Mahmoud Abbas, President of Palestine
Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was born in Safad on March 26, 1935. He left as a refugee for Syria in 1948 and worked as an elementary teacher. He later gained a BA in law from Damascus University and a Ph.D. from the Oriental College in Moscow in History (on supposed contacts between the Zionist movement and the Nazis). He worked as director of personnel in Qatar’s civil service and began to manage and organize Palestinian groups. He was a founding member of Fatah and a member of the Palestine National Council (since 1968) and the PLO Executive Committee. Abbas has headed the PLO Department for National and International Relations since 1980 and was elected by the PLO Executive Committee to replace Abu Jihad (assassinated in April 1988) as chairman of the portfolio on the Occupied Territories in May 1988. He was elected the Committee’s secretary general in 1996, informally confirming his position as Yasser Arafat’s deputy. Abbas was the first PLO official to visit Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War in January 1993 and “apologized” to the Gulf countries for the PLO’s stand during the crisis.
Abu Mazen is considered one of the leading Palestinian figures devoted to the search for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He advocated negotiations with Israelis and initiated a dialogue with Jewish and pacifist movements in the 1970s. He led negotiations with Matiyahu Peled that resulted in the announcement of “principles of peace” based on a two-state-solution in January 1977. He also coordinated the negotiation process during the Madrid conference. His long contacts with Israeli leftists won him a reputation as a PLO dove and he headed the Palestinian negotiating team to the secret Oslo talks. It was Abbas who signed the 1993 peace accord with Israel on September 13, 1993, on behalf of PLO. Abbas has been the head of the PLO Negotiating Affairs Department since 1994 and signed the Interim Agreement in September 1995 on behalf of PLO.
He returned to the territories in September 1995 after 48 years in exile and took residences in Gaza and Ramallah. Abbas authored an account on the Oslo negotiations entitled Through Secret Channels: The Road to Oslo (1995). Together with his Israeli counterpart Yossi Beilin, Abbas drafted a controversial “Framework for the Conclusion of a Final Status Agreement Between Israel and the PLO” (better known as Abu-Mazen-Beilin Plan) in October 1995 (although its existence was denied for five years before being published in Sept 2000). He headed (with Uri Savir) the first session of the Israeli-PA final status talks in May 1996.
Though considered a moderate, Abbas also has made numerous radical statements, for example, claiming that the Nazis killed “only a few hundred thousand Jews,” not six million. He has recanted on some of these in recent years.
Abbas served as head of the Central Election Commission for the Palestine Legislative Council elections in Jan.1996. He was elected as a representative for Qalqilya. In March 2003, he was named the first Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, but never was given full authority as Yasser Arafat insisted that all decision be cleared with him. More important, Arafat maintained control over several security services, which further undermined Abbas’s authority. When Abbas explicitly refused to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in the PA, as required by the road map, the peace process faltered.
Abbas was popular in the United States and with most Israelis, but never had the support of more than a tiny fraction of the Palestinian people. Though considered in the Arab world as the brains behind the PLO, he lacked Arafat’s charisma and was considered by many Palestinians too conciliatory toward Israel. He resigned as Prime Minister in frustration on September 6, 2003, after just four months in office. He was replaced by Ahmed Korei.
Following the death of Yasser Arafat, the PA held an election for his successor. Abbas was elected President on January 9, 2005, with 62% of the vote, and sworn in on the 15th.