Abbas, Mahmud (1935–)

views updated

Abbas, Mahmud

Palestinian politician Mahmud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazin) long played a key role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and had become the paramount political leader on the Palestinian political scene by the early twenty-first century. It was under his leadership that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) first started face-to-face talks in the early 1990s, a process that gave birth to the Palestinian Authority (PA), and it was he who assumed the positions of chairman of the PLO and president of the PA upon the death of long-time Palestinian leader yasir arafat in 2004.


Abbas was born in 1935 in the town of Safad (Hebrew: Tzfat) in the Galilee region of what was then Mandatory Palestine. Most of Safad's inhabitants at that time were Sunni Muslim Arabs like Abbas's family, but about twenty percent were Jews—roughly the same percentage as in the population of Palestine at large. The Abbas family's fortunes changed dramatically after fighting broke out between Jews and Arabs in Palestine in late 1947, following the United Nations decision to partition the country into Jewish and Arab states. In the course of this fighting, Jewish forces captured Safad on 11 May 1948, after which the Arab population—about 11,000 people—fled. Young Abbas and his family ultimately took refuge in Damascus, Syria. Israel did not allow the vast majority of Palestinian refugees to return, and Abbas became a permanent exile from his country.


Name: Mahmud Abbas (Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, Abu Mazin)

Birth: 1935, Safad, Mandatory Palestine

Family: Wife, Amina; three sons, Mazin (deceased 2002), Yasser, Tareq

Nationality: Palestinian

Education: Egypt, Syria; Damascus University; Ph.D., Oriental College, Moscow, 1982


  • 1948: Flees as a refugee to Syria
  • 1960s: Founding member of Fatah
  • 1960s–present: Senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)
  • 1964: Gains membership in Fatah's Central Committee
  • 1980: Gains membership in PLO's Executive Committee
  • 2003: Prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA)
  • 2004–present: PLO chairman and PA president

Abbas worked as an elementary school teacher in Syria and later studied in Egypt and Syria, eventually graduating from Damascus University. As a student, he involved himself in Palestinian nationalist politics in the General Union of Palestinian Students. Later in life, Abbas completed a Ph.D. on the history of Zionism at Oriental College in Moscow in the Soviet Union in 1982. In 1957, he capitalized on his education and moved to Qatar to work in the Qatari education department. There he continued his involvement in the Pales-tinian national movement through his associations with fellow Palestinian expatriates. Along with figures like Yasir Arafat, Abbas became one of the founders of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, better known by its backwards Arabic acronym, al-Fatah. Like many in the movement, he assumed a nom de guerre (pseudonym) that began with "Abu" ("father of"), following the Arab convention of calling a man by the name of his eldest son. Abbas became known as Abu Mazin ("father of Mazin"), after his first-born son, who died in 2002. Abbas still is commonly referred to this way by Palestinians. He rose to membership in Fatah's Central Committee, its top leadership body, in 1964, and has remained one of Fatah's key figures since.

Abbas's political fortunes rose with those of Fatah, which by 1968 was the most important Palestinian nationalist organization. By 1969, Fatah had become the dominant faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Abbas served as a Fatah representative in the Palestinian National Council, the PLO parliament, starting in 1968. Yet Abbas's real source of power was his relationship as a key advisor and trusted lieutenant to Fatah chairman Yasir Arafat, who in 1969 became chairman of the PLO as well. Abbas was given a number of key positions in the PLO over the years, including membership in its top leadership body, the Executive Committee, starting in 1980 (and secretary general of the committee starting in 1996). He also secured the important Occupied Territories portfolio in 1988 and headed the National and International Relations Department from 1984 to 2000.

Abbas was the senior PLO official in charge of negotiations with Israel beginning with the October 1991 Madrid Peace Talks. As a result of the secret deal reached between Israel and the PLO in Oslo, Norway, in September 1993—an agreement called the Declaration of Principles but also known as the Oslo Accord—Abbas was catapulted from relative public obscurity into the full glare of the international media. He joined Arafat on the lawn of the White House in Washington to sign the accord on 13 September 1993, in the presence of U.S. president Bill Clinton, Israeli prime minister yitzhak rabin, and Israeli foreign minister shimon peres, among others, all of whom were well-known public figures. It was in fact Abbas, not Arafat, who actually signed the document for the PLO. Abbas continued to coordinate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, known to the world as the Oslo process, a process that produced agreement on the formation of a Palestinian government called the Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As a result, Abbas was able to return to his homeland in July 1995 after 47 years in exile. Although he visited Safad and saw his boyhood home shortly thereafter, Abbas took up residence in Ramallah and Gaza City in territory under the control of the PA. He headed the PA's Central Elections Commission from 1996 to 2002, coordinating the first-ever direct Palestinian elections in January 1996, by which PA citizens chose a legislative body, the Palestinian Legislative Council, and a president, Arafat. Abbas himself was elected to the council as a representative from the West Bank town of Qalqilya. He also remained busy directing Palestinian negotiators in their ongoing talks with Israel from 1994 until the collapse of the Oslo process in January 2001.

More significantly, he became the first prime minister of the PA in 2003. The various Israeli-Palestinian agreements signed as part of the Oslo process only made reference to a single PA executive position, that of "ra'is"—a term that was deliberately left in the original Arabic because the two sides could not agree on whether to translate the term as "chairman" (as the Israelis wanted) or "president" (as the Palestinians wanted). Regardless of its translation, Arafat was the "ra'is," and, because no further presidential election was held while he was alive, he had enjoyed sole executive authority since the PA was formed in 1994. Mounting international criticism of Arafat's method of governance, plus his unwillingness to wield the numerous PA security forces under his command against militant groups like Hamas that continued to attack Israelis during the second Intifada that broke out in September 2000, eventually led the U.S. and Israel to halt all further contacts with Arafat. Bowing to the pressure, Arafat agreed to create a new post of PA prime minister, and reluctantly allowed Abbas to assume the position on 30 April 2003.

Abbas's short tenure as prime minister was marred by his conflict with Hamas, as well as by internal friction within his own Fatah movement over his talks with the Israelis. Yet his most pronounced struggle was with Arafat, his one-time political mentor. Upon assuming the post of prime minister, Abbas was courted by the Israelis and the Americans, but also pressured to crack down on Hamas. Yet he also was faced with the need to avoid looking like a tool of the Americans in the eyes of Palestinians. His conflict with Arafat over who would control PA security forces reached a head when he appointed a loyalist, muhammad dahlan, as minister of state for Security Affairs, only to have Arafat counter by appointing Dahlan's rival, Jibril Rajub, to the new post of national security advisor to the president. As a result of these various conflicts, Abbas resigned first from the Fatah Central Committee in July (although he later rejoined) and then from his post as prime minister on 6 September after only four months in office.

Abbas quietly withdrew from the public political scene for a little more than a year. Arafat's death on 11 November 2004 opened the door for his political rehabilitation. Within hours of Arafat's passing, the PLO Executive Committee appointed Abbas chairman of the PLO, only the fourth person to hold the position since the organization's inception in 1964. Further consolidating his power, Abbas also was elected president of the PA on 9 January 2005 with 62 percent of the votes. Abbas now controls two of the three major portfolios once held by Arafat: PA president and PLO chairman. The third, Fatah chairman, was assumed in November 2004 by long-time Fatah figure Faruq Qaddumi, who actually wields little influence within the group. Abbas has retained those two posts ever since.


Abbas was deeply influenced over the decades by his refugee experience. His commitment to, and lengthy involvement in, the Palestinian national movement stems from his having lived in exile for most of his life since his family fled Safad when he was thirteen years old. Like many of his generation, wealth and success elsewhere in the Arab world never could erase the longing to return home. While most Palestinian refugees in the 1950s placed their political hopes in the leaders of the Arab world to defeat Israel for them and open the door to return, Abbas was one of a small group of lower-middle-class and professional Palestinians living in the Arab Gulf countries who chose instead the path of self-liberation. The organization they established, Fatah, was unique at the time of its establishment in the late 1950s in proposing that Palestinians wage their own military struggle against Israel. Fatah thereafter played the leading role in shaping the modern Palestinian national movement. Fatah went on to control the PLO in 1969, where its refugee leadership subsequently spent decades trying to translate their desire to return to Palestine into concrete actions to make this happen. While never himself a combatant, Abbas was a central figure in Fatah for decades, translating the bitterness of his personal exile into the nationalist campaign for creation of a Palestinian state.

Abbas's experiences with Fatah and the PLO over the years also showed him, however, that an Arab and Palestinian armed struggle never would lead to a Palestinian state and the return of the refugees because Israel, time and time again, defeated all Arab military challenges to its power. He came to realize that ultimately only diplomacy would lead to the Palestinians' realizing at least some of their national aspirations. Like those of other Fatah founders, his lower-middle-class origins and conservative Muslim background also shaped his overall conservative, pragmatic worldview, in marked contrast to some of the expansive, revolutionary views held over the years by Palestinian activists from different social backgrounds.

Abbas has made two major contributions to the Palestinian national movement and the wider Middle East. The first has been his pioneering efforts on behalf of a negotiated, peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Considered a moderate and a pragmatist, Abbas laid the basis for his involvement in diplomacy long before the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that began with the Madrid Conference in October 1991. In the 1970s he met with Israeli peace activists like Uri Avnery and former general Mattiyahu Peled, with whom he signed the "Principles of Peace" document in January 1977 that spoke of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Israel alongside a Palestinian state. Abbas continued meeting with Peled and others, both at PLO headquarters in Tunisia and elsewhere. In 1989 during the first Intifada, he was engaged in secret talks with Israelis through the help of Dutch intermediaries.


Known by the nom de guerre Abu Jihad, Khalil al-Wazir (1935–1988) was another founding member of Fatah who rose to senior positions within both Fatah and the PLO. Born in Ramla, Palestine, to Muslim Palestinian parents, al-Wazir and his family were made refugees by the 1948 War. After helping form Fatah, al-Wazir became deeply involved in military action against Israel starting in the early 1960s. He founded al-Asifa, Fatah's military wing, and later served on the PLO's Supreme Military Council. More than anyone else, it was al-Wazir who shaped the theory and practice of Palestinian armed struggle. As holder of the PLO's Occupied Territories portfolio, he also played a key role in organizing PLO activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after their capture by Israel in 1967, activities that helped trigger the first Intifada in late 1987 and eventually helped convince Israel to begin negotiations with the PLO. A lifelong friend and confidant of Yasir Arafat, al-Wazir was assassinated by Israeli commandos in April 1988 at his home in Sidi Bu Sa'id, Tunisia.

Arafat chose Abbas to coordinate Palestinian participation in the public peace talks at the October 1991 Madrid Peace Conference convened by the United States and the Soviet Union and that continued in Washington until 1993. At that time, neither Israel nor the U.S. would talk officially with the PLO. Abbas's major contribution came in directing the top-secret, direct talks between PLO and Israeli negotiators carried out in Oslo, Norway, that eventually produced the Oslo Accord in August 1993 and the establishment of the PA in July 1994. Under his direction, Israeli-PLO talks continued in the 1990s, producing several follow-up agreements such as the September 1995 Interim Agreement (Oslo II) that led to Israeli withdrawals from parts of the West Bank and Gaza and the expansion of the PA's jurisdiction.

The failure of the incremental steps toward a permanent peace set in motion by the Oslo process disappointed many Palestinians. Abbas's fellow exiles felt betrayed by the PLO, which they criticized for selling out by abandoning armed struggle to participate in a process restricted by Israeli and American constraints, a process they believed was designed to prevent their right to return to their pre-1948 homes. In the West Bank and Gaza, the process did not lead to full statehood for the PA, nor did it even halt continued Israeli seizures of Palestinian land and construction of Jewish settlements in the territories. Mutual suspicion and violence weakened the peace process in the mid- to late-1990s and culminated in the explosion of the second Intifada in September 2000, the Israeli reoccupation of parts of the territories, and the effective end to the Oslo process.

Abbas has been the central figure in revived peace talks starting in 2003. Believing that he, unlike Arafat, was willing to rein in anti-Israeli militants and resume negotiations, the United States and Israel agreed to a return to the talks that had ended in January 2001, but only with Abbas and not Arafat. Within hours of Abbas's assuming the position of prime minister on 29 April 2003, the United States announced details of a new peace initiative, called the Roadmap to Peace, that would pick up where the Oslo process had failed. U.S. president George W. Bush also quickly invited Abbas to a summit meeting with Israeli prime minister ariel sharon and Jordanian king abdullah ii bin hussein in Aqaba, Jordan, in June 2003, and to a meeting with him at the White House the following month. In the run-up to the January 2005 PA presidential elections, Abbas called on Palestinians to end the violence of the second Intifada. However, the violence continued. Abbas's efforts were hampered both by anti-Israeli attacks mounted by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, among others, and by Israeli attacks and Israel's ongoing construction of a "security barrier" within Palestinian territory, inside the internationally recognized border between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Furthermore, Israel's unilateral withdrawal of its settlements from Gaza, completed in August 2005, indicated that it was abandoning hope of reaching a deal with the Palestinians, preferring instead to go its own way.

Yet perhaps Abbas's most serious challenge to peacemaking was the stunning Hamas victory in the 25 January 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. The elections ended Fatah's dominance of the council and PA politics and represented a major blow to its standing in the Palestinian body politic generally. It also brought into electoral power a movement that opposed the Road Map and indeed any talks with Israel. On 19 February 2006 Hamas leader ismail haniyeh became the new PA prime minister, worsening Abbas's dilemmas by precipitating a cutoff in aid from the United States and other countries (which formally list Hamas as a terrorist organization). In addition to the clash in attitudes toward how to deal with Israel, internecine Palestinian fighting grew as Fatah militants clashed with those from Hamas, who also deployed a special militia in Gaza to rival the PA's regular security forces which Hamas views as Fatah, rather than national, organizations. In June 2006, Abbas challenged Hamas to accept a document brokered by Hamas and Fatah figures in Israeli prisons that called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thus establishing a tacit Hamas acceptance of Israel. He also made plans to hold a referendum on the document throughout the PA and set in motion a "national dialogue" to discuss the future course for realizing Palestinian independence. After lengthy talks, Haniyeh's government gave way to a joint Fatah-Hamas unity government in March 2007, with Haniyeh remaining as prime minister. This arrangement fell apart in June 2007 when vicious fighting between Hamas and Fatah militants led to a Hamas takeover of Gaza. Safe in the West Bank, Abbas dissolved the unity government and appointed a new prime minister, Salam Fayyad. In Gaza, Haniyeh rejected the move and claimed he was still prime minister and head of the unity government.

Abbas's second major contribution has been the shape he has given to Palestinian politics since becoming the leading Palestinian politician in late 2004 and early 2005. After decades of behind-the-scenes work in the shadows of Yasir Arafat, Abbas emerged not only to face the challenges inherent in Arafat's legacy but to set Palestinian politics on a new course. Arafat ran the PLO and the PA in authoritarian fashion based on his charisma and larger-than-life public persona. Despite the existence of political structures, his was a shadowy world of intrigue, rivalries, secret bank accounts, and less-than-transparent governance. Abbas by contrast was more of a technocrat. He lacked Arafat's flair and eschewed a military uniform like Arafat, appearing in public in a simple suit and tie. While still a consummate insider and politician, Abbas was much more willing to work within formal structures and according to procedures. He also respected the democratic process to a much greater degree than Arafat, even bowing to the popular will when it meant sharing power with Hamas after January 2006. However, he made no dramatic gestures to curb the widespread corruption in the PA associated with years of Fatah/Arafat rule. Nor is it clear if he will be able to rehabilitate the virtually defunct PLO.


Global perceptions of Abbas generally have been positive since his emergence on the public scene in 1993. He is perceived both as a pragmatist and a moderate committed to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although it took the world some time to understand the central role he played in the peace process. Of the four Israelis and Palestinians who shared the podium at the Oslo Accords' signing ceremony at the White House in September 1993, for example, Abbas was alone in not receiving the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. During the ceremony, he was not even acknowledged by his full name, but was introduced to the crowd in attendance merely as "Mr. Abbas" of the Palestine Liberation Organization. But he soon was seen in many international quarters as the Palestinian key to a permanent peace, particularly as global attitudes toward Arafat soured. This was especially seen in the intense hopes placed in him by the United States government upon his assumption of the PA prime minister's position in April 2003. President Bush invited Abbas to the White House on July 23, at which time he said, "To break through old hatreds and barriers to peace, the Middle East needs leaders of vision and courage and a determination to serve the interest of their people. Mr. Abbas is the first Palestinian Prime Minister, and he is proving to be such a leader." The White House press secretary Tony Snow reaffirmed Bush's positive view of Abbas three years later, when Abbas challenged Hamas to accept a two-state solution contained in the document forged by Palestinian prisoners, by noting on 6 June 2006, that "once again… [Abbas] has demonstrated that he's somebody who wants to work toward a two-state solution."


It remains too early to assess Abbas's ultimate legacy. Certainly he will go down in history as the Palestinian figure most associated with the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, if not its high drama, as well as the leader who took the Palestinians into a new direction following thirty-five years when Arafat dominated the scene. His ultimate ability to achieve his goals of leading the Palestinians toward an independent and more democratic state alongside Israel remains hostage, however, to powerful forces beyond his ability to control.


Abbas, Mahmud. Through Secret Channels: The Road to Oslo: Senior PLO Leader Abu Mazen's Revealing Story of the Negotiations With Israel. Reading, U.K.: Ithaca Press, 1995.

Beilin, Yossi. Touching Peace: From the Oslo Accord to a Final Agreement. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999.

Ross, Dennis. Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004.

                                    Michael R. Fischbach


If we truly want to achieve true peace, then we have to be satisfied—both sides will have to be satisfied—and I'm here [in Washington] preparing for those permanent status issues. I'm not preparing for other issues. For example, I am a Palestinian refugee. I was born—I was born in another city that is now in Israel. I'm not asking for that part where I was born. All we are asking for is the twenty-two percent of the territories of historic Palestine that will be the future state of Palestine. I'm not asking for more, and I'm not going to allow other people to ask for more. It is very important here that peace should produce satisfaction on both sides. Let us work for peace and let us get what international law and international legitimacy gives.