Mahmoud Abbas Biography

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Mahmoud Abbas
AP/Wide World Photos.

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.

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.

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

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

Israels prime minister Ariel Sharon, left, meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurie, second right, in Jerusalem for summit discussions on Israeli pullout from Gaza and prospects for peace.  Am
Israel's prime minister Ariel Sharon, left, meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurie, second right, in Jerusalem for summit discussions on Israeli pullout from Gaza and prospects for peace.
© Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Reuters/Corbis.
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).

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