On January 9, Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in a landslide, winning 62.3 percent of the vote and a clear mandate to lead Palestinians in the aftermath of Yasser Arafat's death. Within hours after he declared victory, President Bush and Israeli leaders extended congratulations and olive branches that signaled signs of life in the long-moribund Middle East peace process. But what does the victory signal for the Palestinian people?

I confess: When I began a series of conversations with friends on both sides of the Green Line about Sunday's presidential election in the Palestinian Authority, I approached the event pretty cynically.

It's easy to give in to despair over the prospects for transformative change in that blood-stained part of the world. After all, the historic first Palestinian elections in 1996 that brought President Yasser Arafat and a newly minted 88-member Legislative Council into office has yielded bitter fruit. Arafat proved to be a flawed, autocratic leader who stifled the development of civil society among his people and squelched the emergence of a new generation of young leaders. And the years since his election have brought unending Israeli settlement construction in Palestinian territory, wave after wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, economic chaos, disingenuous and often incompetent negotiating strategies on both sides, and the joint efforts of the Palestinian, Israeli, and American intelligence services to undermine the power of the Legislative Council and Palestinian civil society at large. All this strangled the Oslo peace process, and with it the possibility of realizing in the foreseeable future the dream of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Tip #1: Kick-starting the peace process isn't the point

Obviously, no election can be a quick fix for the seemingly insurmountable problems of the Palestinian people, let alone a recipe for Middle East peace. But however problematic Sunday's voting proves to be, it is wrong to suggest that the larger electoral process is meaningless on the ground. Indeed, the dynamics of the electoral process literally in the wake of Arafat's death, coupled with the strong need of Palestinian society for political change, give a sense of importance to the elections that goes well beyond their limited impact on the peace process.

Sadly, the elections will not mark anything so profound as a "fork in the road" for the Palestinian people's future, as the commentator Maher Anman hopefully argued in the Arabic daily al-Hayat on January 7. Nor is it likely that the world community--and especially the United States and Israel--will "reward the Palestinians" for doing their civic duty, as the Christian Science Monitor urged in its lead editorial of the same day.

Instead, Bush, Blair, Powell and other leaders of the "Quartet" have all pledged strong support for the elections, and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon will no doubt (in the words of left-wing commentator Uri Avnery), "make the occupation 'easier' for 72 hours [and] theatrically remove two mobile homes of a settlement outpost." By January 12, however, Sharon will again use "every means, overt and covert, in order to destroy any 'moderate' Palestinian leadership" that would threaten his stated desire to retain permanent control of 58 percent of the West Bank."

Such a strategy has in fact been the standard operating procedure of Israeli governments in the Oslo era and is evident today in the widely reported beatings by Israeli soldiers of Palestinian presidential candidate Mustafa Barghouti, as well as in the arrests of candidates for the local and legislative councils. The continued interference with the election process has greatly angered many Palestinians. As Birzeit University Professor Rema Hammami explains, "For the last three years, Palestinians have been begging for an international observer force to protect us from the violence, humiliation at check points, home demolitions, land expropriations, uprooted olive trees, and the like. Now they've finally come and it's only to watch our elections. The observers aren't being trained at all to report on, let alone deal with, Israeli actions against the electoral process and in fact are having security provided by the IDF. The position of the international community, and especially the US and EU, is dirty and hypocritical."

Tip #2: Other elections matter just as much as this one

The elections this weekend are in fact the second of four voting rounds. The first, in late December, elected representatives to 26 West Bank municipal councils. They were historic, too, for bringing in a new generation of Palestinian leaders at the grassroots level. Most major Palestinian political factions, including Hamas, participated, with a little under 1,000 candidates running, 140 of them women (some of whom represented conservative religious groups).

Because of a quota system for these elections, most town councils will have at least 2 women out of an average of 13 members. Several councils elected more than the required minimum of women, a major victory for the Palestinian women's movement and a symbol of the strength and maturity of Palestinian civil society. Council members of both genders, however, will have to deal simultaneously with issues as diverse as schools, sewers, and continuing land expropriation by Israel, all with drastically underfunded budgets. Municipal elections in 10 Gaza Strip towns are slated for January 27.