New York Times
November 7, 2004
JERUSALEM, Nov. 6 - Mahmoud Abbas wears a business suit, not a military uniform and kaffiyeh. He is a former elementary school teacher - studious, gracious, pragmatic and opposed to terrorism. He is also tough enough to have been Yasir Arafat's No. 2 for many years in the Palestine Liberation Organization, now becoming his probable successor.
In many ways, he was a crucial Arafat adviser, one of the few Palestinians who studied Israeli history and politics, even as some regarded him as a traitor for doing so. "He studies issues intellectually and then tries to draw political conclusions," said Yossi Beilin, an Israeli politician who negotiated with Mr. Abbas on the draft of a peace treaty.
Mr. Abbas has criticized this latest intifada openly as "a complete destruction of everything we built," having said in June, "We call upon all factions to end the attacks as we wish to take the path toward negotiation. We seek a dialogue that will bring calm."
Reluctantly, in March 2003, he accepted the new post of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority because Mr. Arafat and the United States wanted him to - a vain effort by outsiders to dilute Mr. Arafat's power. Mr. Arafat, never a fool when power is at stake, undermined Mr. Abbas from the start, helped by the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and Mr. Abbas quit in disgust four months later. He even quit the central committee of Fatah, Mr. Arafat's faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization.
A joke at the time has Mr. Arafat and Mr. Abbas in a car, and Mr. Arafat keeps warning him, "Watch out!" Finally, Mr. Abbas complains: "But you're driving!"
Now Mr. Arafat is apparently on his deathbed, and Mr. Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, is moving into the driver's seat. He is placing the current prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, or Abu Ala, next to him.
It will be an enormous test for both, but it is Mr. Abbas, 69, who will be the most visible Palestinian leader - and the one with the most clout, once he takes over, as expected, as the chairman of the P.L.O. and Fatah, its largest faction.
As decent and thoughtful as he is, Mr. Beilin warned, Mr. Abbas has strong views about the right of the Palestinians to share Jerusalem and about the fair treatment of Palestinian refugees from 1948. To secure his position, Mr. Abbas cannot appear to be weaker than Mr. Arafat on central questions of Palestinian identity and self-respect. "Abu Mazen is good for the peace camps on both sides," Mr. Beilin said, "but don't expect him to be 'a moderate Palestinian' - he's a pragmatic one."
Mr. Beilin says that Mr. Abbas will manage to secure stability. "He can work with people, his coalition with Abu Ala is very important as a coalition of the veterans," said Mr. Beilin, who met with Mr. Abbas recently. "They understand that if they don't unite, there will be big problems, so they invested in their ability to work together. It might look like a leadership for a short time, but who knows?"
Equally important, Mr. Abbas has his own channels to militant groups, especially Hamas, which is powerful in Gaza. When he was prime minister, he worked out a short-lived cease-fire with them and the Israelis. "Hamas respects Abu Mazen," Mr. Beilin said.
But Hamas has its own demands in the new collective leadership. It has been asking, at least in Gaza, for a monopoly on the education system, for a requirement that women wear veils and for autonomy in the mosques, so that the Palestinian Authority can no longer replace imams.
Those are the kinds of internal issues that Mr. Abbas will face, Western hopes for final peace settlements aside, and how he responds to them will be watched very closely by Palestinians and Israelis.
Mr. Abbas is not a natural politician, however. He is described by associates as easily offended, one reason that he stayed away from Palestinian politics, never becoming a legislator or a minister before the job of prime minister was invented and became his. It is also why he has no wider political or local base among ordinary Palestinians. He is respected as one of the founders of the Palestine Liberation Organization, even though, as some say, he came a little late - "the fifth of four."
Mr. Abbas was an early Palestinian voice advocating negotiations with Israel and an eventual recognition of it. He initiated dialogue with Jewish and pacifist movements in the 1970's, pushed for a two-state solution, coordinated negotiations at the Madrid conference and headed the Palestinian delegation in secret talks with the Israelis and Mr. Beilin that led to the 1993 Oslo accords.
In fact, Mr. Abbas was the Palestinian who signed the accords on behalf of the P.L.O., as well as an interim agreement with Israel in 1995. He and Mr. Beilin also drafted a framework for a final status agreement in October 1995, although its existence was denied for five years.
He returned to the Palestinian territories in 1995 after 48 years in exile. Born in Safed, a town that is now part of northern Israel, on March 26, 1935, he left as a refugee in 1948 for Syria and became a teacher. He has a law degree from Damascus University and a Ph.D. in history from the Oriental College in Moscow. It was there that he studied the contacts between the Zionist movement and the Nazis, and later published the view, since recanted, that the Nazis killed "only a few hundred thousand Jews."
Mr. Abbas is married and had three grown sons, though the eldest, Mazen, died of a heart attack at age 42. Mr. Abbas himself has survived a bout with prostate cancer.
As prime minister, he was undermined by Mr. Arafat, who refused, as he has to this day, to hand over control of the various Palestinian security services to the prime minister or to allow them to be reorganized.
Mr. Abbas was also undermined by Mr. Sharon, who negotiated slowly with him over confidence-building measures like the release of Palestinian prisoners. In the end, Mr. Sharon carried out a prisoner swap with Hezbollah, the militant group based in Lebanon, and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who is sworn to Israel's destruction, that dwarfed anything Mr. Abbas achieved and created significant bitterness in the Palestinian leadership.
"Had Israel given Abu Mazen, on the issue of prisoners, what it gave its sworn enemy, Hezbollah, many things might have looked different," Zeev Schiff wrote Friday in Haaretz. Had Mr. Sharon given Mr. Abbas, "as a gesture, part of what he is willing to give away free of charge perhaps to Hamas, in the Gaza disengagement plan, that would have breathed life into Abu Mazen's chances," Mr. Schiff continued.
Only three months ago, Mr. Beilin said, Mr. Abbas told him, "Had he gotten the number of prisoners and the quality that Nasrallah got from Sharon, and had the idea of Gaza withdrawal been suggested to him, he would have remained prime minister."
Mr. Beilin said, "A lot depends on the good will of Israel, and whether we want to help the moderate leadership or not. We didn't before." The point is not to embrace Mr. Abbas and Mr. Qurei, which would damage them, but to talk to them in public, something Mr. Sharon has always refused to do with Mr. Arafat.
Mr. Sharon's adviser, Raanan Gissin, said Israel is aware of the opportunities. "Down the road at least there's some reason for hope," he said. "We won't do anything to hamper or torpedo any emerging leader who wants to change the course. A new Palestinian leadership must begin to deal with terrorism. Terrorists can't continue to rule the streets, and this tiger has to be put back into a cage. If a new leadership can make even a partial effort, we can resume dialogue, both on Gaza withdrawal and on the road map," which lays out steps for a peaceful settlement.
"We will give a new leadership more than a period of grace," Mr. Gissin added. "We will show restraint, and we believe they'll respond in kind. But they need to make a departure from the heritage of Arafat, of terrorism, of hatred and incitement that leads to suicide bombers. They have to extract the poison. It's a process, and slow, but it has to start."
As for Mr. Abbas's complaints about Mr. Sharon, Mr. Gissin said, "Well, it's easier to put the blame on Israel than on the one who delegitimized him, Arafat."
Hisham Ahmad, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University, is skeptical about Mr. Abbas's ability to win credibility from Palestinians. "Arafat was down-to-earth, a people's leader, and while there are many other talented Palestinians, talent is not sufficient for leadership."
Whatever Mr. Abbas and Mr. Qurei try to project, Mr. Ahmad said, "none of them can fill a modicum of the role he played internally, in the region and in the world at large." As for the Israelis, "they will realize that whether they liked Arafat or not, no other Palestinian leader even in the medium term can deliver a balanced solution as Arafat could have done."