The Hamlet of the Palestinians

A biography of Mahmoud Abbas attempts to show how this believer in peace achieved power but was frustrated in his goals

Abbas gestures during a speech in Ramallah last year marking the 12th anniversary of terrorist leader Yasser Arafat’s death (photo credit: REUTERS)
Abbas gestures during a speech in Ramallah last year marking the 12th anniversary of terrorist leader Yasser Arafat’s death
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 1996, after Benjamin Netanyahu won the Israeli election, the Palestinian leadership was shocked. Gone were their “partners” in Jerusalem, the Israeli leadership under Yitzhak Rabin – who had been assassinated – and Shimon Peres – who had lost. One man took it in stride. Shaken, Mahmoud Abbas decided to reach out to a man the Palestinian street saw as a mass murderer: Ariel Sharon. In June 1997, he went to Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel.
“Abbas’s willingness to see past popular opinion in order to make progress was a sign that his belief in peace was still strong,” write Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon in a new biography of the man who has been the Palestinian leader for more than a decade after being elected to a fouryear term in 2004.
Rumley, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and Tibon, an Israeli journalist, bring both of their skills and background to the fore in this accessible book: The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas.
Despite the fact that the media are obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are startlingly few books that actually look at important Palestinian leaders and historical events. The few that do exist are either dated and biased, like Alan Hart’s biography of Yasser Arafat, or are academic and often stale. Tibon and Rumley have written a readable account and one that relies on numerous interviews with key participants and insiders on both sides.
The Last Palestinian is ironically titled, reminding us of Said Aburish’s biography of Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom he called The Last Arab. Obviously, Abbas is not the last Palestinian, but he may be the last Palestinian leader to rule over a functioning state-in-the-making.
Abbas’s life has spanned that of the modern Palestinian national movement. Born in 1935 in Safed, in what is now northern Israel, his family fled during the 1948 War of Independence and he ended up in Damascus and then Qatar. In the 1960s he joined Fatah, led by Arafat, and became its fund-raiser and chief bureaucrat.
The authors say he had “almost no role” in terrorism, and he seemed to be absent when the movement was involved in its most brutal battles with Israel in Jordan and Lebanon. The authors claim that, as a fund-raiser, he aided the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre “without knowing what it would be used for.”
It is unclear how the authors know what Abbas knew, since Abbas refused to be interviewed for the book without “editorial oversight” over its content.
In the 1990s, Abbas became the key to the talks that led to the Oslo peace agreement, comparing himself to the role of Peres. He forged close relationships with Israeli negotiators such as Yossi Beilin.
Because Abbas seemed consistently flexible in his relations with Israel, he was seen as “too soft toward Israel.” All that changed at Camp David in 2000. Abbas was mired in petty rivalries with fellow negotiator Ahmed Qurei and Muhammad Dahlan, the up-and-coming Palestinian strongman who, the authors say, was much loved by the Americans.
“Prior to the summit, Israeli intelligence had concluded that Abbas was increasingly ostracized from Arafat,” they write. Tibon and Rumley note that the Israelis might have been influenced by their own bias. They met often with Dahlan and liked him, and he fed them dirt on Abbas. It probably didn’t matter, because Arafat was already planning the wave of terrorism that he hoped would remove Israel from the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel’s leadership was weak after leaving Lebanon in defeat, Arafat thought, and they could be pushed out of the West Bank, too. It was a fundamental misreading of Israel and thousands would die because of it.
Abbas pressured Arafat to end the violence in October 2000.
“He was the only one to stand up to Arafat,” the authors quote former intelligence minister and Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter as saying. Abbas was worried about chaos and anarchy and losing control of the Palestinian Authority institutions built up after 1995. He told Sharon the same thing during a 2003 meeting.
By the time Abbas became president of the PA in 2005, it was in a rough place. In 2006, Hamas won the legislative elections and in 2007 ousted the PA from Gaza in a bloody coup.
Abbas lurched from failure to failure. The authors are best at discussing some of the details of the period 2006 to 2016. But the details are also minutiae, because many of the endless meetings with prime minister Ehud Olmert don’t matter in retrospect.
Abbas changed the Palestinian movement from one that was seeking to defeat Israel and create a state, to consolidating his power over the crumbs in the West Bank. He was weak compared to Israel, but strong in his statelet in Ramallah. The authors address controversial questions, such as whether Abbas let Gaza fall to Hamas and how Abbas has sought to isolate Dahlan as a rival.
The PA leader has won on the international stage, getting the Palestinians into places like UNESCO, but at home his powerful US-trained security forces can’t hold back the dam of protest forever. Chaos lurks in Nablus and elsewhere and Abbas isn’t getting any younger. Perhaps when he is gone, he will indeed be seen as the “last Palestinian,” at least in the sense of achieving anything.