Who Is Mahmoud Abbas?

Mahmoud Abbas is the recently appointed prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. He also holds the title of Secretary General of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Abbas, known to many in the Middle East as Abu Mazen, is a veteran leader of Palestinian causes but had operated largely behind the scenes until being tapped for his new post in March. He has been a loyal deputy to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat for decades, but the relationship between the two now is in question.

Analysts say Arafat is still the ultimate power within the Palestinian Authority and that any move Abbas makes he must first clear with Arafat. Because Arafat holds more sway on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza, he pulls the strings in any negotiations Abbas holds with the Israelis.

But Abbas is the one Israelis and U.S. negotiators are willing to talk with because they say Arafat hasn’t done enough to crack down on terrorists operating inside the occupied territories. In fact, the U.S. and other Western governments pushed Arafat to appoint Abbas to jumpstart the peace process.

In an address just before he was appointed, Abbas expressed his commitment to fighting terrorism. “There is no room for weapons except in the hands of the [Palestinian] government,” he said, according to a translation provided by the British newspaper The Guardian. “We denounce terrorism by any party and in all its forms … because we are convinced that such methods do not lend support to a just cause like ours, but rather destroy it.”

Critics of Abbas are wary. They accuse him of having spent decades helping coordinate PLO-sponsored terrorist strikes and they aren’t willing to trust him now.

The way Abbas came to power places him in a tenuous political position. On the one hand, in the high-profile role of prime minister he has a giant platform he can use to influence Palestinian, Israeli and world opinion. On the other hand, being viewed as the West’s handpicked negotiating partner undermines his credibility on the streets of Ramallah, Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities.

Abbas has long been considered one of the more pragmatic and moderate leaders within the PLO. He played a key role in putting together the Oslo Accords, the last major push for peace in the Middle East, which were signed in 1993 under the guidance of President Clinton.

Abbas is also regarded as a true intellectual leader of the Palestinian cause. He studied law in Egypt and eventually received a doctorate in Moscow.

— Ethan Zindler

 Back to Conflicts In The Middle East