Mahmoud Abbas: Obstacle or Opportunity?

Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas’ reputation is in a quandary. Depending on one’s perspective, he may either be the last best hope for peace, or one of the reasons hope is fading. The dividing line of opinion is not necessarily that between two-staters and no-staters. Even old supporters, both foreign and domestic, have begun to view Mr. Abbas’ stubbornness and increasingly autocratic rule, in particular, as a hindrance rather than help when it comes to dealing with issues on a number of fronts.

It wasn’t always this way. The Palestinian architect of the Oslo Accords, Mr. Abbas often found himself at odds with his old boss, Yasser Arafat, over the latter’s authoritarian tendencies, as well as his refusal to relegate violence as a political tool to the history books. It is the latter issue that has largely defined Mr. Abbas, gaining him international plaudits but often at the expense of his domestic popularity. In 2014, Mr. Abbas publicly defended security cooperation with Israel – the hallmark of his anti-terror credentials – as “sacred” in the face of mounting domestic opinion to the contrary.

There is little evidence that Mr. Abbas has reversed himself on the illogic or immorality of violence in promoting the Palestinian cause. Following the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December and a PLO Central Committee vote to terminate security cooperation in response, Mr. Abbas has continued to buck domestic sentiment. But recent inflammatory rhetoric aimed at Israel and the United States has given foreign supporters serious pause, risking irreversible damage to his previous reputation for moderation.

The paradox that is Mr. Abbas is well told in Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon’s The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas. In their unofficial biography, the authors trace Mr. Abbas’ long career as a contrarian from advocate of negotiations – while peers backed armed struggle – to Arafat critic; and now, in the opinion of domestic detractors, the defender of an unpopular status quo.

The portrait of Mr. Abbas in The Last Palestinian is that of a Shakespearian figure, against whom the fates, political rivals, life experiences, hubris and advanced age have all aligned. The question Messrs. Rumley and Tibon ultimately pose is what will be Abbas’ legacy now that he is into his eight decade with prospects for peace in his lifetime diminishing.

There are, most notably, the opportunities missed (e.g. the admitted rejection of Ehud Olmert’s 2008 peace offer), but arguably it is the consolidation of authoritarian rule in the PA that will be Mr. Abbas’ most immediate legacy to his people. This, however, may be the least ironic or surprising part of his life story.

Whatever qualms Mr. Abbas may once have had with his predecessor’s governing style, the two men were contemporaneously schooled in the regional politics of their generation – a generation dominated by the highly centralized, presidential, one party model. Theirs was not the culture of self-help, volunteerism, and communal activism that they inherited, especially in the West Bank, upon the establishment of the PA.

The relatively robust civic life that pre-existed in the West Bank-Gaza and the grassroots’ expectation – even amongst local cadres of Arafat’s Fatah movement – of consensus based decision making were viewed as a nuisance to leadership nurtured by the systems in their countries of exile; Arafat’s last, Ben Ali’s Tunisia (ever the contrarian, Abbas preferred Qatar).

While Arafat may have felt occasionally obliged to pay lip service to democratic niceties during the early Oslo period to please western donors, Abbas has rarely been so pressed. If he ever was, the debacle of Fatah’s 2006 electoral performance and the West Bank-Gaza split a year later swiftly put such notions to rest; as it largely did to external pressures to do otherwise.

Unchecked by foreign censure – the circumscribed and foreshortened Fayyad institution building period notwithstanding – and absent donor conditionality that might have kept worst instincts in check, 14 years into a four-year term of office, Abbas’ presidency today enjoys attributes all too familiar to observers of post WWII regional political order.

If there is an irony in the Abbas story, it is perhaps this: that in the same decade in which Libyan, Yemeni, Syrian, Egyptian and Tunisian citizens all rose up to repudiate the presidential, one-party state, under Abbas it is thriving in the West Bank; thanks, in large part, to external supports and the last White House’s anything-but-my-predecessor’s approach to the Palestinian Authority’s internal state of affairs.

With external encouragement of all sides, it is still possible, and one can hope, that Abbas’ remaining term of office will confound skeptics and that there will be movement towards peace. But when it comes to a revival of civic norms and democratic practices in the PA – a foundational element of the Oslo Accords that was once deemed a prerequisite for sustaining peace – it would seem that hope depends on the emergence of new PA leadership, not to mention a change in donor priorities.

About the Author
Owen Kirby is a non-resident fellow at the University of Central Florida's Office of Global Perspectives and International Initiatives (, and previously served in various capacities at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Department of State.
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