ABBAS, Mahmoud (Abou Mazen)

Born in 1935 in Safad (Galilea), Mahmoud Abbas studied in Damascus and Moscow. He is, with Yasser Arafat and Faruq Qaddumi (Abu Lutof), one of the remaining founders of Fatah. In 1980, he was elected to the PLO Executive Committee of which he is now the Secretary General (ie. Nr 2 of the PLO). He was appointed head of the PLO Department of National (Arab) Affairs in 1984. He returned to Palestine in July 1995. He is since then the Secretary General of the PLO.

In the seventies, he already played a leading role in encouraging contacts between the PLO and left-wing Israelis. His moderate and pragmatic views caused him trouble with hard-liners of his own camp.

In the early nineties, he officially became a key player in the design of the PLO’s negotiation strategy. Aware of the limits of the Madrid process, his work resulted in the establishment of much of the basis for the eventual secret negotiations which were held with Israel in Oslo, and which led to the Declaration of Principles that Yasser Arafat signed on behalf of the PLO on September 13, 1993 in Washington (see Oslo peace process). His influence on Yasser Arafat was strong and evident. Thereafter, in the follow-up of the agreements, Abu Mazen attended several discussion groups with the Israelis (he headed, among others, the first session of the final status talks on May 5, 1996). He is famed for his high sense of pragmatism and propensity for secret diplomacy; which Israeli negotiators seemed to appreciate. Nonetheless, he expressed some bitterness towards the state of the peace process in the years following the agreement. In 1994 he even refused to become Minister in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).

Abu Mazen is considered to be politically close of Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala). Since the outburst of the Intifada “El Aqsa”, Abu Mazen had called for a halt to armed attacks on Israeli targets to avoid giving Israel a pretext for its armed campaign against the Palestinian autonomy. A broad part of Palestinian population see him too much conciliatory with Israel.

As a high-profile member of the Palestinian leadership, he is respected as a statesman both regionally and internationally. He is recognised by his pragmatism and considered a valuable interlocutor for Israel. Following a campaign by Israel and the US for the dismissal of Yasser Arafat, Abu Mazen was appointed Prime Minister by the Palestinian Legislative Council on the 29th April 2003. After his nomination as Prime Minister the US called for the publication of the ‘road-map’ drafted by the Quartet and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority resumed.

However, Mahmoud Abbas announced his resignation on the 7th of September 2003, following a power struggle with Yasser Arafat over the control of security forces. Arafat’s refusal to hand him over crucial powers, and his maintain of control over several security services limited Abbas’s ability to act, as well as undermining his authority. He maintained in power on a provisional basis until he was replaced by Ahmad Qurei, appointed head of a new emergency cabinet on the 5th of October 2003.

Following the death of Yasser Arafat, on November 11, 2005, Rawhi Fattouh, Speaker of Parliament, took over as provisional leader of the Palestinian Authority until the holding of elections which were to be organized within 60 days. The elections were held on January 9, 2005. Mahmoud Abbas was victoriously elected (62.32%) President of the Palestinian Authority for a term of 5 years. This election was welcomed with optimism by the international community. However, leading Israelis, more circumspect, demand of Mahoumd Abbas an end to assaults against the Hebrew state. Upon his entering into duty, he decided to meet with the principal Palestinian terrorist factions in order to obtain a cease-fire. Ariel Sharon, Israeli Prime Minister, and George W. Bush have declared satisfactory the decisions taken by the President of the Palestinian Authority. On the eve of the summit at Sharm al-Sheikh, US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, encouraged Israelis and Palestinians to find a peace agreement. February 8, 2005, at the end of the summit, Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon formally announced the end of violence between Palestinians and Israelis. After a string of attacks perpetrated by Hamas, Mahmoud Abbas participated in a series of meetings with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The two organizations pledged, then, to sustain a lull.

During the summer 2005, Sharon proceded to the withdrawal of the israelian settlements from the Gaza Strip. Hamas then appeared to be the strongest power in this area. The Hamas subsequently won the elections of january 2006 and sent Ismaïl Haniyeh as Prime Minister of the PA. Following those events, tensions increased between Israël and PA, but also between Fatah and Hamas. A palestinian civil war erupted after a time and ended with the ejection of all Fatah agents from the Gaza Strip by the Hamas, and the creation of a separated government. Since then, no solutions have been found for the palestinian crisis.

By the end of Abbas’ presidential mandate in January 2009, the Palestinian president was declared illegitimate by Hamas authorities. Meanwhile, in November 2008, the Palestine Liberation Organisation had elected Abbas president of the future state of Palestine, and Mr Abbas has remained chairman of the body representing all Palestinian political factions but Hamas. It must be noted that under his presidency and his appointed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the West Bank economy has shown signs of improvement, while Gaza and Hamas, strongly affected by an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, have failed to improve economically.

The popularity of Mahmoud Abbas has become increasingly fragile due to his attempts to appease relations with Israel and the US, while responding to popular Palestinian calls for political and economic progress. His popularity was particularly affected when he failed to appropriately condemn the Israeli offensive in the Gaza strip in December 2008. The Palestinian President suffered another blow to his popularity when he agreed to the postponement of the UN vote on the Golstone report. In fact, some suggest that the election of right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli Prime Minister has rendered difficult a Palestinian strategy, described by the BBC as « increasingly bankrupt to many Palestinians ».

Although Abbas has confirmed his presence at the head of the Palestinian Authority until the next elections due in 2010, he has nevertheless confirmed that he will not be standing for re-election, pointing to a lack of progress in the Peace Process.