Mahmoud Abbas life and biography

Mahmoud Abbas picture, image, poster

Mahmoud Abbas biography

Date of birth : 1935-03-26
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Safad, Palestine
Nationality : Palestinian
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2010-07-21
Credited as : Political leader and president of Palestine, Prime Minister of Palestine, World's political leader

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Mahmoud Abbas, also known as: Abu Mazen, Mahmud Abbas, Abu Mazin, Mahmud Rida Abbas born 26 March, 1935 in Safad, British Mandate Palestine is a Palestinian politician and current Prime Minister of Palestine and head of state.

Mahmoud Abbas became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) following the death of former chairman Yasser Arafat in November of 2004. Two months later, Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas' election drew praise from the international community, which favored him as a replacement for Arafat. Widely regarded as a pragmatist, Abbas had served as a major player in the Middle East peace talks of 2003, when he was prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, in a summit meeting on June 4, 2003, with U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, urged militant Palestinian groups to end violent attacks against Israelis; Sharon said he was willing to withdraw settlements from certain occupied areas and accept Palestinian statehood by 2005. Bush leaned on both to keep what Terence Hunt of the Associated Press called "their once-unthinkable pledges." Thus, the "road map" to peace, as it was dubbed, began.

Sharon kept his word and in September of 2005, Israel evacuated all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and pulled its military from the area. Palestinians swarmed to the Gaza Strip, reoccupying land they had lost nearly 40 years before--yet militant Palestinian violence continued. Israeli officials urged Abbas to control his people and said that if he did not, it threatened to crumble the peace plan that was eventually to create an independent Palestinian state. Sharon asked for an end to the terror as attacks on Israelis continued unabated. Abbas drew a lot of criticism for failing to curtail the violence, yet many remained hopeful that he would pull through. As Labor Party leader Shimon Peres declared, according to the Christian Science Monitor, "A moderate man was elected, an intelligent man, an experienced man. Let's give him a chance."

Earned Law Degree, Appointed Prime Minister

Abbas, born in British Mandate Palestine, moved with his family to Syria in 1948, during the Arab-Israeli War. He laid floor tiles and taught elementary school before earning a law degree from the University of Damascus. He also has a Ph.D. in history from Oriental College in Moscow.

In March of 2003, the late Arafat, under pressure from the Bush administration, appointed Abbas, a longtime associate, as prime minister. The White House had frozen Arafat out of the peace talks and Israeli general consul Alon Pinkas, in a commentary in the New York Post, likened Abbas to a baseball relief pitcher.

Craig Nelson, in the Australian-based newspaper The Age, underscored the difficulty of Abbas's balancing act following his appointment, stating that, "Your boss is Yasser Arafat, who tries to undercut you at every turn. The president of the United States is pressing you to stop Islamic militant groups from carrying out suicide bombings. The man sitting across from you at the negotiating table--the hawkish, settlement-building Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon--represents everything you have fought against during your career. Compounding your difficulties is the fact that you are not elected."

But, the prime minister earned wide praise as the antithesis of Arafat. "Mr. Abbas," the New York Times editorialized, "is the most important reason there is renewed hope for progress in the Middle East."

Put on the Hot Seat

Abbas, for sure, had a difficult start. While he and Sharon held the first Israeli-Palestinian summit in three years--about three weeks before they met with Bush--Islamic militants unleashed five suicide bombings that killed 12 Israelis and injured several others.

"Even as Israeli and Palestinian leaders talked peace," Dan Perry wrote for the AP following the summit with Bush, "opponents back home vowed to fight on: Hamas militants said Mahmoud Abbas sold out their cause, while Jewish settlers rallied against their one-time top patron, Ariel Sharon." Perry added: "The opposition underscored the political and practical difficulties the two prime ministers face even if they succeed in overcoming their own significant disagreements."

During the time Arafat was alive, Abbas never challenged him in public, though their relationship was stormy. As the AP wrote in March of 2003, "They have argued in private--most recently about the direction of the conflict with Israel--and Abbas sometimes would withdraw in anger for extended periods, waiting for Arafat to offer reconciliation."

After meeting with Bush, Abbas declared that he was ready to make peace. "It is time to bring all this suffering to an end," Abbas said. "We are ready to do our part. There will be no military solution to this conflict."

Founding Member of Fatah

Abbas, known widely as Abu Mazen (Father of Mazen), is a founding member, along with Arafat, of Fatah--the main political division of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In exile in Qatar during the late 1950s, he helped recruit several Palestinians to the movement; they went on to become key PLO figures, according to Fiona Symon in the BBC News.

Working behind the scenes, Abbas built a strong contact network that included Arab leaders and heads of intelligence agencies. "This enabled him to become a successful fundraiser for the PLO and to take on an important security role in the early 1970s," Symon wrote. Considered a pragmatist, Abbas was praised as an architect of the Oslo peace process, and in fact, accompanied Arafat to the White House to sign the accords. He also helped initiate discussions with Jewish factions before formal negotiations started.

"In his early days of the movement, he became respected for his clean and simple living," Symon wrote. In 1980, the PLO named Abbas head of its department for national and international relations. He rose to secretary general of the PLO executive committee, its highest executive body.

Determined to Meet Goals

Some Jewish groups have criticized Abbas over his 1984 book, The Other Side: The Secret Relationship between Nazism and Zionism. Accusing Abbas of Holocaust denial, they say he downplayed the number of victims. He denied that charge in a May 2003 interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

"I quoted an argument between historians in which various numbers of casualties were mentioned. One wrote there were 12 million victims and another wrote there were 800,000," he said, as quoted on the BBC News Website. "I have no desire to argue with the figures."

Became Head of PLO

After Arafat's death in 2004, Abbas became chairman of the PLO and was later elected president of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas had faced many challenges before and won many battles through his assured diplomacy, but in 2005, he faced the challenge of his career: seeing through the final stages of the "road map" to peace hammered out years before. In September of 2005, Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip. Under the plan, the Palestinians were to create a Palestinian state on the land with limited Israeli interference. However, in exchange for statehood, the Palestinian Authority had to abandon its terrorist tactics and use more democratic means to achieve its ends. When Israel felt like the Palestinian threat was over, it was to turn over more West Bank towns to the PA's authority.

But as the violence escalated and Israel halted the turnover of West Bank towns, Abbas came under fire for not pursuing the terrorists--much less condemning them. At one point, Sharon even gave Abbas the address of a Palestinian man named Hasan al-Madhoun, who was known to have organized a suicide bombing. Abbas promised an immediate arrest. Nearly 50 days later, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Abbas to arrest Madhoun. Finally, Madhoun was summoned to a police station where he spent the night chatting on his cell phone only to be released in the morning with no charges filed.

Writing in U.S. News & World Report, Mortimer B. Zuckerman noted that many people around the globe were having a hard time keeping the faith in Abbas. Zuckerman wrote that Abbas was not a bad man, he simply "lacks the will to control the anarchy" and instead spends his time giving rosy interviews explaining how he will persuade Palestinian forces to lay down their arms. Instead, Mortimer suggests, Abbas should be arresting suspects and trying them in court. "The lawless, virtually feudal, criminal and terrorist factions within Gaza simply refuse to obey Abbas or to stop attacking Israel. He is so scared of them he has even rejected international appeals to dismantle the armed militias, saying the world should stop meddling in Palestinian internal affairs."

Announced End of Time in Office

In January 2006, Abbas decided that he would not seek another term as president of the Palestinian Authority. He would leave office when his term expired. While Abbas remained president, he faced numerous challenges to his authority. Soon after the announcement, Fatah party members protested outside the legislature building in Gaza, calling for Abbas' resignation. The protesters blamed Abbas' administration and its reputation for corruption for the Fatah party's defeat in January 25 parliamentary elections. In February 2006, The Palestinian parliament voted to create a constitutional court whose members would be appointed by Abbas. The court would be able to overrule legislative acts, which effectively increased Abbas' power. The move was seen as an attempt by the outgoing Fatah-dominated party to limit the power of the recently elected Hamas-dominated group of legislators. After the new, Hamas-dominated Parliament took over later in the month, it soon voted to rescind several of the previous government's decisions. The rescinded laws included the one which granted Abbas the right to appoint judges to a constitutional court.

Difficulties with Israel also dogged Abbas. In March 2006, he described an Israeli raid on a West Bank prison as "an ugly crime which cannot be forgiven" and demanded the return of the six prisoners whom the Israelis seized. Some members of Abbas's Fatah party suggested that he respond to the Israeli move by stepping down, dissolving the Palestinian Authority, and returning the Palestinian-controlled areas to Israeli rule in protest. Abbas was reported to be considering the suggestion. A month later, Abbas declared that Israel's recent decision to break off contact with the Palestinian government and military was a violation of international law.

Abbas's actions towards Israel also had negative repercussions in Palestine. Working with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, Abbas reached an agreement to create a Hamas-Fatah unity government in September 2006. At a speech made at the United Nations General Assembly, Abbas pledged that the incoming Palestinian government would recognize Israel's right to exist and would honor previous peace deals with Israel. Soon after, Hamas pulled out of the proposed unity government with Abbas's Fatah party because of this acknowledgement. Hamas said that it was unwilling to be part of any government that acknowledged Israel's right to exist. The two sides continued to work on forming a national unity government, and finally, in February of 2007, an agreement was reached.

Violence was on the increase as the divided government continued to rule Palestine. Militants in Gaza were regularly firing rockets at Israel, while there was also violent conflict between Hamas and Fatah loyalists. This conflict came to a head in June of 2007, when Hamas militants drove Abbas' Fatah forces out of Gaza. Abbas responded by dismissing the Palestinian Authority government, declaring a state of emergency, forming a new government that did not include Hamas members, and changing Palestinian election laws. As the stalemate dragged on, with Abbas and Fatah in control of the West Bank and Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, prospects for the unified, fully independent Palestinian state that Abbas has worked towards looked more grim. By November, Abbas was calling for the ouster of Hamas in Gaza after more violence broke out at a Fatah ralley.

Despite these problems, Abbas met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at a United States-sponsored peace conference in Maryland in November 2007. They agreed to begin negotiating a peace treaty by the end of 2008. While they wanted to work out how Palestine could become independent, the peace talks were suspended by Abbas after Israel attacked Gaza in response to attacks by Hamas. Olmert was also facing pressure at home as a political scandal engulfed his status in Israel. Talks eventually fell apart, though they were scheduled to resume some time in the summer of 2009.

While trying to work out a peace with Israel, Abbas had his own grip on power to worry about. In November 2008, the PLO's Central Council symbolically elected Abbas the president of the as yet uncreated Palestine state. However, Abbas was seen as an increasingly ineffectual leader, especially as his term in office as the head of the Palestinian Authority was scheduled to end in early 2009. He would not step down because he and his supporters believed that the Basic Law of the Palestinian Authority gave him the right to stay in power for another year. Hamas officials believed he had to step down and were determined not recognize him as the president of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas remained in office, though there was continued in-fighting and violence despite Abbas's promise to incoming American President Barack Obama that Palestinians were still sticking to the roadmap towards peace with Israel established in 2002. Despite such problems, the Obama administration offered continued support to the Abbas presidency and the Palestinian Authority in July 2009 and asked other members of the international community to do the same.

November 6, 2009: Abbas said that he did not intend to run for another term as president in the elections scheduled for January of 2010.


Born March 26, 1935, in Safed, British Mandate Palestine (now part of northern Israel); married Amina; children: three sons. Education: University of Damascus, Syria, B. A., 1950s; Moscow State University, Ph.D., 1980s. Addresses: Office--c/o Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations, 115 E. 65th St., New York, NY 10021.


Co-founded Fatah, 1954; elected to Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee and named head of PLO national and international relations department, 1980; negotiated Oslo Accords, 1993; prime minister of Palestinian National Authority, April 2003 (resigned, September 2003); elected president of the Palestinian National Authority, 2005; remained in office despite end of term, 2009.

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