The Political Education of Mahmoud Abbas

How the Palestinian leader tried to escape the ghost of Yasser Arafat

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures beneath a poster of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, during a rally marking the anniversary of Arafat's death in Ramallah on November 11, 2014.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures beneath a poster of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, during a rally marking the anniversary of Arafat's death in Ramallah on November 11, 2014. (Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters)

When Israeli tanks besieged Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah in 2002, the Palestinian leader famously declared, “Oh God, grant me a martyr’s death.” Two and a half years later, his wish came true, in part. In November of 2004, the “Old Man” died in Paris after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

Arafat’s death left his party, Fatah, in disarray. The Palestinian leader was unconscious for days, yet when he finally passed away the party he had led for decades seemed unprepared. In the middle of the night, while senior Palestinian politicians argued over who should succeed the Old Man, Mahmoud Abbas—also known as Abu Mazen—sat in the corner, silent. Technically, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)’s bylaws dictated that power should go to him, since he was the organization’s secretary general. Still, some Palestinian officials were not convinced that he was up to the task.

Eventually, it was the members of smaller factions within the PLO that steered the decision in Abbas’s direction. “They [Fatah] quarreled with us, so we said if they don’t do it we’ll do it for them,” remembers Executive Committee member Abed Rabbo. “We told them the Executive Committee’s choice was Abu Mazen. They had to approve it. We said ‘our candidate is Abu Mazen, and if you want someone else, go meet in the next room and get us another name.’ But we could not wait three days. We had to tell people today there was a leader.”

Early in the morning on November 11, 2004, as ordinary Palestinians woke up to the dramatic news of Arafat’s death, Fatah finally came to a decision on his successor: “Abu Mazen it is.”

Just a year earlier, Abbas had resigned from the premiership and was in political exile. He had retained his position as the PLO’s number two, technically, yet many believed his political career was effectively over. But as the reality of Arafat’s death sank in, the only thing the panicked Fatah and PLO leaders could agree on was that protocol should be followed, and protocol meant Abbas would be the guy.

Abbas’s appointment was seen in Washington as the culmination of a multiyear process of weakening Arafat. “I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders,” Bush said in a speech in June 2002, “leaders not compromised by terror.” To Bush administration officials, that meant Abbas.

In Jerusalem, Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, remembered very well how things ended up the last time Abbas took a leadership position; he wasn’t sure how it would work out this time. He decided that Israel would continue with its unilateral disengagement plan, without relying on Abbas. Still, a former senior Sharon adviser said, Abbas was obviously preferable to Arafat, whose death “was not a very sad event, from our point of view.”

Now, all Abbas had to do was actually win an election.

* * *

In 1994, Nader Said, a pollster at the West Bank’s Arab World Research and Development Center, wanted to gauge the thoughts of everyday Palestinians on the newly returned leaders of the PLO. His first survey showed most Palestinians supported Yasser Arafat as president. After the next poll confirmed they preferred Arafat to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a leader of the terror group Hamas, Said received a handwritten note from Arafat, containing only three words: “Eh da, Said!” (“What’s this, Said!”)

More a statement than question, it was in Arafat’s typical Egyptian dialect. The “Old Man” never shook his linguistic upbringing. Then, Said’s pollsters asked who should be Arafat’s vice president. Even though the post didn’t exist, and there was scarce talk of creating it, they wanted a sense of who Palestinians saw as Arafat’s number two. After seeing the results, Arafat sent Said another note: “Eh da, Said!!!!!!!!!!

“Ten exclamation points!” recalled Said laughingly. “So, he was okay with us polling about presidential candidates, but not a vice president.” Arafat’s paranoia loomed large: Naming a number two would give the public another natural leader if and when Arafat stumbled. Arafat rejected even the mere discussion of such a possibility.

And yet, when he did sneak a look at the poll results, Arafat could easily see that there was one man he had absolutely no reason to worry about: his longtime adviser and negotiator, Mahmoud Abbas, who had garnered a measly 1.5 percent of the vote. “At the time, nobody knew Abbas at all,” recalls Said. “Abbas was always in the background. He was never a populist. He was not a people’s person. He didn’t care—not in a bad way—but it’s just not his style. Unlike Arafat, who was always out there, always saying the right things, the sloganeering. Abbas is not into that. He doesn’t give a damn about that.”

* * *

December 28, 2004, was Abbas’s first-ever day on the campaign trail. The 69-year-old Fatah nominee for president had never campaigned for a job, and he was suddenly running for the highest office in the West Bank and Gaza. His advisers knew that, in order to win, the soft-spoken peace negotiator needed to appeal to all of Fatah, not just the bureaucratic elite. That meant Abbas had to go to the beating heart of the Second Intifada to win over Fatah’s militant base: the refugee camp of Jenin, in the northern West Bank. Jenin, home to over 30,000 people, had been an epicenter of the violent clashes with Israel ever since the beginning of the uprising. Winning his party over meant going into unfamiliar territory. “2005 was a continuation of the Second Intifada,” recalls his campaign manager, Mohammad Shtayyeh, and Abbas was about to go into the belly of the beast to “call for the demilitarization of the intifada.”

But he faced an uphill battle. The aging Fatah leader had never mobilized big crowds or captivated packed halls. “Abu Mazen is an elite person, he has a selective audience,” says Shtayyeh. “The biggest group he ever spoke to was maybe the PNC [the parliament of the PLO]. He never went to rallies or demonstrations. That was a big challenge.”

Tensions were high in Jenin at the time. Fatah’s armed wing, the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, had filled a soccer stadium with machine-gun toting supporters, and they were not exactly receptive to Abbas’s nonviolent approach. Abbas entered the stadium cautiously, safe inside his motorcade. When he finally did emerge, it was for the all-important embrace with Zakaria Zubeidi, the most prominent terror chief in Jenin and a media darling. There was perhaps no other figure in Palestinian politics more different than Abbas, both in resume and temperament. Yet Abbas needed to win Jenin, and to win Jenin he needed Zubeidi.

Zubeidi was a tough sell. He had initially supported Marwan Barghouthi, a former colleague within Fatah’s terror wing who launched his own presidential bid from an Israeli prison, where he was serving five life sentences. But when Barghouthi, despite his vast popularity on the Palestinian street, dropped out of the race, Zubeidi decided to fall in line with the Fatah elite. He greeted Abbas warmly in Jenin and hoisted him on top of a mob of supporters. Wearing a scarf bearing the words “Abu Mazen for President” draped around his neck, Zubeidi marched Abbas through town while Abbas waved to supporters. Abbas returned from Jenin victorious: Despite his opposition to the armed struggle, those who participated in it were lining up behind him.

“He promised to continue the public sector reforms that he began in 2003 and were blocked by Arafat,” recalls Ashraf al-Ajrami, a cabinet member under Abbas. “When that promise was combined with his seniority within Fatah and his international standing, it was enough for people to be convinced. People were eager for a change after Arafat’s rule. There was a sense that the armed struggle was over anyway, so now [was] a good time to focus on things like proper government, the economy, and the education system, things that Arafat never really cared about.”

There were at least seven candidates for president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) during the two-month campaign, but the only serious threat to Mahmoud Abbas came from Mustafa Barghouthi, a physician and long-time political independent. Barghouthi, a distant relative of the terror leader Marwan, had run for the PA’s parliament in 1996 but narrowly missed getting a seat. In the heat of the Second Intifada, Barghouthi and several prominent Palestinian academics had formed a new third party called Al-Mubadara, or the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI). The party’s platform was simple: It opposed the Israeli occupation and pledged full support to Palestinian refugees abroad. Now, that party was his platform for staging a presidential run.

While Barghouthi was campaigning in Jerusalem and across the West Bank, Abbas was limiting his public appearances and allowing Fatah to mobilize on his behalf. Fatah was the best-organized political vehicle in the West Bank; if the party endorsed a candidate, that candidate had the support of party cadres in every village and town. Meanwhile, Barghouthi was harassed in Hebron by rival parties and was even briefly detained by the Israelis for campaigning in Jerusalem. Did Abbas face such Israeli restrictions? “No, of course not. There were no restrictions. But he didn’t go to Jerusalem anyhow.”

But Abbas and Fatah ran a smart campaign. They conducted city-specific polls and made sure their people in each city were addressing the most relevant issues among Palestinians. Whereas Barghouthi’s slogan was “Put our issue in trusted hands,” Abbas’s was “Peace and reduction of poverty.” His campaign advisor remarked that he used to repeat a verse from the Koran in every stump speech and interview: “The one who fed them and the one who secured them from fear.” The 106th sura seemed a natural slogan for the lifelong negotiator and reformer.

The elections on January 9, 2005, were largely seen as free and fair. An observer mission led by former president Jimmy Carter concluded they were a “clear expression of the democratic will of the Palestinian people.” However, the monitors noted that last-minute rule changes that allowed Palestinians to vote simply by presenting identification without having pre-registered were “problematic.” They concluded that “some people took advantage of the rule change to cast more than one ballot.”

Clearly, Fatah had no intention of allowing any other party to try to succeed Arafat, the founder of the national movement. Was there ever a thought that Abbas might lose the election? “No,” Shtayyeh said.

The first exit polls proved that Abbas’s confidence was justified: They showed him winning 66 percent of the vote to Barghouthi’s 19 percent. Abbas was ready to exhale. “Victory is beautiful,” he told reporters, “but it will be more beautiful to fulfill the pledges.” Abbas insisted his priority as president would be to meet with Sharon as soon as possible, and soon after he declared victory he received a congratulatory call from President Bush. Bush then did what he had never done for Arafat: He invited Abbas to Washington.

* * *

One week after his victory, Abbas gave his inaugural address before the PA’s parliament. “I dedicate this victory in the name of our whole people to the soul and memory of our eternal leader, the symbol of our cause, Yasser Arafat,” declared Abbas. “It was he who planted the first seed of this democratic process, it was he who held its banner high, and it was he who consolidated its traditions. Our respect and gratitude go to your noble soul, Abu Ammar, on this day of Palestinian democracy.”

Abbas then got down to brass tacks. His goals as president were simple: End the Second Intifada, reform the PA, and push to renew the peace process. To do so, the longtime negotiator would have to reorient the Palestinian national project. He viewed his election as a referendum of popular support for his mission. “To achieve these national goals,” he intoned during his inaugural address, “we will remain committed to the PLO’s strategic choice: the choice of achieving just peace and our national goals through negotiations. The path to these goals is what we and the world have agreed upon in the road map. … We will implement our obligations as a matter of Palestinian national interest. In return, Israel has to implement its obligations.”

Israel and the United States were more than happy with the change of leadership. Condoleezza Rice writes that the United States “welcomed Abbas’s election by offering to donate $200 million annually to the Palestinians,” as well as having President Bush encourage “the wealthy Persian Gulf states to dramatically increase their aid.” A week after Abbas’s inaugural address, Sharon decided to nix a massive military operation in Gaza to quell the terror of the intifada. According to one government official, Israel wanted “to give him [Abbas] a chance to operate.”

In the short term, Abbas had to corral the violent elements of the intifada within his party and across the Palestinian political spectrum. The first step was pushing the Arafat loyalists out of government. Abbas needed to reorient the PA from a position of fighting Israel to one of governance and state-building. And to do that he needed to purge Fatah of its militant elements. A month after assuming office, he fired 17 of the 24 cabinet members of the Arafat era and replaced them with allies. The message was clear: Get on board with the new strategy or get out.

Many Palestinian militants chose the latter. Abbas immediately tried to clean house upon moving into the PA’s headquarters, the muqata’a—literally, at one point. When Abbas forced out six militants who had sought refuge in the muqata’a since 2002, they retaliated by shooting at the compound before attacking a local restaurant. At a gathering in Ramallah of thousands of Fatah activists in March, gunmen from the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade burst into the hall and dispersed the meeting by firing their rifles into the air.

Abbas may have been president, but the chaos of the post-intifada era still loomed large. Factions still dominated camps across the West Bank, the PA security forces were diminished, and the governing bodies were depleted or nonexistent.

Thankfully for Abbas, the Americans and Israelis understood his complicated situation. On March 16, Palestinian security forces replaced the Israeli army in the West Bank city of Jericho as Israel transferred control of major Palestinian cities to the PA. A week later, the PA re-assumed control of Tulkaram. Within weeks, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Qalqilya also returned to PA control. In May, Abbas visited Washington for the first visit of a Palestinian president to the White House in five years. Combined, these events suggested that things were moving in the right direction. Abbas’s first months in office were a time of cautious optimism.

* * *

“We will stand with you, Mr. President,” Bush told Abbas in May of 2005, “as you combat corruption, reform the Palestinian security services and your justice system, and revive your economy.” To that end, Bush announced an infusion of $50 million to fund housing projects in Gaza. Investing money in Gaza made sense, as Israel was moving ahead with its plan to unilaterally withdraw from the coastal enclave. Sharon’s disengagement plan, first floated at the end of 2003, was due to happen by the summer of 2005, after it was approved by the Knesset. The Bush administration at first was skeptical of the plan, precisely because of its unilateral nature. White House policy was still in favor of both sides coordinating together. With time, however, the administration changed its attitude and not only expressed support for the Israeli unilateral move but also gave Israel a major diplomatic reward in the form of a letter from the president, recognizing that the future border between Israel and the Palestinian state would take into consideration the changes on the ground in the West Bank.

What this meant, in essence, was that the idea of a land-swap—allowing Israel to annex the large “settlement blocs” close to the 1967 border as long as it compensated the Palestinians with lands from within Israel—was now embraced by the president. Furthermore, the letter could have been interpreted as legitimizing a security barrier that Sharon’s government had constructed between Israel and much of the West Bank in response to the intifada. The Palestinian reaction to this letter was harsh, calling it “the death of the peace process” and accusing Bush of legitimizing the settlements.

By the summer of 2005, however, the Bush letter had become the least of Abbas’s concerns. The pictures of Israel pulling its soldiers and evacuating its settlers from Gaza could have been a moment of victory for him and the PA, but instead they became a recruiting tool for the rival terror faction Hamas. “The unilateral Israeli withdrawal caused a lot of damage to the Palestinian Authority,” says al-Ajrami. “For more than a decade, the PA invested in negotiations with Israel, and then when Israel finally withdrew from Gaza, it did so without any kind of negotiations. So obviously, Hamas took credit for the whole thing. They told people to look with their own eyes: Abu Mazen’s way of negotiations could barely make the Israelis move a few inches, and yet the armed struggle, the intifada, the bus bombings—all those things caused Israel to run away from Gaza. They presented it as a victory over Sharon, but it was most of all a victory over Abu Mazen for them.”

Sharon’s insistence throughout 2005, even after Abbas’s election victory, on initiating the disengagement plan with only a minimal level of coordination with the PA, remains somewhat of a mystery to this day. David Landau described it in his biography of Sharon as “almost perverse.” But some disagree with that characterization. “To say that there was no coordination with the Palestinian Authority during the disengagement is plain wrong,” said Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s chief of staff at the time. “I personally talked with Abu Mazen about different aspects of the plan. There were also constant communications between security officials on both sides, and we were working on plans for economic initiatives in the future. People who say it was done without coordination have a hard time accepting that it was Sharon, and not their darling Shimon Peres, who eventually took down the settlements. But that doesn’t change the facts.”

Abbas also knew that for Sharon, Gaza was just the beginning. Israel was still committed to the Road Map, and the endgame was still the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank. Following the disengagement, pressure from the right caused Sharon to quit the Likud party to found a new, centrist party called Kadima (“Onwards” in Hebrew). Israel went to new elections, and it was expected that after his upcoming victory Sharon would take the next bold step, this time in the West Bank. But on January 4, 2006, Sharon—who by now was 77 years old—suffered a stroke and went into a coma, from which he never woke up. The peace camp in Israel was now hobbled, and Abbas was left empty-handed. It was the first of many setbacks he would suffer that year.

This article has been adapted from Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon’s forthcoming book, The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas.