Abbas enters his 17th year in power amid criticism and uncertainty

Long-tenured Palestinian leader’s crowning achievement has yet to achieve desired results

 Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (L)  with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the World Youth Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Monday. Photograph: PPO/AFP via Getty Images

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (L) with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the World Youth Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Monday. Photograph: PPO/AFP via Getty Images

 

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas will this week enter his 17th year in office, although he was elected by popular vote in January 2005 for only one four-year term.

This was extended indefinitely in 2009 by the central committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which is dominated by Abbas’s Fatah movement.

Abbas (86) succeeded as president veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in November 2004. While Arafat employed both armed resistance and peacemaking to secure a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Abbas focused solely on negotiations.

Some of his efforts culminated in the 1993 Oslo accord, raising Palestinian, Arab and global hopes for the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Oslo initially boosted Abbas’s position within the Palestinian movement and made him a likely successor to Arafat. He was elected by a 63 per cent majority.

Born in 1935 in the Galilee village of Safad, Abbas – along with his family – was expelled to Syria during Israel’s 1948 war. He studied law in Damascus, earned his doctorate in Moscow, became involved in underground Palestinian politics while working in Qatar, and in 1961 joined Fatah.

While Palestinians were united in resistance to the Israeli occupation during the 1987-93 first intifada, he agreed Norway could broker back-channel talks with Israel.

Drawn up secretly by Israeli lawyers and two political representatives chosen by Abbas, the deeply flawed Oslo deal did not lead to the emergence by 1999 of the state the Palestinians expected, and in 2000 the second intifada began.

West Bank

The Oslo process produced partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and created an interim authority that has become permanent and administers West Bank Palestinian enclaves surrounded by Israeli-controlled territory. Abbas is the current leader of this authority.

East Jerusalem, with 200,000 Palestinians, which was wanted as the Palestinian capital, has been annexed by Israel and walled off from the West Bank. Gaza, with 2 million Palestinians, was meant to be linked to the West Bank and East Jerusalem by a corridor through Israel.

However, since Hamas seized power there in 2007, Gaza has been isolated, besieged and blockaded by Israel and shunned by Abbas.

Abbas took this line after Hamas stunned Fatah by winning the most seats in the 2006 Palestinian legislative election, and he subsequently dismissed Egyptian and Saudi efforts for a reconciliation with Hamas. A nominal unity government was formed in June 2014 but lasted for only a year, resigning after Abbas argued it did not operate in Gaza.

Fearing a repeat of 2006, Abbas has avoided elections and cancelled parliamentary and presidential polls scheduled for last year.

Abbas’s former presidential rival Mustafa Barghouti has argued that the Palestinian leadership should renounce Oslo and adopt a strategy based on “struggle as an alternative to the negotiations that have proven unsuccessful”.

Some Palestinians accuse Abbas of mismanagement, corruption, co-operating with Israeli security forces at Palestinian expense, and cracking down on dissent. Multiple factions, including Fatah, criticised Abbas for crossing into Israel last month for the first time in years to discuss security and confidence-building measures with Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz.

Following this encounter, Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, who rejects Palestinian statehood, said there was no peace process with the Palestinians “and there won’t be one”.

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