Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was born in Safed on March 26, 1935. He left Palestine for Syria as a refugee from the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and later worked as an elementary teacher. He gained a BA in law from Damascus University and a Ph.D. from the Oriental College in Moscow in History. The theme of his doctoral dissertation was "The Other Side: the Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism." Abbas worked as personnel director in the civil service and began to manage and organize Palestinian groups.
In the mid-1950s, Abbas became active in Palestinian politics, joining secret underground groups in Qatar, and in 1961, Yasser Arafat recruited him to join Fatah. In 1968 he joined the Palestine National Council and the PLO Executive Committee. Abbas has headed the PLO Department for National and International Relations since 1980 and was elected by the PLO Executive Committee to replace Abu Jihad (assassinated in April 1988) as chairman of the portfolio on the Occupied Territories in May 1988. He was elected the Committee's secretary general in 1996, informally confirming his position as Yasser Arafat's deputy.
Abbas was the first PLO official to visit Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War in January 1993 and “apologized” to the Gulf countries for the PLO's stand during the crisis.
During the leadership of Arafat, Abbas was usually considered one of the leading Palestinian figures devoted to the search for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He advocated negotiations with Israel and initiated a dialogue with Jewish and pacifist movements in the 1970s. He led negotiations with Matiyahu Peled that resulted in the announcement of "principles of peace" based on a two-state solution in January 1977. He also coordinated the negotiation process during the Madrid conference. His extended contacts with Israeli leftists won him a reputation as a PLO dove, and he headed the Palestinian negotiating team to the secret Oslo talks. Abbas signed the 1993 peace accord with Israel on September 13, 1993, on behalf of PLO. Abbas has been the head of the PLO Negotiating Affairs Department since 1994 and signed the Interim Agreement in September 1995 on behalf of PLO.
In September 1995, after 48 years in exile, Abbas returned to the territories and took residences in Gaza and Ramallah. Abbas authored an account of the Oslo negotiations entitled Through Secret Channels: The Road to Oslo (1995). Together with his Israeli counterpart Yossi Beilin, Abbas drafted a controversial “Framework for the Conclusion of a Final Status Agreement Between Israel and the PLO” (better known as the Abu-Mazen-Beilin Plan) in October 1995 (although its existence was denied for five years before being published in Sept 2000). He headed (with Uri Savir) the first session of the Israeli-PA final status talks in May 1996.
Though often referred to as a
moderate, Abbas has made numerous radical statements, for example, claiming that the Nazis killed "only a few hundred thousand Jews," not six million. On April 30, 2018, he gave a speech declaring the Holocaust was not caused by anti-Semitism but by the “social behavior” of the Jews, including money-lending.
Abbas served as head of the Central Election Commission for the Palestine Legislative Council elections in January 1996 when he was elected as a representative for Qalqilya. In March 2003, he was named the first Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority but never was given full authority as Arafat insisted that all decisions be cleared with him. More importantly, Arafat maintained control over several security services, further undermining Abbas's authority. When Abbas explicitly refused to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in the PA, as required by the road map, the peace process faltered.
During his tenure as Prime Minister of the PA, Abbas was popular in the United States and with many Israelis but never had the support of more than a tiny fraction of the Palestinian people. Though considered in the Arab world as the brains behind the PLO, he lacked Arafat's charisma and was considered too conciliatory toward Israel by many Palestinians. After just four months in office, he resigned in frustration on September 6, 2003, and was replaced by Ahmed Korei.
Following the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, Abbas was elected President of the Palestinian Authority on January 9, 2005, with 62% of the vote. In his victory speech, he called on Palestinian terror groups to end the use of violence against Israel. However, he has rarely taken any concrete actions to see this to fruition. One year later, Abbas announced that he would not seek reelection at the end of his four-year term, telling the Palestinian media: "I will just complete my remaining three years in office; I will not run again. That is absolute."
In May 2006, Abbas traveled to the White House and met with US President George W. Bush, who, in return for Abbas' supposed crackdown on terrorism, pledged $50 million in aid to the PA and reiterated the US desire for a free Palestinian state.
In June 2007, mere months after forming a unity government with Hamas and installing Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as PA Prime Minister, Abbas declared a state of emergency, dissolved the government, and installed Salam Fayyad in Haniyeh's place. In response, Hamas began a brutal siege of Fatah's positions in Gaza, forcefully overtaking the group and declaring themselves rulers in the small enclave. Haniyeh continued to operate as Prime Minister in Gaza.
In February 2008, Abbas told the Jordanian paper al-Dustur that he did not rule out returning to the path of armed “resistance” against Israel. The reason for eschewing “armed struggle” was strategic. As he told the Arab League in July 2010, “If you want war and will fight Israel [with us], we are in favor." Additionally, Abbas was one of the founders of the Fatah terrorist group, and in February 2008, he proudly claimed credit for initiating the terror campaign against Israel. “I had the honor of firing the first shot in 1965 and of being the one who taught resistance,” Abbas said. The PA president even takes credit for training Hizbullah- “We had the honor of leading the resistance, and we taught resistance to everyone, including Hizbullah.” In 2010, Abbas eulogized the mastermind behind the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics in which 11 Israeli athletes were murdered as “a leading figure in resistance and sincere work” who “sacrificed for his people’s just causes.”
In 2008, Abbas met more than 30 times with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who offered to withdraw from approximately 94% of the West Bank, to create a passage from the West Bank to Gaza, and swap an equal amount of land so that Israel could annex its major settlement blocs. Olmert even proposed to divide Jerusalem and absorb a few thousand Palestinian refugees. In March 2008, Abbas suspended ongoing peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Later that year, he pledged to resign if the current round of peace talks had not yielded an agreement in principle
within six months. Haaretz noted, "aficionados of the Palestinians again found a million and one reasons why the peace-loving Palestinian leader had refused the offer."
In January 2009, Abbas's term as President officially ended; however, he extended the term another year by stating that the Palestinian Basic Law gave him the right to do so.
Though Abbas negotiates with Israel, he rejects its raison d’etre as a Jewish state. Speaking to the Palestinian Youth Parliament in 2009, Abbas declared his refusal to recognize Israel's Jewish character saying, “Call yourselves what you want, but I will not accept it… The ‘Jewish State’… I will not accept it.” Abbas backed that statement again in September 2010, when he told members of the Hadash party it was an “unacceptable demand” that he recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
In an interview with Egyptian television on October 15, 2014, Abbas stated that he would not compete for another term as Palestinian Authority President if elections were held soon. After the stress caused by Operation Protective Edge, he said he would appreciate a rest from political life.
In August 2015, Abbas suddenly resigned as chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO, in a move that analysts explained as a consolidation of his power. When Abbas stepped down, he forced the Parliament into session, needing to elect a new chairman within 30 days. The Israeli government restricts the travel of Palestinian legislators living in Gaza, and they will likely choose not to let the legislators living in Gaza attend the meeting of the PLO on September 15, where they will be voting on a new chairman. This would leave mostly Abbas loyalists in the West Bank to vote, thus bolstering Abbas's standing and reaffirming his legitimacy.
During an address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 30, 2015, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asserted that the PA was no longer bound by the Oslo Accords and all subsequent agreements between the PA and Israel.
The brother-in-law of Mahmoud Abbas received life-saving heart surgery in a private Israeli hospital in Tel Aviv in October 2015. Abbas's wife's brother also underwent surgery in Israel at the Assuta Medical Center.
During his first foreign trip as president in May 2017, Donald Trump met with Abbas. Trump accused Abbas of deceiving him when they had met earlier in Washington, and Abbas had denied the Palestinians engaged in incitement. In addition, Trump was angered by Abbas’s refusal to end the “pay-to-slay” policy under which Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who are convicted of terrorism, as well as the families of “martyrs,” are entitled to monthly stipends.
In 2022, Abbas angered the United States when he met with Vladimir Putin and told him the Palestinians do not trust America and that the U.S. can’t mediate on its own between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “We don’t trust it, we don’t rely on it, and under no circumstances can we accept that America is the sole party in resolving a problem,” Abbas said.
The same year, in response to being asked if he would apologize for the Munich Olympics massacre, which occurred 50 years earlier, Abbas accused Israel of carrying out “50 massacres; 50 Holocausts” of Palestinians. He made the statement in Berlin while standing beside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The following day, Scholz tweeted that he was “disgusted by the outrageous remarks made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.”
Following an international uproar over his remarks, Abbas said he had “not intended to deny the singularity of the Holocaust,” which he called “the most heinous crime in modern human history.” He insisted he was referring to “the crimes and massacres committed against the Palestinian people since the Nakba” by Israel that “have not stopped to this day.”
In a speech to members of Fatah in 2023, Abbas said, “They say that Hitler killed the Jews because they were Jews and that Europe hated the Jews because they were Jews.” Jews were persecuted, he continued, because of “their social role, and not their religion,” and because they dealt with usury and money.
Abbas also repeated the long-discredited theory that Jews were descendants of the Khazars and had no roots in the Middle East. “When we hear them talk about Semitism and anti-Semitism,” he said, “the Ashkenazi Jews, at least, are not Semites.”
He also claimed that David Ben-Gurion was forced by Winston Churchill to accept the immigration of Jews from Arab countries and that he had initiated attacks on Jewish institutions in Arab countries to prompt them to emigrate. Abbas stated: “the Jews did not want to emigrate but were forced to do so by means of pressure, coercion, and murder.”
“The Balfour Declaration saw the light of day only because of the complete agreement between Balfour and U.S. President Wilson,” he told the audience. “They were in full agreement about this phrasing. So America was a partner to the Balfour Declaration. Who invented that [Jewish] state? It was Britain and America — not just Britain.” He added he wanted to make clear “who we should accuse of being our enemy, who has harmed us and took our homeland away, and gave it to the Israelis or the Jews.”
Sources: MSNBC, (December 6, 2001).
JTA (March 12, 2003).
Abbas Scorns ‘Jewish State,’ Palestinian Media Watch, (April 27, 2009).
Itamar Marcus and Nan Jacques Zilberdik, Mahmoud Abbas: ‘If all of you will fight Israel, we are in favor,’ Palestinian Media Watch, (July 7, 2010).
Itamar Marcus and Barbara Crook, Abbas Honors Hezbollah Spiritual Leader, Palestinian Media Watch, (July 11, 2010).
Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu, Abbas Eulogizes Munich Massacre Mastermind, Arutz Sheva, (July 4, 2010).
“Abbas: We Won’t Recognize Israel as Jewish State, YNET News, (October 15, 2010).
“Abbas derides Hamas talk of ‘victory’ in war against Israel,” Times of Israel, (October 16, 2014).
Al-Mughrabi, Nidal/Sawafta, Ali. “Abbas heats up Palestinian politics in PLO reshuffle bid,” Reuters (August 27, 2015).
Rick Gladstone and Judi Rudoren, “Mahmoud Abbas, PA President, says he is no longer bound by Oslo Accords,” New York Times (September 30, 2015).
“Abbas brother-in-law gets life-saving surgery in Israel,” Times of Israel (October 23, 2015).
Herb Keinon, “Official says Palestinian terror glorification going out of style under Trump,” Jerusalem Post, (May 28, 2017).
Douglas J. Feith and Sander Gerber, “The Department of Pay-for-Slay,” Commentary, (March 15, 2017).
Thane Rosenbaum, “Palestinians are rewarding terrorists. The U.S. should stop enabling them,” Washington Post, (April 30, 2017).
Itamar Marcus, “PA defies US, will raise payments to Martyrs’ families,” Palestinian Media Watch, (April 9, 2017).
“Abbas will continue to pay Palestinian prisoners, PA minister says,” Times of Israel, (April 29, 2017).
“Abbas says Jews’ behavior, not anti-Semitism, caused the Holocaust,” Times of Israel, (May 1, 2018).
Isabel Kershner, “Palestinian Leader Accused Israel of ‘50 Holocausts,’ Causing an Uproar,” New York Times, (August 17, 2022).
“Statement by the President of Palestine regarding what was stated in the response in joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin,” WAFA, (August 17, 2022).
Barak Ravid, “White House "very disappointed" by Palestinian president’s remarks to Putin,” Axios, (October 15, 2022).
Isabel Kershner, “Palestinian Leader Incites Uproar With Speech Condemned as Anti-Semitic,” New York Times, (August 17, 2022).
“Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: Hitler Fought The European Jews Because Of Their Usury, Money Dealings; It Was Not About Antisemitism; Jews From Arab Countries Did Not Want To Emigrate, But Were Forced To Do So By Israel,” MEMRI, (September 6, 2023).
Patrick Kingsley, “Antisemitic Comments by Palestinian Leader Cause Uproar,” New York Times, (September 7, 2023).