Key Player: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
A founding member of the Fatah Party, Abbas was viewed as a pragmatist and moderate. His party’s majority in the Palestinian parliament, however, was eliminated when the more hard-line group Hamas secured 76 of 132 seats in January 2006 elections. Nonetheless, Abbas decided to remain in his post.
Abbas was born in 1935 in the Northern Palestinian town of Safad during the British Mandate, the post-World War I period when Great Britain controlled much of the Middle East. After the foundation of Israel in 1948, Abbas left his home, seeking refuge in neighboring Syria. There, he worked as an elementary school teacher and earned a bachelor’s degree in law from Damascus University. He furthered his education at Oriental College in Moscow, obtaining a doctorate in the history of Zionism.
Abbas began his political career while employed as a personnel director in Qatar’s civil service after completing his education. During that period he began organizing a network of Palestinian refugees, many of whom would play key roles in the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
By the late 1950’s Abbas had co-founded Fatah, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, with Yasser Arafat. Abbas accompanied Arafat into exile in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia.
The formerly underground Fatah became mainstream in 1965 and by 1968, had assumed principle authority in the Palestinian National Council.
An advocate for a peace, Abbas began a dialogue with left-wing Jewish and pacifist groups prior to official negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. In 1977, a two-state-solution became the basis for the “principles of peace” that Abbas negotiated with Israeli Gen. Matityahu Peled.
Abbas headed the PLO’s Department of National and International Relations from 1980 until he replaced the assassinated Khalil al-Wazir in 1988 as chairman of the Portfolio on the Occupied Territories, charged with many functions in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Throughout the 1990s Abbas maintained a key role in mediating a possible settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was credited with much of the coordination of the Oslo peace process and signing the Declaration of Principles in 1993. Abbas also was a signatory of the Interim Agreement adopted in September 1995.
After 48 years in exile, Abbas was allowed to return to Israel. He established homes in Ramallah and Gaza. His long years away from his family’s home helped make him, according to many who know him, a strong advocate of the Palestinian “right of return.”
Despite a falling out with Arafat, the U.S.-backed Abbas was named prime minister in March 2003. Though Abbas and Arafat disagreed on tactics for policing Palestinian militants — Abbas denounced unauthorized possession of weapons and hinted at crackdowns on militia groups — the prime minister and his cabinet won a 51-18 vote of confidence from the Palestinian parliament in April of the same year.
The power struggle between Abbas and Arafat continued until September 2003, when Abbas resigned and Arafat named Ahmed Qurei, another member of the Fatah Party, as his replacement.
Following Arafat’s death in November 2004, Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, a move welcomed by the United States, which pledged $350 million in aid to the Palestinians for schools, hospitals and security facilities.
After Hamas gained a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament and refused to renounce violence or recognize Israel’s right to exist, the United States and European Commission halted aid payments to the government and redirected some funds to humanitarian projects.