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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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, http://www.upi.com/InternationalIntelligence/view.php?StoryID=20 (December 19, 2006).
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"Biography of Mahmoud Abbas," MidEast Web, http://www.mideastweb.org/bio-mabbas.htm (December 27, 2006).
"Bio: Mahmoud Abbas," Fox News, November 20, 2004, http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,85531,00.html (December 15, 2006).
"Hamas Rejects Plan by Abbas to Call Elections," Washington Post , December 17, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/16/AR2006121600436.html (December 19, 2006).
"In Abbas, Western Hopes Hang on Thin Reed," New York Times , December 18, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/19/world/middleeast/19assess.html (December 19, 2006).
"Mahmoud Abbas," Biography Resource Center, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC?vrsn=149&OP;=contains&locID;=galetrial&srchtp;=name&ca;=2&AI;=U13002306&NA;=Mahmoud+Abbas&ste;=4&tbst;=prp&n;=10 (December 5, 2006).
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"Rice to Visit in the Mideast Next Month: Abbas," Washington Post , December 27, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/27/AR2006122700675.html (December 27, 2006).