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.
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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.”