monday welcomed the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority, embracing his victory as a hopeful sign that the stage is now set for real progress toward achieving peace in the Middle East. While such optimism often has been crushed by hateful rhetoric and armed attacks, the shifting attitudes among Palestinians and Israelis suggest there is another opportunity to end the violence.

Abbas, who had no serious opposition, won 62 percent of the vote in an election that appears to have gone relatively smoothly. He is a pragmatist who assembled an impressive coalition of support and has won a tenuous pledge of cooperation from Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group that boycotted the election. He offers the possibility of a fresh start after the tumultuous reign of the late Yasser Arafat. Arafat at various times both condemned terrorism and then secretly encouraged it, and Abbas cannot fall into that pattern if he is to successfully negotiate a settlement and build on Monday's encouraging words from other countries.

In another positive development, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new coalition government won a narrow vote of confidence Monday from the Parliament. That gives Sharon solid backing for his plan to remove all 21 settlements from the Gaza Strip and four from the West Bank. Combined with Abbas' election, the pieces are in place to achieve substantial progress if hard-line groups on either side can be convinced that total victory is impossible.

Of course, the challenges for Abbas and Sharon are formidable. Abbas will have to root out corruption within the Palestinian Authority and combine competing security forces into a cohesive unit with an accountable leader. He will have to tread carefully with Hamas, tacitly offering it a role in the emerging system of self-governence in return for ending the violence. And he will have to find a way to follow through on a Palestinian pledge to end terrorist attacks on Israel.

The road is not easy for Sharon, either. His effort to move Israeli troops and 8,800 Jewish settlers out of Gaza and four West Bank settlements still faces strong opposition. How much other settlements will be allowed to grow in the future also remains a divisive issue.

But with Abbas and Sharon's government now in place, the United States no longer will have an excuse to stall for time as it focuses on the war in Iraq. In a positive sign, President Bush invited Abbas to the White House. Bush never invited Arafat, who rejected a U.S.-brokered peace plan in 2000 and provoked more violence. The president on Monday called on Israel to help develop a new Palestinian state and for Palestinian leaders to work to end the armed uprising against Israel.

The ups and downs of the Middle East are marked by hopeful moments, bold pronouncements and deadly attacks that make it difficult to be too optimistic about the prospects for lasting peace. Undoubtedly, there will be more setbacks. Yet Abbas' election and Sharon's new government offer a glimmer of hope for ending the violence that has taken a heavy toll on both Palestinians and Israelis.