It’s a dramatic turn for a once mild-mannered bureaucrat, who ascended to power in part because of his ability to ease tensions with Arab countries and pursue diplomatic backchannels. “I say to the Israeli leadership and to the Israeli people,” Abbas declared in his inaugural address 13 years ago this month, “we are two peoples destined to live side by side, and to share this land between us.” Since then, he’s lost a parliamentary election and governance of Gaza to Hamas, his Islamist rivals. Over a decade into his reign, most Palestinians no longer support him.
Frustration, it seems, has led Abbas to reveal his true colors. In recent years, he’s accused Israeli rabbis of supporting the poisoning of Palestinian water wells, claimed Jews had “fabricated” history, and insisted he would “never recognize the Jewishness of the state of Israel.” This dalliance with anti-Semitism brings to mind his controversial PhD thesis, which downplayed the number of victims of the Holocaust and suggested a link between Zionism and Nazism. Though he later backtracked on the claims in his thesis, his recent diatribes call into question his sincerity.
Abbas—the man who became president on the pledge to finally make a deal with the Israelis through public diplomacy and nonviolence—has morphed into Arafat, the very figure he pledged not to become. It’s a remarkable fall from grace for a leader who started with such potential.
At the time of Abbas’s ascension, Western leaders could not have imagined a more ideal Palestinian leader. In the last years of his presidency, Arafat had drawn the Palestinians into a bloody intifada, or uprising, which provoked an Israeli siege of his headquarters in Ramallah and the construction of a separation barrier between parts of the West Bank and Israel. Towards the end of the intifada, many in the Palestinian leadership knew it was a mistake. “We told Arafat he was gambling with [the intifada],” one senior Fatah official recalled later. “We told him he would turn the whole world against us.”
Abbas, too, had turned against Arafat, campaigning against the violence and admonishing local chiefs in Gaza for the “destruction of all we have built.” This endeared him to Israel and the West, paving the way for him to become Arafat’s prime minister in 2003, and later president in 2005. And it was his resignation in defiance of Arafat that garnered him acclaim from his peers, ultimately leading to his selection as Arafat’s successor.
Now, the roles have been reversed. For years now, a majority of Palestinians have wanted Abbas to resign. The cornerstone of his foreign policy—seeking international recognition for an independent Palestinian state—has largely proven fruitless. At home, he has curbed the space for dissent, enacting laws allowing the arrest of citizens for criticizing his government on social media. His Fatah party is split between rivals who challenge his rule outright, like the exiled former strongman Muhammad Dahlan, and those like vice president Mahmoud al-Aloul, who declared “all forms of resistance” legitimate after Trump gave a speech in which he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Through it all, Abbas has maintained a firm commitment to security coordination with Israel, despite the fact that this is a deeply unpopular, emotive issue for Palestinians. His “sacred” commitment has only further alienated him from his people.