Much is at stake when Palestinians vote for a new president today, even though the outcome is already known. Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman Mahmoud Abbas will easily defeat the other contenders. That certainty does not mean that the path towards a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will be any clearer; nor will it guarantee the new era the death in November of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom Mr Abbas will replace, promised to usher in. Mr Abbas, after all, is of the same generation and mindset as Arafat. Together, they founded the PLO's political wing, Fatah, the centrepiece of the push for a Palestinian state. Some Israelis consider him only slightly more tolerable a negotiator for peace than his iconic predecessor. Under Arafat, though, he was not able to define himself or his role clearly. Now he has that chance. Centuries of animosity between Arabs and Jews dictate that such matters cannot be easily resolved. A decade of on-and-off peace talks has failed to resolve the issue of Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as their capital, or what to do with the one million refugees displaced by the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948. More surmountable - with the proper political will - are the issues of Israeli settlements and occupying troops in the Palestinian territories and ensuring security for Israel against attacks by extremists. With Arafat at the helm, there was little chance of finding solutions; he steadfastly refused to make concessions, which caused deep divisions among Palestinians. By rejecting in 2000 an American-negotiated deal many considered the best plan for peace and calling the on-going intifada, he lost the last shreds of any negotiating power he had left. There was also the question of legitimacy. Although elected president in 1996, Arafat steadfastly refused to yield power. Today's election will return democracy to Palestinians, again making them the only Arabs with the opportunity to freely decide their leaders. With his new authority, Mr Abbas will have the opportunity to tackle the issues at the heart of immediate concern to Palestinians - corruption and stability - and launch a fresh start for the peace process. Whether he will do that depends as much on the leaders of militant groups like Hamas and the desire of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to ensure Israeli settlements are dismantled and troops pulled out. The United States and other peace partners must do their utmost to ensure the right climate for talks. In itself, the election is a small, but essential, first step. With the will and co-operation of all sides, within and outside the Palestinian territories, the chance exists to end a stalemate and again move towards the possibility of peace, stability and opportunity for the Middle East.