Abbas, Mahmoud

views updated May 23 2018

Mahmoud Abbas

March 26, 1935 • Safed, British Mandate of Palestine

President of Palestinian National Authority

Since the 1970s Mahmoud Abbas has been a key player in Middle East politics, but until the early 2000s he primarily worked in the shadow of Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat (1929–2004). Although a popular and charismatic leader, Arafat was also known for his terrorist tactics and his resistance to working for a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict that had been brewing in the region for decades. (Arab Palestinians had been fighting Jewish Israelis over land rights ever since the Jewish state had been created in 1948.) Abbas, on the other hand, was considered a man of compromise who was devoted to nonviolent negotiation. In 2003 he briefly served as prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), and in January 2005, in the first democratic Arab election, Abbas was voted PNA president. Western nations, including the United States, viewed the newly elected president as a hopeful symbol of peace. Feelings among his own people were mixed as Abbas was confronted with fractured political parties and continued violence during his first months in office.

Born into conflict

In the Middle East, ownership involving the region between the Mediterranean Sea and the banks of the River Jordan has been hotly contested for centuries. It is an area considered to be holy by both Jews and Muslims, and over time it has been occupied by both, with borders shifting based on various pacts. After World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Austria-Hungary, Germany, and their allies) the region was placed under the mandate (or control) of Great Britain. Until the 1940s the British Mandate of Palestine was bordered by Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean Sea.

"We are trying to lead our people to peace and to security, and we want to pave the way for the next generations."

Throughout World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), Jews were persecuted and believed the only way to escape violence and discrimination was to create their own Jewish state and began to migrate to Palestine to be near the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem. As a result the United Nations (an international peace-keeping organization formed after World War II) created the Partition Plan of 1947, which called for Palestine to be divided into two states: Palestine to be occupied by the Arab population and a separate state of Israel for Jews.

Palestinians refused to acknowledge the plan and in 1948 attacked the state of Israel. During what became known as the Arab-Israeli War, pieces of Palestine were taken over by the neighboring countries of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. By the war's end, Palestine proper ceased to exist. Mahmoud Abbas began his life during this historic and turbulent period. He was born on March 26, 1935, in Safed, a town then part of the British Mandate of Palestine, but now an Israeli city. During the war of 1948 his family fled the area and settled in Syria. Abbas grew up in the capital city of Damascus where, as an adult, he taught school while earning a law degree from the University of Damascus. He then attended the Oriental College in Russia, where he earned a Ph.D. in history. According to Abbas's profile, he is one of only a few Palestinians to have formally studied Israeli history and politics.

In the 1950s Abbas became involved in underground (secret) Palestinian politics. While living in Qatar (an independent Arab state located in the Persian Gulf) he, along with other exiled Palestinians, including Yassar Arafat, formed Fatah, a political group that eventually became the leading party in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO was established in 1964 with the goal of creating an independent Arab state in the region by reclaiming land from Israel. It is composed of various Palestinian movements and is recognized by the United Nations as a legitimate representative body of the Palestinian people.

Early proponent of peace

Both Abbas and Arafat rose in the ranks of the PLO. Arafat took a more public role when he became chairman of the group in 1969. Abbas worked behind the scenes as a security adviser and a fund-raiser. He spent much of his time traveling to Arab countries where wealthy Palestinians were eager to support the PLO cause. Abbas also became known as a peacemaker, preferring to distance himself from PLO military actions. Even before official negotiations began between the PLO and Israel, Abbas worked in secret with representatives from various Jewish groups to come up with peaceful methods of resolution. In 1977, in a major break with Arafat and PLO policy, he publicly announced that he was in favor of establishing a two-state (Arab and Jewish) compromise. For most members of the PLO, this was not an option; instead they promoted totally abolishing the Jewish state of Israel.

In the early 1990s, peace talks began in earnest between the prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin (1922–1995), and Chairman Arafat. The result was the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. According to the provisions of the pact, Palestine officially recognized Israel and agreed to put an end to attacks on Israelis. In return, Israel officially recognized the status of the PLO and allowed Arab rule under the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) along the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The Gaza Strip is a highly Arab-populated strip of land that runs along the Mediterranean Sea and is bordered by Israel and Egypt. The West Bank is another territory densely populated by Arabs; it is situated between Israel and Jordan. Both of these territories had been under Israeli control since the Six-Day War of 1967. In 1994 Arafat, along with Rabin, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which is given annually to individuals or organizations who are key instruments of peace. Although Arafat received the award, many believed that it was Abbas who was truly the mastermind behind the peace accords. In fact, when Chairman Arafat signed the Oslo Accords in Washington, D.C., he was accompanied by Abbas.

In 1996 Arafat was elected president of the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, Abbas had gained increasing power within the PLO, becoming secretary general of its executive committee. The two worked in close conjunction, although more and more Abbas started to become the public face of the PLO, in part because of his continued diplomatic duties. In addition President Arafat faced the problem of trying to control the various PLO groups. Although he had promised an end to violence through the Oslo Accords, several radical PLO military factions, including Hamas, denounced the agreement, claiming Arafat had betrayed his people. As a result, conflict continued between PLO and Israeli militants.

Peace unravels

Conflict continued to escalate, and peace negotiations began to unravel as the twenty-first century approached. When Benjamin Netanyahu (1949–) was elected prime minister of Israel in 1996, he attempted to stall Palestinian statehood; when Ehub Barak (1942–) took over as prime minister in 1999, negotiations were again attempted, but without success. At the 2000 Camp David Middle East Peace Summit in America, Barak proposed a compromise: he offered to give Arafat all of the Gaza Strip, but only portions of the West Bank, which would be used as a Palestinian state. Under Barak's proposal Israel would maintain control of Palestine's defense, borders, customs, and water supplies.

Arafat refused the proposal, and in September 2000 the al-Aqsa Infitada, or Second Infitada, was launched. In Arabic infitada means "uprising" or "shaking off." In this case the Palestinians felt they were justified in using excessive force to rid themselves of Israeli occupiers who had supposedly taken their land. As a result there were almost daily eruptions of violence, including suicide bombings, aimed at both civilians and political leaders. New Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon (1924–; elected 2001) accused Arafat of supporting PLO acts of terrorism and refused to negotiate with him any further. Since Abbas had become well known and respected for his middle-of-the-road views, the United States and Israel pressured Arafat to appoint him prime minister.

Arafat reluctantly appointed Abbas prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority on March 19, 2003; the two did not work together well. Arafat refused to share any real political power with the new prime minister and Abbas openly denounced the infitada and pushed for a massive restructuring of Arafat's administration, which had for years been accused of corruption. There were tentative steps toward peace resolution with Israel when Abbas met with Prime Minister Sharon for a summit in June 2003. The negotiations, however, were cut short when PLO terrorist groups, including Hamas, continued to wage covert attacks on Israel—attacks that were supposedly supported by Arafat. Regardless of whether Arafat was behind the attacks, he prevented Abbas from using Palestinian military forces to suppress the uprisings.

A frustrated Abbas turned for help to the Palestinian parliament (the rule-making segment of government), claiming he would resign if members would not help enforce a cease-fire. On September 4, 2003, just six months into his term, Abbas made good on his promise and submitted his resignation. He maintained that because of constant opposition from Arafat and members of parliament he could not move forward. In later interviews Abbas also revealed that death threats had been mounting and fear for his own safety prompted his decision. He also feared for the safety of his family; Abbas is married and has three sons.

Arafat's successor

According to a 2004 Time magazine article, shortly before his resignation a friend asked Abbas when he thought the Palestinian situation would improve. He supposedly replied, "When that man in there changes out of his khaki uniform." Abbas was referring to Arafat, who was known as a showman in public and who typically wore a trademark military outfit and a kaffiyeh, the traditional Arab headdress. Abbas, on the other hand, tended to steer clear of the spotlight, and when in public dressed in understated Western-style suits.

Although he resigned Abbas did not disappear entirely from politics. He maintained contact with key PLO leaders and continued his attempts to work with various Jewish groups. In a surprising turn of events, he was forced back into public view when President Arafat suddenly died on November 11, 2004. Abbas was viewed as Arafat's natural successor, and shortly after the president's death he was named chairman of the PLO. Not all PLO representatives, however, agreed with the choice. At a memorial service given for Arafat on November 14, gunfire erupted through the crowd, killing two bystanders and injuring four. Abbas emerged unharmed, but the event was considered an assassination attempt.

Despite personal peril, when Fatah approached Abbas and asked him to be their candidate in the upcoming January 2005 presidential election, the new chairman agreed. Over the next few months the world waited in anticipation for the results of what the press called the first truly democratic election held in the Arab world. More than one million Palestinians registered to vote, and on January 9, a reported 65 percent turned out at the polls. On January 10, after the ballots were counted, Abbas was announced president of the Palestinian National Authority, having taken approximately 66 percent of the vote. Although he was the decided winner, controversy still surrounded the election since many PLO factions, including Hamas, had refused to participate.

Frustrating first months

Western nations, including the United States, saw Abbas's victory as a hopeful sign for the future of the Middle East, but they also acknowledged that the new president faced an uphill battle. PLO militant groups openly resisted his authority. They made a strong statement on January 16, 2005, the day of Abbas's swearing in, by launching a mortar attack against an Israeli outpost along the Egyptian border. Faced with such bold opposition, Abbas was forced to act fast, a quality he was not known for. According to a 2005 Time magazine article, one senior Palestinian official described him as a very careful planner: "He's Mr. Calculator every time he makes a move."

During his first month in office, however, Abbas went against character and showed quick daring and resolve. On February 8, 2005, he attended a summit with Prime Minister Sharon, hosted by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak (1928–) in Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt. Both sides agreed to a cease-fire, with Abbas promising to crack down on Palestinian terrorists. Encouraged by the truce, the United States announced that international meetings would take place to move the Middle East peace process along smoothly. Sponsors of what was being called the Mideast Road Map included the United States, Russia, and the United Nations. The goals of the Road Map were to secure an official end to Israeli-Palestinian violence and to fully institute an independent Palestinian state. As a sign of good faith, U.S. president George W. Bush (1946–) pledged $350 million in aid to help rebuild Palestinian territories that had been ravaged during the many years of conflict.

As part of the summit pact, Israel agreed to release Palestinian prisoners, evacuate Israelis from cities along the Gaza Strip, and transfer more control to Palestinians in the West Bank. Sharon was clear, however, that peace talks would not move forward unless Abbas disarmed the Hamas militants. Shortly after the summit, Hamas terrorists launched an attack on Israeli communities along the Gaza Strip and Hamas gunmen raided a military base in Gaza City. In response Abbas fired twenty-five top security officials and visited Hamas leaders in person, demanding an immediate end to the aggression.

On June 21, 2005, Sharon and Abbas met again for renewed summit talks, but reached a virtual stalemate over the future of the region. Following the cease-fire agreement made in February with Hamas, other PLO militant factions, including Islamic Jihad, continued to launch attacks against Israelis. As a result, Sharon accused Abbas of not holding up his end of the bargain. In response, Abbas countered that Israelis were not handing over control of Palestinian territories as promised. According to a report issued by the Economist, some positive changes had occurred: the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers had decreased by 80 percent; more work permits had been issued to Palestinians; and more than thirty roadblocks had been removed in the West Bank, which opened up access for Palestinian work and travel. On the other hand, according to the same report, "children continue periodically to be shot and life continues to be oppressively restricted."

Just getting started

Despite a perceived sense of hope, political analysts and members of the press wondered just how effective Abbas would be. Mortimer Zuckerman of U.S. News & World Report claimed that in his first months as president, Abbas proved to be a "weak leader on all fronts." Zuckerman pointed out that corrupt politicians were allowed to remain in office, terrorist attacks continued almost unchecked, and Abbas was bowing to Hamas leaders by allowing them to participate in government policies. In addition, some wondered whether or not Abbas was truly that different from Arafat, who ultimately pursued an independent Palestinian state at all costs. Representatives from the United States, however, remained positive. As one State Department official told Lisa Stein of U.S. News & World Report, "[Abbas] is doing pretty well, but he's just getting started."

For More Information


Abbas, Mahmoud. Through Secret Channels: The Road to Oslo. Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing, 1995.


Rees, Matt, and Jamil Hamad. "Escaping Arafat's Shadow." Time (March 14, 2005): p. 24.

Rees, Matt, Jamil Hamad, Amany Radwan, and Elaine Shannon. "From the Shadows to Center Stage: Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas." Time (February 21, 2005): p. 26.

Ross, Dennis."Mahmoud Abbas: A Palestinian Plans for Peace." Time (April 18, 2005): p. 67.

Stein, Lisa. "W's New Best Pal—Abu Mazen." U.S. News & World Report (June 6, 2005): p. 14.

"There You Don't Go Again: Israel and Palestine." Economist (June 25, 2005): p. 43.

Zuckerman, Mortimer B. "History Holds Its Breath." U.S. News & World Report (May 9, 2005): p. 75.

Web Sites

Raz, Guy, and Ben Wedeman. "Palestinian Moderate Abbas Claims Victory." World (January 10, 2005). (accessed on August 22, 2005).

Vause, John, and Guy Raz. "Who is Mahmoud Abbas?" World (January 15, 2005). (accessed on August 22, 2005).

Wedeman, Ben, Guy Raz, and Andrea Koppel. "Palestinian, Israeli Leaders Announce Cease-Fire." World (February 9, 2005). (accessed on August 22, 2005).

Abbas, Mahmoud

views updated May 29 2018

Mahmoud Abbas

Born on March 26, 1935 (Safed, Palestine)

President of Palestine
Political activist

For over forty years, Palestinian politician Mahmoud Abbas has been the quiet, reasonable man behind the high theater of Palestinian politics. Unlike longtime Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat (1929–2004; see entry), who provoked confrontation as he placed Palestinian political claims in the media spotlight, Abbas has preferred to work quietly behind the scenes. Yet Abbas took part in many of the key events in the history of the Palestinian people: he was a founding member of Fatah, the organization that leads the PLO; he led Palestinian negotiators in talks that led to the Oslo Accords of 1993, one of the most important milestones in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict; and he was briefly prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, the ruling body of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories (territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967). Following the death of Arafat late in 2004, Abbas came to the attention of the world when he succeeded Arafat as leader of the PLO. When he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority on January 9, 2005, many hoped that Abbas's quiet pragmatism, or practical

"There is absolutely no substitution for dialogue."

approach, could finally help to bring a more lasting peace to a region torn by war since 1948.

Fled Palestine, then organized Palestinians

Only the sketchiest details are known about Abbas's birth and upbringing. He was born on March 26, 1935, in the Arab village of Safed (also known as Safad or Zefat) in Palestine. Palestine at the time was still operating under British mandate, a system of rule that had been in place since 1920. Jews and Arabs clashed frequently in the late 1930s, as both tried to secure rights to control of the territory. In 1948 the United Nations sponsored a plan to create a Jewish state, called Israel, in part of Palestine. The surrounding Arab nations resented this plan, and the two sides fought a war over who would control the territory. The result was a victory for Israel, and a tragedy for the many Palestinians forced from their homes by the fighting. Abbas's family was among the many who fled their homes, leaving for Syria sometime in 1948.

Holocaust Denial?: The Controversy Over Abbas's Dissertation

Material from Abbas's doctoral dissertation, which he wrote in 1982 and published in Arabic in 1984 (the titled is translated as The Other Side: The Secret Relationship between Nazism and Zionism), has been used by Abbas's critics to question his reputation as a reasonable leader. In the dissertation Abbas claimed that during World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan) links existed between German Nazis and Zionists (Jews who urged the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine). Abbas also raised questions over the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust (the extermination of Jews by Nazis in concentration camps during the war). These claims enraged many Jews, who cited them as proof that Abbas was not the rational, nonexcessive man that many believed, but someone who was willing to do anything to fight the Jewish state.

Abbas has publicly distanced himself from the negative interpretations of his work. He was quoted in a BBC News Web site profile as saying that he was merely quoting a debate among historians, and declared that "the Holocaust was a terrible, unforgivable crime against the Jewish nation, a crime against humanity that cannot be accepted by humankind."

Just thirteen years old when he was forced from his country, Abbas finished his education in Syria. After high school he laid floor tiles for a time, and then taught in an elementary school. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Damascus in Syria, then studied law in Egypt. He later received a Ph.D. in history from Oriental College in Moscow, Russia, and the doctoral dissertation that he published became a source of some controversy in both the Jewish and Arabian communities (see sidebar).

In the late 1950s Abbas moved to the Arab nation of Qatar, where he worked as a director of personnel in the civil administration of that country. The late 1950s and early 1960s were an important time for Palestinians. Fleeing from Israel in 1948, thousands of Arabs from Palestine, or Palestinians, lived as refugees in many Arab countries in the Middle East. People like Abbas, Arafat, and others realized that the only way for Palestinians to make their voices heard was to organize. In 1957 they created Fatah, which stood for the "movement for liberation of the Palestinian homeland." Fatah became the leading Palestinian political group. At its founding, Fatah was dedicated to the destruction of Israel as a nation. Eventually, Fatah became the leading group in the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was founded in 1964 to bring together a wide number of Palestinian groups.

Behind the scenes in the PLO

Though Abbas was one of the founders of both Fatah and the PLO, it was Yasser Arafat who was publicly proclaimed as the leader of the Palestinian people. Arafat acted as the spokesman, and he became known around the world for his dramatic statements and appearance in full army uniform carrying weapons. Compared to Arafat, Abbas faded into the background. He traveled with Arafat and the PLO leadership throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, living at times in Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. He was appointed as head of the PLO department of national and international relations in 1980, and eventually became secretary general of the PLO executive committee, the organization's most powerful group. Over the years Abbas earned a reputation as an intellectual and extremely practical man. He thought through the long-term implications of PLO positions and urged its leadership to take an approach that would bring about positive results. He is thought to have been behind secret talks with political groups inside Israel that led to more widespread sympathy for the Palestinian call for an independent state. Abbas always believed that Palestinians could not overcome Israeli opposition through military means, simply because of the vast differences in military power. According to a profile on the CNN Web site, Abbas declared that "The only way [to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict] is the choice of peace. It is impossible to liberate Palestinians with the use of weapons because the balance of power is not with us."

By the 1990s Abbas had a solid reputation and a wide network of contacts on both sides of the conflict. These credentials made him the ideal person to begin a set of secret talks between the PLO and the Israelis in Oslo, Norway, in 1993. Arriving on separate airplanes and meeting in secluded locations, Abbas and his team met with Israeli negotiators to create a historic agreement. Under these agreements, known as the Oslo Accords, both Israel and Palestine recognized each other's existence, Palestinians were given the eventual right to self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and Israeli citizens living in the Occupied Territories were given Israel's protection. The Oslo Accords did not solve all the problems between the two sides, and some of the elements of the agreement had yet to be fulfilled by 2005, but they marked a historic step forward in the conflict. Though Abbas was the PLO representative who signed the agreement on the White House lawn in Washington, D.C., on September 13, 1993, it was Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1922–1995; see entry) of Israel who made the news with their historic handshake and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for their efforts concerning the agreeement.

Can Abbas rescue the Palestinian Authority?

The Oslo Accords helped pave the way for Abbas's climb to the top of Palestinian politics, though not perhaps in the expected way. The Oslo Accords established the Palestinian Authority (sometimes called the Palestinian National Authority) to act as the governing body for Palestinian-held territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Yasser Arafat was the head of the Palestinian Authority. While Arafat had been effective as the fiery leader of an outlaw organization, he was less effective as a governor and administrator. In the years after 1993, Arafat proved unable to control Palestinian militant groups who still wanted to fight against Israel. He also proved unable to bring effective administration of health, education, and other services to Palestinians. Moreover, Israel, the United States, and other nations did not trust Arafat because of his past actions, and they refused to negotiate with him. In 2000 Palestinians in the Occupied Territories began an uprising against both Israeli forces and against Arafat's corrupt government. As the uprising continued, Israeli forces placed him under house arrest in his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Facing the collapse of his government, Arafat turned to Abbas to gain some credibility for the Palestinian Authority. On March 19, 2003, Abbas was named prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Observers around the world applauded the choice: the United States and Israel extended their approval of the appointment, and the New York Times offered the assessment that "Mr. Abbas is the most important reason there is renewed hope for progress in the Middle East." From the very beginning, Abbas's authority was limited by Arafat himself. Abbas lobbied the Palestinian Authority parliament to grant him more authority to negotiate on their behalf and to improve the delivery of services within the territories. He also wanted the power to crack down on Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But he made little progress with his efforts. Publicly claiming that he was unwilling to govern while Arafat was undermining his power, Abbas resigned as prime minister on September 6, 2003, and from that point on broke off all relations with Arafat.

On November 11, 2004, Yasser Arafat died, leaving a huge hole in the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, who had steered clear of the limelight after his resignation, immediately emerged as the likely successor to Arafat as leader of the Palestinians, even though he had never before run for public office. Abbas was not without rivals, but he was the only candidate who offered a reasonable negotiating stance and a plan for ending corruption and bringing efficient government to the Palestinian territories. On November 25, 2004, Fatah endorsed Abbas, virtually assuring his election. Then, on January 9, 2005, in elections that were widely viewed as free and fair, Abbas received over 62 percent of the vote, easily defeating runner-up Mustafa Barghouti (1954–), who received just under 20 percent of the vote.

Abbas's election was hailed as a positive signal for peace in the Middle East. U.S. president George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) promised to assist Abbas in his efforts, and Israel's prime minister Ariel Sharon (1928–; see entry) called Abbas to wish him congratulations. Abbas faced grave challenges as the elected president of the Palestinian Authority where he would have complete control over the Palestinian Authority that he did not have as Prime Minister. To have any success at enacting peace plans, he would first need to address the violence between Palestinian terrorist groups and Israeli defense forces. He would also need to initiate sweeping reforms within a government that had been unable to offer police protection, healthcare services, or competent education to its people. Despite these challenges, Abbas has earned the good will of his adversaries and the admiration of his people for his ability as a wise and practical leader and negotiator. As his term began in early 2005, the world waited to see if those qualities would help in bringing peace to the troubled Middle East.

For More Information


Abbas, Mahmoud. Through Secret Channels. Reading, UK: Garnet, 1995.


"Abbas: A Familiar Power Play." Newsweek (January 10, 2005): p. 6.

"Five Arab Leaders Vow Active Fight Against Violence." New York Times (June 4, 2003).

"Israeli and Palestinian Envoys Meet with Bush Aides." New York Times (May 22, 2003).

"The Palestinians' new leader." Economist (January 6, 2005): p. 10.

Web Sites

"Mahmoud Abbas." Wikipedia. (accessed on January 24, 2005).

"Profile: Mahmoud Abbas." Aljazeera. (accessed on January 24, 2005).

"Profile: Mahmoud Abbas." BBC News. (accessed on January 24, 2005).

"Who Is Mahmoud Abbas?" (accessed on January 24, 2005).

Abbas, Mahmoud

views updated May 14 2018

Abbas, Mahmoud

Selected Writings

President of the Palestinian National Authority

B orn March 26, 1935, in Safed, British Mandate Palestine (now part of northern Israel); married Amina; children: three sons. Education: University of Damascus, Syria, B. A., 1950s; Moscow State University, Ph.D., 1980s.

Addresses: Office—c/o Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations, 115 E. 65th St., New York, NY 10021.


C o-founded Fatah, 1954; elected to Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee and named head of PLO national and international relations department, 1980; negotiated Oslo Accords, 1993; prime minister of Palestinian National Authority, April 2003 (resigned, September 2003); elected president of the Palestinian National Authority, 2005.


M ahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, has worked for years to achieve an independent Palestinian Arab nation and a peace agreement with Israel. After rising through the ranks of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Abbas was the key Palestinian negotiator of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which brought eight years of peace with Israel as well as limited self-government for Palestinians. But quarrels with other Palestinian leaders have wounded Abbas’ attempts to negotiate a permanent treaty that satisfies his people’s grievances and ends Israel’s four-decade occupation of Palestinian lands. During a stormy few months as Palestinian prime minister in 2003, Abbas struggled over power with former ally Yasir Arafat. After Arafat’s death in 2004, Abbas succeeded him as president of the Palestinian National Authority. But conflicts with the radical Palestinian group Hamas have sapped Abbas’ power and greatly complicated his attempts to find common ground with Israel.

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was born on March 26, 1935, in Safed, a town that is now part of Israel. At the time, it was part of British Mandate Palestine, the territory that comprised present-day Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. He was 13 when Israel was founded and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 broke out. He and his family fled to Syria. “I remember everything,” he once told Stephen Erlanger of the New York Times. “It was 1948 when we [were] deported from Safed to the Golan Heights to Damascus, and I remember every specific point. There was a war. We had to leave the city. The Israelis invaded the city, the Haganah at the time. We left our country.”

Abbas earned a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Damascus in Syria in the early 1950s. In the late 1950s, while living in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, Abbas helped organize a group of Palestinian Arab leaders who eventually became key leaders in the PLO. He and Arafat co-founded Fatah in 1954, which became the most dominant political faction in the PLO, with the goal of creating an Arab nation in Palestine. After the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel occupied Palestinian Arab territories, the PLO became more prominent. It established itself as the main representative of Palestinian Arabs and advocated their desire for their own nation. The PLO carried out several guerrilla and terrorist attacks on Israel. During this time, Ab-bas, Arafat, and the PLO’s other leaders lived in exile in other Arab nations, such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia.

As Abbas rose in the PLO leadership, he got to know many Arab leaders and the heads of their intelligence services. He became a successful fund-raiser for the PLO and assumed a key security position with the group. Meanwhile, he began a dialogue in the 1970s with Jewish pacifist and left-wing movements. In 1980, he was elected to the PLO executive committee and named to lead the organization’s national and international relations department.

During the early 1980s, Abbas earned a doctorate in history in the then-Soviet Union. His doctorate and the book he adapted it into, The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism, attracted controversy as he rose to power. His comparison of Zionism, the ideology of Israeli Jewish nationalism, with Nazism was highly provocative simply because Nazis exterminated six million Jews in the 1940s. Also, some Jewish groups have argued that the book was an example of Holocaust denial. They said Abbas accused Jews of working with the Nazis and also minimized the number of victims of Nazi murders. Abbas denied the charges in 2003. “The Holocaust was a terrible, unforgivable crime against the Jewish nation, a crime against humanity that cannot be accepted by humankind,” he said, according to BBC News.

Abbas spent the 1980s as a close adviser to Arafat and became known as a moderate voice within the PLO. In 1993, Abbas negotiated secretly with Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres in Norway to reach a peace agreement. Their work resulted in the Oslo Accords, the 1993 agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that led to eight years of peace. The PLO renounced violence against Israel as part of the accords. Israel allowed for the creation of the Palestinian National Authority, which provided limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza, two Palestinian Arab territories Israel had occupied since the 1967 war.

After the peace agreement, Abbas briefly visited his old hometown in Israel in 1995. “I did go back, but secretly,” he told Erlanger of the New York Times. “The Israeli ministry of interior helped me to go discreetly there. I was there for five or ten minutes only,” he said. “I was very, very sad. I was very sad. Every place, every quarter, every building I remember. I saw my house. But I didn’t go inside.” A refugee himself, Abbas passionately advocates for the right of Palestinians who left Israel in 1948 to return there or to be compensated for the loss of their homes—a major issue in all peace negotiations between the two sides.

Peace between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in the early 2000s after the failed talks between Arafat, the Palestinian National Authority’s president, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David, Maryland, in 2000. A new Palestinian uprising broke out in 2001. Abbas was opposed to the uprising, viewing it as extremely damaging to attempts to establish an independent Palestinian country.

Expectations were high in April of 2003 when Ab-bas became prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, making him the second most powerful official in the government, below Arafat. In a speech to the Palestinian parliament just before it elected him, Abbas declared he was in favor of a “lasting peace” with Israel and renounced terrorism “by any party and in all its shapes,” according to James Bennet of the New York Times. He called on various Palestinian radical groups to join the political process and defer to the Palestinian National Authority’s decisions. “On this land and for this people, there is only one authority, one law, and one democratic and national decision that applies to us all.” In a conciliatory gesture to Israel, he said, “We do not ignore the sufferings of the Jews throughout history. And in exchange, we hope the Israelis will not turn their backs on the sufferings of the Palestinians.” He called for Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands. “The root of our suffering and the source of our pain is the occupation and its detestable oppressive policies,” he said.

Many observers hoped Abbas would move the Pal-estinians and Israelis closer to peace; however, Arafat refused to cede much power to Abbas. The two quarreled over who would control the Palestinian security forces. It was the first time that Arafat had let a prime minister form a cabinet instead of forming one himself, and he had done it only in response to international pressure. In September, after several stormy months of conflict with Arafat, Ab-bas resigned.

Arafat died in November of 2004, and the PLO namedAbbas its chairman. That made him the leading candidate to succeed Arafat as Palestinian president. He ran for the post as the candidate of the Fatah faction. In January of 2005, Palestinians elected him to a five-year term as president by a wide margin.

A month later, Abbas met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. There, the two leaders agreed on a truce. Abbas soon declared that the war between Israel and the Palestin-ians was effectively over. “I believe we will start a new era,” he told Erlanger of the New York Times.

However, Abbas’ optimism was short-lived. By the time he took over Fatah, it had been in power for eleven years, and many Palestinians felt it had become ineffective and corrupt. In January of 2006, Fatah lost Palestinian elections to the more radical group Hamas. The Hamas victory left Abbas with much less power: He was in charge of the Palestinian National Authority’s security forces and foreign policy, but little else. Israel and Western nations considered Hamas a terrorist group, and Hamas would not renounce violence or recognize Israel’s right to exist, therefore Israel cut off the tax revenues that paid many salaries for Palestinian National Authority officials, and the United States and European Union cut off most aid to the Palestinians.

In March of 2007, Abbas and Hamas agreed to form a unity government, with both Hamas and Fatah in the cabinet. But it did not last long. Street fighting between Fatah and Hamas loyalists broke out in Gaza in June 2007, and ended with Hamas taking over Gaza. Abbas responded by dismissing Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah of Hamas, forming a new cabinet without Hamas, and solidifying his government’s control over the West Bank. In September, Abbas told Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post that he supported the United States’ attempt to isolate Hamas. “In the beginning, I believed that they were mistaken, but now we are in the same position. I am against Hamas,” he said. That November, after three Hamas policemen shot and killed seven civilians at a Fatah rally in Gaza, Abbas called for Hamas to be ousted from power there. “We must topple this gang that took control of the Gaza Strip by force and that is exploiting the suffering and tragedies of our people,” he said in a televised speech, according to Taghreed El-Khodary and Isabel Kershner in the New York Times.

In November of 2007, Abbas met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Annapolis, Maryland, for a peace conference sponsored by the United States. There, Abbas and Olmert agreed to negotiate a peace treaty by the end of 2008 that would outline how Arab Palestine would become an independent country. At the summit, Abbas declared emotionally that it was time for the two sides to confront the toughest issues between them. “I am not making an overstatement, Mr. President, if I say that our region stands at a crossroad that separates two historical phases: pre-Annapolis phase and post-Annapolis phase,” Abbas said to Bush, according to Steven Lee Myers and Helene Cooper of the New York Times. “I say that this opportunity might not be repeated. And if it were to be repeated, it might not enjoy the same unanimity and impetus.”

However, the peace talks soon hit several snags. Abbas suspended them for two months in 2008 to protest Israel’s attacks on Gaza (a response to Ha-mas attacks). Also, a political scandal that threatened Olmert’s job escalated. “Nothing has been achieved in the negotiations with Israel yet,” Abbas declared in late May at a meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, according to Mark Lavie of the Washington Post. Abbas and Olmert continued to talk, with another meeting between the two leaders scheduled for early June of 2008.

Selected Writings


The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism, 1983.



Newsweek, December 6, 2004, p. 32.

New York Times, April 30, 2003; February 14, 2005; November 16, 2007; November 28, 2007; May 11, 2008; May 30, 2008. Washington Post, September 30, 2007, p. B4; May 25, 2008.


Mahmoud Abbas” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia, (May 11, 2008).

“Palestine Liberation Organization” Microsoft En-carta Online Encyclopedia, (May 30, 2008).

“Profile: Mahmoud Abbas” BBC News, (May 11, 2008).

“Times Topics: Mahmoud Abbas”, (May 11, 2008).

—Erick Trickey

Abbas, Mahmoud

views updated May 29 2018

Mahmoud Abbas

Mahmoud Abbas (born 1935) became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) after Yasir Arafat died in November of 2004, and two months later was easily elected president of the Palestinian Authority. He is the leader of Fatah, the nationalist Palestinian political wing whose principal rival, the Islamic Hamas, gained legislative control of the Authority early in 2006. The United States and Great Britain support Abbas, seen as a moderate, instead of Hamas, which has refused to recognize Israel.

His leadership "was meant to open a new, post-Yasir Afarat chapter in Israeli-Palestinian relations in which the peace plan known as the road-map was meant to lead both sides towards resolution," the British Broadcasting Corporation wrote on its BBC News website. "But, on one side the bitter struggle between Israel and Hamas has left him on the sidelines. On the other, the power struggle with Arafat—who had refused to hand over crucial powers to Mr. Abbas—limited his ability to act and took up much of his time." Abbas met late in 2006 with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to discuss peace plans and planned to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2007.

Family Fled to Syria

Abbas, known widely as Abu Mazen, or "Father of Mazen," was born in 1935 in Safed, British Mandate Palestine. His family moved to Syria in 1948, during the Arab-Israeli war that erupted after the United Nations recognized Israel by dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. He worked variously as a laborer and schoolteacher before obtaining his bachelor of arts degree from Damascus University. After studying law in Egypt, he earned his Ph.D. from Oriental College in Moscow. Abbas co-founded Fatah with Arafat in the 1950s while in exile in Qatar, where he was a personnel director in the civil service. He helped recruit several Palestinians who would become important PLO operatives. In addition, he accompanied the PLO leader in Jordan, Tunisia, and Lebanon. "In the early days of the movement, he became respected for his clean and simple living," BBC News wrote. Abbas has also been a member of the Palestine National Council since 1968.

Over the years Abbas worked best behind the scenes. "Mahmoud Abbas always kept to the background, but also built up a network of powerful contacts that included Arab leaders and heads of intelligence services," according to BBC News. He raised considerable money for the organization in the 1970s and was also a security operative. In 1980 Arafat named him head of the PLO's subdivision for national and international relations.

"Abbas has long been considered an exponent of a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," the website MidEast Web wrote. "He advocated negotiations with Israelis and negotiated a dialogue with Jewish and pacifist movements in the 1970s." Some Jewish groups, however, have widely criticized Abbas, in particular for his 1984 book The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism, that evolved from his doctorate. Critics said he understated the number of Jewish deaths during the Holocaust and accused some Jews of working with the Nazi regime. According to BBC News, Abbas denied those charges in a 2003 interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.

Abbas drew widespread praise for his role in the Oslo talks that resulted in the 1993 accord in which Israelis and the PLO agreed on mutual recognition. He accompanied Arafat to the White House for the signing of the Oslo Declaration of Principles at a ceremony with U.S. President Bill Clinton. Abbas has overseen the PLO's negotiating affairs department since 1994. "In the light of his origins in Safed in Galilee—which is now northern Israel—he is said to hold strong views about the right of return of Palestinian refugees," BBC News wrote. In 1996 the PLO elevated him to second in command behind Arafat.

First Head of Palestinian Authority

In March of 2003, Arafat, under pressure from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, appointed Abbas as the first prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. The White House had frozen Arafat out of peace talks. Craig Nelson, in the Australian-based newspaper The Age, summarized the degree of difficulty in Abbas's juggling act. "Your boss is Yasir Arafat, who tries to undercut you at every turn. The president of the United States is pressing you to stop Islamic militant groups from carrying out suicide bombings. The man sitting across from you at the negotiating table—the hawkish, settlement-building Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon—represents everything you have fought against during your career," Nelson wrote in a profile on Abbas. "Compounding your difficulties is the fact that you are not elected." While Abbas never criticized Arafat publicly while the latter was alive, they argued heatedly many times in private.

Abbas quit as prime minister after four months of struggles with Arafat over control of Palestinian security forces. Ahmed Qurei succeeded him. Abbas became PLO chairman after Arafat died in November of 2004, and two months later he was easily elected Palestinian Authority president.

Battled Frequently with Hamas

The United States and Israel looked favorably upon Abbas, who distanced himself from the terror groups and was one of the first Palestinian leaders to recognize Israel's right to exist. But in 2005 and 2006, Abbas's internal struggles intensified. While Fatah, through Abbas, controlled the presidency, Hamas took legislative control of the Palestinian Authority in January of 2006. The following December, Abbas said he would call early elections, including that of his own office, as a way of settling the political disputes that had escalated into violence during the year. "We shall not continue this vicious circle," Abbas, as quoted in the Washington Post, told legislators, religious leaders, and political supporters in Ramallah, West Bank. "Let us go back to the people and let them have their say."

Hamas officials, however, said they would not agree to a new election so early in the four-year term, and questioned Abbas's right to call such an election. "If the president is willing to go to early elections, he can resign and enter an early presidential election," Hamas official Fawzi Barhoun told the Washington Post. "We were elected by the Palestinians, and we are not willing to go through with this experiment. The president's call is illegitimate."

Some observers said Abbas's move was crafted to pressure Hamas to renew stalled talks about a coalition government. But Robert Malley and Henry Siegman in the International Herald Tribune called such a strategy unworkable. It is predicated, they said, on several variables, including the Bush administration earmarking considerable time on the Israeli-Palesntinian conflict and negotiating concessions out of Israel. "None of this is likely to happen, even if Abbas's Fatah group were somehow to replace Hamas in this Western-scripted fantasy, Abbas would be handed his third betrayal by the United States and Israel," Malley and Siegman wrote. They cited Abbas's appointment as prime minister and election as president. "On both occasions, promises were made. At the time of writing, Palestinians are still waiting," they wrote.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the West Bank and Israel in December of 2006 on behalf of Palestinian moderates. "The next few weeks should be a critical time for the Middle East," Blair said, after meeting with Abbas in Ramallah. "If the international community really means what it says about supporting people who share the vision of a two-state solution, who are moderate, who are prepared to shoulder their responsibilities, then now is the time for the international community to respond." Violence, meanwhile, continued to escalate. Five days before Blair spoke, gunmen ambushed the entourage of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, wounding his son. In addition, a security official working for Abbas was seriously wounded in another shooting. Killings continued despite an announced ceasefire. Abbas stood by his call for early elections. "I want the people to choose," he said, according to United Press International.

Hamas has nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Legislative Council. According to the UPI, a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in December of 2006 said if an election were held then, Fatah would get 42 percent of the votes and Hamas 36 percent—and the gap had been widening of late. In addition, the poll said, a presidential election would be too close to call, with Abbas receiving 46 percent, Haniyeh 45 percent, and about nine percent undecided. The UPI's Joshua Brilliant wrote: "One wonders whether Abbas would really order early elections when Fatah and his own lead are so small. Abbas's tactic in threatening to call early elections was to prove Hamsas's policies hurt the Palestinians."

Held Summit with Olmert

On December 23, 2006, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held their first meeting, in Jerusalem, and Olmert promised him during the two-hour session to release $100 million in Palestinian funds that Israel had frozen, and remove some West Bank checkpoints. Olmert had taken over as prime minister after Sharon suffered an incapacitating stroke the previous January. It was the first meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in nearly two years. "Olmert and Abbas, weakened by political troubles at home, are seeking to bolster their positions by showing progress in peace efforts," Joel Greenberg wrote in the Chicago Tribune. Olmert's office, according to the newspaper, released a statement saying the pair had agreed to meet more frequently, and agreed "the time has come to advance the peace process via concrete steps."

The two parties, however, had still not agreed on a prisoner release, a major contention point. Olmert would not free Palestinian prisoners unless the Palestinians would do likewise with Israeli soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit, who has been detained in the Gaza Strip since Hamas militants and two affiliated groups corralled him in a raid the previous June.

Old Guard Would Not Let Go

Abbas announced that Rice would visit the Middle East in January of 2007, as a follow-up to her meetings with Abbas and Olmert late in 2006. He said he would float the idea of a "back channel" for negotiations with Israel. Abbas and Egypt, a pivotal moderator, favor bypassing the prescribed U.S. "road map" for Middle East peace.

Khaled Abu Toameh, in the Jerusalem Post, said Fatah would be beatable in another election. Toameh added: "Ever since Fatah lost the election about one year ago, its leaders have been too busy searching for ways to return to power at any cost."

The majority of Palestinians, Steven Erlanger wrote in the New York Times, perceive Abbas as a "great disappointment." Erlanger quoted Palestinian political analyst Khaled Duzdar as saying Abbas has not declared a state of emergency in the Palestinian territories because he cannot implement one. "Abbas today is a weak reed, with little power to carry out his decrees or his will," Erlanger wrote.

Abbas and his wife, Amina, have three sons, Mazen, Yaser, and Tareq. Abbas also has seven grandchildren. Abbas once had surgery in the United States for prostate cancer.


"Analysis: Blair Tries to Help PA Moderates," United Press International, December 19, 2006, (December 19, 2006).

"Analysis: Same Old Fatah Means Victory for Hamas," Jerusalem Post, December 19, 2006,;=1164881888715 (December 19, 2006).

"Biography of Mahmoud Abbas," MidEast Web, (December 27, 2006).

"Bio: Mahmoud Abbas," Fox News, November 20, 2004,,2933,85531,00.html (December 15, 2006).

"Hamas Rejects Plan by Abbas to Call Elections," Washington Post, December 17, 2006, (December 19, 2006).

"In Abbas, Western Hopes Hang on Thin Reed," New York Times, December 18, 2006, (December 19, 2006).

"Mahmoud Abbas," Biography Resource Center,;=contains&locID;=galetrial&srchtp;=name&ca;=2&AI;=U13002306&NA;=Mahmoud+Abbas&ste;=4&tbst;=prp&n;=10 (December 5, 2006).

"Profile: Mahmoud Abbas," BBC News, January 10, 2005, (December 27, 2006).

"Rice to Visit in the Mideast Next Month: Abbas," Washington Post, December 27, 2006, (December 27, 2006).