Time appears to be running out for Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah as Hamas looks to gain complete control of the Palestinian Authority once Abbas is no longer in power. The chances of a new major peace deal have been slipping away for years despite Mahmoud Abbas’s dedication towards peace. Shimon Peres once said that Abbas was “an outstanding man who really does want to commit to peace.” He had also said that Abbas is “the best partner Israel has ever had.” But tragedy is never far from events in the Middle East. When it comes to finding a greater peace between Palestinians and Israel, one opportunity after another is frustratingly lost. Now, Shimon Peres is no longer alive, and Mahmoud Abbas’s power has been eroded, and at age 82, he is in the twilight of his life too.
Mahmoud Abbas, also known by his Middle Eastern name, Abu Mazen, has been a part of the Palestinian cause since its beginnings under Yassir Arafat. In the early half of the 1970’s Abbas began applying his energies to the Palestinian Liberation Organization which Arafat had then recently gained control of. He helped raise money for the organization, money that without his knowledge was being used in terrorist attacks such as the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Also, he became the PLO’s Israel expert and used his knowledge to educate PLO members. In his memoir’s Abbas wrote:
“I discovered that none of them [PLO officials] knew what they were talking about, that their knowledge of Israel was limited to the simple fact that it was the enemy. So, I set out to work on this weakness within our ranks, to let my views on how to deal with enemies infiltrate and to suggest ways of attaining our goal. I did not scorn the gun, which was one of the means to our end, but seven years of reading and writing had enabled me to delve into issues we had not considered before; so at the PNC meeting [Palestine National Council (the PLO’s legislative body)] I got up and spoke confidently to my colleagues for forty-five minutes, touching on all the ideas that I wanted them to hear in an impromptu but organized fashion. Through the expression in their eyes and the silence in the hall I realized that they were hearing such words for the first time.”
Abbas was heavily criticized for his views, but he won support of those who believed Israel was an enemy who would compromise instead of an enemy that could only be destroyed.
Into the 1980’s Mahmoud Abbas worked on receiving his Ph.D. from the Moscow Institute of Orientalism where he wrote a controversial thesis about Hitler which cited holocaust deniers, and even suggested that the number of Holocaust victims was less than one-million. Even though his thesis won him praise from the PLO, he would later apologize for his thesis and published a statement saying the Holocaust was “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era.”
Mahmoud Abbas rose through the ranks to be the PLO’s top negotiator. He oversaw and was a key decision maker in the breakthrough 1992 talks that became known as the Oslo Accords. He played such a major role in fact, that he felt to some degree burned for not also receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for the breakthrough agreement as Yassir Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin had. It would not be the last time Abbas was overshadowed by Arafat.
But as is triumph and turmoil in the Middle East, the situation with Israel would deteriorate under Arafat into violence. By the start of the new millennia Yassir Arafat had started what became known as the Second Intifada which saw 700 Israeli citizens and almost 3,000 Palestinians killed. Mahmoud Abbas was openly against the Intifada and the terrorist tactics used by Palestinians. By 2002, as the second highest ranking person in the Palestinian movement he questioned the wisdom of the Intifada, “What have we achieved? What positive or negative aims have we accomplished?” He warned that the Palestinians would lose everything they had gained during the Oslo Accords. “What happened over these two years,” Abbas said, “has been the total destruction of all we have built and all that had been built before that.” When Israel used its military to take back control of the cities gained at Oslo, Abbas was proven right and had solidified his image inside and outside of the PLO as the anti-Arafat.
When it came to the Second Intifada, Arafat has overplayed his hand badly and found his credibility had completely eroded. International pressure forced him to make Mahmoud Abbas his prime minister in 2003, a position Arafat completely undermined and after only six months in office, Abbas resigned.
Arafat, however, would die in 2004 and for the first time more than three decades Palestinians would have a new leader. That new leader was Abbas who took Arafat’s place until elections could be held. Those elections were held in 2005. Abbas won that election and solidified his place amongst the Palestinians. With his record of being the anti-Arafat and his clear history of working towards peace, gave the Middle East and the world hope that a breakthrough in the peace process.
However, that hope was dashed in 2006. The terrorist organization, Hamas, surprised Israel and the world by trouncing Abbas’s Fatah party and gaining a majority in that year’s parliamentary elections. Yet again, Abbas found himself undercut. Hamas worked successfully to undercut Abbas, and even worked to have him assassinated by plotting to blow up his motorcade. In the Summer of 2007, Hamas took over Gaza, which further isolated Abbas.
Despite Abbas’s power struggles, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tried new rounds of peace talks but they floundered. Abbas was ridged and weary of compromise with Hamas breathing down his neck, and Olmert was facing corruption charges making his attempts at peace look desperate.
By the time Benjamin Netanyahu became Israeli Prime Minister, any talks seemed unlikely to produce results. Netanyahu on the one side had and still has a base of support that would make compromise extremely difficult and unlikely, especially with his intransigence on building settlements on disputed land. Mahmoud Abbas on the other side, was being held a political hostage by Hamas.
To bypass Netanyahu and to gain political support from Hamas, Abbas implemented the strategy of internationalization in what was called the “Palestine 194” project. The goal was simple, to get the international community to recognize the Palestinian state and become the 194th member of the United Nations. This would give Palestine a greater legitimacy.
To help gain international support, Abbas wrote in May of 2011 an editorial in the New York Times. In it he writes,
“We go to the United Nations now to secure the right to live free in the remaining 22 percent of our historic homeland because we have been negotiating with the State of Israel for 20 years without coming any closer to realizing a state of our own. We cannot wait indefinitely while Israel continues to send more settlers to the occupied West Bank and denies Palestinians access to most of our land and holy places, particularly in Jerusalem.”
While Abbas failed to gain the Palestinian Authority a seat at the United Nations, he did gain recognition and full membership of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Domestically, the 194 campaign gave Abbas near unanimous political support.
Abbas now seems to prefer the internationalization strategy instead of negotiating with Netanyahu. When President Barack Obama injected himself into the peace process, Abbas ignored the new proposals. Abbas instead took the safer route to continue to gain support domestically by his internationalization process.
In their book The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon describe Abbas’s career as one in which where Abbas’s efforts for peace were lacking, but he never had the ability to bring peace to fruition. Ruley and Tibon write about Abbas,
“…the arc of Mahmoud Abbas’s career bends toward that of a missed opportunity. If Israeli officials were to describe their ideal negotiating partner, they would describe someone almost identical to Abbas, with his aversion to terror and stated willingness to conflict in general, is in what he doesn’t bring to the table. He is not a charismatic leader and thus could not convince his people to modify their version of the national narrative. Peace requires leaders who have both the courage to sign an agreement and the ability to implement it. Abbas appeared at times in his life to have the former. He was never close to having the later.”
But, despite his age, Abbas is still in power, and his internationalization efforts have garnered him some room to maneuver in any possible peace deal even though Hamas is still firmly in control. It would be an error to dismiss Mahmoud Abbas as too weak to make a deal, or a has-been.