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Mahmoud Abbas: the so-called Palestinian leader

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks during a conference in Ramallah on June 19, 2014. Credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks during a conference in Ramallah on June 19, 2014. Credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90.

By Sean Savage/

Since taking over as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) after Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas—whose PA term actually expired in 2009—has been continually touted by world leaders as someone Israel can rely on to make peace.

But the third Israel-Gaza war since Hamas’s takeover of the coastal enclave from Abbas’s PA in 2007 has proven that Hamas—despite its political isolation, financial troubles, and conflicts with the Israeli military—is still the preeminent voice of the Palestinians, rather than Abbas.

“[The current situation in Gaza] certainly drags [Abbas] down and makes him appear to be weak and feckless,” said Aaron David Miller, former U.S. Mideast adviser and peace negotiator. “If Israel wants to get something done, like a cease-fire or prisoner exchange, it goes to Hamas, not Abbas.”

At least one major Western leader hasn’t gotten the memo yet.

“In President Abbas, Israel has a counterpart committed to a two-state solution and security cooperation with Israel,” U.S. President Barack Obama wrote in a July 8 op-ed for Haaretz.

Yet Obama’s op-ed was published while Hamas rockets were flying in a conflict that was ignited after nearly 10 months of failed American-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

“There are no solutions here, only outcomes,” Miller told “After nearly 10 months of negotiations, there was very little achieved.”

The peace talks spearheaded by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ended abruptly in April after Israel refused to release more Palestinian terrorist prisoners and Abbas decided to take unilateral action in the international community, pursuing Palestinian membership in 63 United Nations accords. Israeli-Palestinian relations were then dealt a further blow when Abbas reached out to Hamas and formed a unity government with the terrorist group in May.

Many saw the unity deal as a way for Abbas to shape his own legacy and future by reuniting the Palestinian people, which split under his watch during Hamas’s bloody takeover of Gaza from the PA in 2007. Despite years of mutual distrust and sometimes outright violence, Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah party were able to agree to form a unity government filled with technocrats.

But for Israel, the Fatah-Hamas government was the straw that broke the camel’s back for an already faltering U.S.-brokered peace process. While Kerry stood by Abbas and promised to work with the new Hamas-aligned government, Israel refused to recognize a Palestinian government that includes an organized dedicated to its destruction.

Last month’s kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens by Hamas members in the West Bank set off the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities and hastened the downward spiral for Abbas, despite the fact that he condemned the kidnapping.

“The kidnapping of the three Israeli teens really hurt Abbas’s credibility with the Israelis for his association with Hamas,” Miller said.

Despite the ongoing conflict in Gaza, it appears that the Palestinian unity government will stay together, possibly giving Hamas the upper hand over Abbas.

“The reconciliation government will not be dismantled and Hamas has no intention of returning to a divided Gaza Strip and West Bank, or to a split in the two main political movements,” an anonymous Hamas official told Haaretz.

The history between Islamist Hamas and the secular nationalist Palestinian groups headed by Abbas—the PA, PLO, and Fatah—is a complicated one that dates back to the beginning of the Oslo peace process in the early 1990s, Middle East historian Dr. Efraim Karsh explained.

“Hamas built its strength under the PA when [former Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat was in power,” Karsh, principal research fellow at the Middle East Forum and professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King’s College in London, told “Until Arafat came in 1993 under the PA, there was no Hamas infrastructure in Gaza, there were no suicide bombers, no missiles. But he turned a blind eye to Hamas and allowed them to grow and attack Israel.”

Through Arafat’s failure to crack down on terrorism, Hamas, which was formed in 1987 as an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, eventually became powerful enough to compete with the PLO. Many Palestinians came to respect Hamas for its terrorism against Israel as well as the social services it provided, in contrast with the corrupt PLO.

“What [Arafat] didn’t take into account was that Hamas eventually pushed aside the PLO and became the dominant force. … So how can we expect the PA or Abbas to restrain Hamas in the future when it was the one who helped to create this problem in the first place?” Karsh said.

Under Abbas, the West Bank has enjoyed more peace and stability than Hamas-ruled Gaza, and Palestinian security forces have cooperated with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on cracking down on terrorist groups like Hamas. Yet Israeli leaders fear that if the IDF evacuated the West Bank, like its disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Hamas or other Palestinian terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad may establish a foothold there and push out the PA.

“I don’t think Abbas is a man of violence like Arafat was,” Miller said. “[But] Abbas is weak and that’s the problem. He presides over a dysfunctional and badly divided Palestinian movement, while lacking the capacity to deliver.”

Hamas, meanwhile, has continually foiled Abbas’s plans and promises by dictating its own terms not through words, but actions: rocket attacks, kidnappings, and suicide bombings against Israel.

“Paradoxically, unlike Arafat, Abbas has agreed to give up the gun, but he gets absolutely no credit and is continually undermined when Hamas takes up the gun,” said Miller. “It’s a no-win situation.”

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