The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) does not have sovereignty but as of January 9, it has something none of the other Arab states have: a democratically elected President chosen in a contested election.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas now has legitimacy in the eyes of the world and a mandate to represent his people in the peace process. Israel has welcomed his election. United States President George W. Bush has invited him for talks in Washington.

If a way can be found to assure terrorism-weary Israelis of their security and to guarantee dignity for Palestinians, we may soon see significant steps in the direction of resolving one of the most difficult conflicts in recent history.

The hopes generated by the presidential election in Palestine, however, could be dashed if Abbas reverts to appeasing Palestinian hardliners instead of controlling and marginalising them.

There would be no viable peace process also if Israeli leaders lapse into complacency, inspired by the belief that Israel does not need to make any concessions in view of its military superiority.

Israelis and Palestinians lead parallel lives. After several decades, it is clear that Israel cannot hope to "get rid" of the Palestinians. It must learn to live them.

The Palestinians, too, appear to be realising the futility of the rhetoric of eliminating Israel. But Israelis and Palestinians have shown pragmatism before only to revert to ideologically driven positions. One can only hope this time things are different.

I was a witness to the PNA's historic presidential election as a member of the election observer mission organised by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the Carter Centre.

The delegation was led by former US President Jimmy Carter, former Prime Minister of Sweden Carl Bildt and former Republican Governor of New Jersey and Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman.

It included current and former legislators, former ambassadors, elections and human rights experts, civic leaders and regional specialists from 15 countries in Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa and North America.

The delegation visited the Occupied Territories from January 4-10 and deployed 80 observers to the West Bank, Gaza and eastern part of Occupied Jerusalem.

Major accomplishment

According to the preliminary statement by the delegation, "The January 9 Palestinian presidential election was a major accomplishment.

The election was contested vigorously and administered fairly. Election day was orderly and generally peaceful … The successful organisation of this election demonstrates the potential for the start of a new era in Palestinian politics and the development of representative and accountable governance".

International observers monitoring the election noted six positive developments during the election process: a generally peaceful process, even though there were serious concerns beforehand that violence could disrupt the election; a mostly orderly election administration conducted by dedicated and professional officials; large numbers of Palestinians who came out to cast their votes; the significant presence of political party and candidate agents, as well as non-partisan domestic election observers, adding transparency to the process; the large role played by women in the election process as electoral officials, party and candidate agents, non-partisan observers and voters; and the easing of travel through check points by Israeli authorities to facilitate freedom of movement and election day processes.

The problems with the electoral process that caught the observers' attention included the large percentage of registered voters whose names did not appear on the appropriate voter list at post offices designated for voting in Occupied Jerusalem; certain last-minute changes by the Central Election Commission (CEC) to conditions and hours for voting were implemented in ways that caused confusion; reliance on two separate voter lists, with separate voting places based on them, caused confusion and opened potential for abuse; and scattered incidents of intimidation and harassment by some Fatah activists.

As some commentators (and rulers in the Muslim world) do not tire of pointing out, democracy is not just about having an election. A free, fair and contested election reflects the will of the people for democracy.

As the NDI and Carter Centre observers pointed out in their post-election statement, "Having successfully conducted this presidential election, there are now opportunities to advance positive developments in a broader context necessary for peace and prosperity … They must quickly move to prepare for the next round of municipal and legislative elections, which are scheduled within the next six months.

Palestinians also should enhance efforts to ensure public order and to curtail violence. It is important that the Palestinian President and his designated Prime Minister establish an effective working relationship."

The Palestinian election provides a window of opportunity for building an Arab democracy. In the words of international observers, "Palestinians will require continued support from the international community and will need to build upon the Palestinian-Israeli cooperation in election planning that took place in this election period".

Husain Haqqani is a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C. and Associate Professor of International Relations at Boston University. He served as adviser to Pakistani Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and as Pakistan's Ambassador to Sri Lanka.