Abbas' origins in Safed have coloured his
political career

A long-term Palestinian Authority stalwart, new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has emerged in recent months from a low-profile role as secretary general of the Palestinian Authority to the full international glare of being the chief Palestinian decision-maker.

Touted by politicians in Washington and London as the Palestinian moderate who will rescue the Israelis and Palestinians from the circle of violence they are caught in, Abbas has been embraced by US President George Bush who declared himself "pleased" at his appointment and called him "a man I can work with". British Prime Minister Tony Blair often refers to him by his nickname, Abu Mazen.

 

Being championed by the US and Britain, however, could be a double-edged sword, especially given Abbas' lack of strong grassroots support amongst Palestinians. In some circles, he is often discounted as an Israeli appeaser.

 

Writing in the Lebanon Daily Star recently, former Jordanian ambassador Ali Abunimah argued that Abbas will be promoting Israeli interests.

 

“Abbas is being promoted not because he represents the future for the Palestinians, but precisely because he represents a past in which private profit and privilege were secretly traded for fundamental rights and interests of the Palestinian people,” Abunimah wrote.

 

Less and less room for manoeuvre: Arafat is
being eased out by Tel Aviv and Washington
The writer quoted a 1996 article by British journalist David Hirst in the Guardian in which he claimed that the Israelis had so "penetrated" the security forces "that some of its leaders now depend on them at least as much as they do on Arafat. The time is coming when the Israelis decide that Arafat - who argues too much – has served his purpose."

 

The official quoted by Hirst claimed that "the Israelis are grooming Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], one of the secret negotiators of the Oslo accord, to take Mr Arafat's place, and that they will count on Muhammad Dahlan, head of Preventative Security in Gaza, to lead the putsch."

 

Abunimah went on to say that although “seven years ago such fears and infighting could be dismissed as so much paranoia”, the recent denouement between Abbas and Arafat – in which Abbas insisted that Dahlan be placed in charge of security – tempts “even the most level-headed observer to see in this a conspiracy.”

 

Background

Born in what is today north Israel, Abbas was one of the first wave of refugees to flee Palestine in the 1948 war. Despite his middle-class, intellectual image today, his early years were poverty-stricken.

Arriving in Syria at the age of 13, he left school and worked for two years in Damascus, selling figs to help support his family. But he went on to study law in Damascus and Cairo and completed a doctorate in the history of Zionism from the college of Oriental Studies at Moscow University.

Abbas has spent most of his life away from
Palestine, living in Cairo, Damascus,
Moscow and Doha

His path back to the occupied territories lay through 13 years spent working at a ministry in Qatar, during which time he helped set up a political leadership-in-exile for the Palestinians. His underground activities in Doha led him to recruit a group of Palestinians to the cause who went on to occupy key positions in the PLO.

In 1965, he was one of the founders of Fatah, the Arafat-led faction that still dominates Palestinian society. Abbas managed finances for the movement, which became the core of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

When the PLO moved its base to Lebanon in the 1970s, Abbas distanced himself from the group’s armed activities and stayed in Syria. He took on an important security position and developed his role by cultivating influential Arab politicians and - more controversially - Israeli left-wing and liberal groups.

Breaking down the wall

Abbas’ willingness to speak to Israelis was unheard of at the time. Issam Sartawi, a Palestinian politician who delivered a dramatic speech in the 1970s to the Palestinian National Congress backing the same position, had been assassinated. Abbas later said that he had encouraged Sartawi to make his move as part of a policy of pushing Palestinian intellectuals to start a dialogue with the Israeli left.

Getting to the point of embracing normalisation with Israel was the culmination of a lengthy intellectual process firmly rooted in Abbas' life experiences and many years observing the toss and turn of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the early 1960s, Abbas turned against Egyptian president Gamal Abd Al Nasser’s pan-Arabist ideology and came to the conclusion that other Arabs would do little for the Palestinians.

 

Palestine's first prime minister is embarking
on a diplomatic obstacle course

Having discounted the connection with pan-Arabism as futile, Abbas concluded that the Palestinians must accept coexistence with their more powerful and advanced Israeli neighbours. The only way forward is through dialogue, he reasoned.

 

Although this trend was a whispered suggestion in the early 1960s, it became a stronger conviction following the crushing defeats inflicted by Israel on Arab armies in 1967 and again in 1973.

 

The move towards a full recognition of Israel and a distancing from relying on the Arabs led to the opening of negotiation channels with the Israelis early in 1974, one year after the 1973 defeat of the Egyptian and Syrian armies.

 

Abbas' approach to tackling the Israeli-Palestinian struggle led to him becoming the architect of the Oslo peace process and accompanying Arafat to the White House in 1993 to sign the Oslo accords.

 

The moderateness Abbas has been credited with was on show in the speech he gave in April to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Saying many of the things Israel and the United States wanted to hear, Abbas condemned terrorism, pledged to round up weapons held illegally by armed resistance groups and promised a clampdown on corruption.

Delivering the speech on Israel’s annual memorial day for the six million Jews killed by Nazis in the Second World War, the new prime minister also displayed sensitivity to Jewish feelings in a comment that aides said was his own work rather than that of speechwriters.

“We do not ignore the sufferings of the Jews throughout history,” he said. “In exchange, we hope that the Israelis will not turn their backs on the sufferings of the Palestinians.”

A tactical choice

But outside the international spotlight, Abbas qualifies his condemnation of Palestinian violence against Israeli as a tactical rather than a moral stand.

Palestinian nationalists fear that Abbas is
too pro-Israeli to handle peace negotiations
over the future of Palestine

"Many people diverted the uprising from its natural path and embarked on a path we can't handle, with the use of weapons," he has said. "What happened in these two years, as we see it now, is a destruction of everything we built."

Abbas - who believes that Sharon is insincere about making peace with the Palestinians - thinks the Israeli prime minister could be out of power in three to six months should the Palestinians pursue a non-violent policy. He could then get on with talking peace with Israel's moderate political class.

"We should not allow [Mr Sharon] to take us to where he wants, which is military confrontation, but we should impose our agenda on him and take him to the position that he dislikes, which is negotiation," he told Fatah leaders.

The right to return

Abbas maintains that his willingness to talk with Israelis does not imply a climbdown from his bedrock positions, such as the principle that Palestine's refugees return to their old homes.

His origins in the hilly town of Safed in Galilee - what is now northern Israel - may have had something to do with his insistence that all Palestinian refugees be granted the right of return. In the newly-formed Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen held the refugee file and promoted the issue enthusiastically.

It is his view that "everyone should first be granted the right of return, but then we have to sit down and discuss the details that have to be jointly agreed upon and mutually acceptable to both sides."

One of the first wave of Palestinian refugees to have left British Mandate Palestine, Abbas’ support for the right to return is unlikely to endear him to the current pro-settlement, right-wing government that is said to be mulling mass expulsions of Palestinians from the occupied territories.

Successive Israeli governments have dreaded the prospect of an influx of Palestinian refugees that would tilt the demography of Israel against them and erase the Jewish nature of the country.

Yossi Beilin, the Israeli peace negotiator who got to know Mr Abbas well over the years, has said of him: "Abu Mazen has remained a Palestinian secular nationalist. He says everywhere that he will not abandon his dream to return to Safed where he was born. He is trying to get recognition of what he considers a Palestinian right."