Mahmoud Abbas

The new Palestinian prime minister gave a great speech. Now the real work begins.

Last week the Palestinian Authority’s new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, made a breathtaking speech at the Aqaba peace summit. He declared his government’s intention to be “full partners in the war against terrorism” and even acknowledged that Israelis have had it tough, too: “We do not ignore the suffering of the Jews throughout history. It is time to bring all this suffering to an end.” With a few words, Abbas won the support of George Bush and many Israelis, who finally believe they have someone they can negotiate with. Who is Mahmoud Abbas, and does he have a shot at peace in the Middle East?

Mahmoud Abbas, referred to by Palestinians as Abu Mazen (a nickname meaning “Father of Mazen,” after his eldest son), has risen to prime minister less because of his brilliance than for his durability. Ninety percent of life is just showing up, and Abbas has been showing up for the Palestinian cause for nearly 50 years. Once Israel and the White House refused to continue negotiating with Yasser Arafat, Abbas was the Palestinian leadership’s fallback. Now 67, Abbas is, along with Arafat, one of the few surviving founders of the Fatah political party. Abbas has been a relative peacenik since the late 1970s, when he was one of the first senior members of Fatah to talk with the Israeli left. He cemented his dovish reputation by orchestrating the peace accords in 1993 for the Palestinians, heading the secret Oslo negotiations and eventually signing on behalf of the PLO.

Abbas has no natural constituency. Born in what is now northern Israel, Abbas lived in exile from his childhood until 1995, and he has always been a political insider. Insofar as he has a reputation on the Palestinian street, it is for being an intellectual and somewhat reclusive figure, though his performance at Aqaba suggests he may not be as devoid of charisma as his critics claim.

Abbas lives in the shadow of his nominal boss, Yasser Arafat, who’s still president of the Palestinian Authority, chairman of the PLO, head of Fatah, and the unquestioned No. 1 in the hearts of Palestinians. Abbas’ relationship with Arafat is long-standing and long-suffering, tempered by the knowledge that the two leaders desperately need each other, at least for now. Time describes them as “two sulky guys” for their increasingly frequent battles. In February, Abbas went behind Arafat’s back to meet with Sharon in secret as a preamble to the current peace initiative. Yet Abbas is still careful to claim his superior’s full support in public: After his speech at Aqaba, he told a Ramallah news conference that the position he outlined was “fully coordinated with President Arafat.” But both men wish to control Palestinian politics, which means their interests must soon collide.

Arafat has found himself increasingly sidelined during the recent flurry of diplomacy, and he is in many ways Abbas’ most dangerous enemy. For the time being, Abbas has nothing to gain from a pitched battle—he needs Arafat’s well-connected help if he is ever going to negotiate a cease-fire with Palestinian opposition groups. Until Abbas gains some legitimacy of his own, attacking the Palestinians’ venerated leader will only weaken his tenuous authority.

Abbas’ greatest danger—and his greatest opportunity—is the growing schism between the Bush-approved and Bush-rejected Palestinian leadership. Getting his mandate from the Americans is the most serious handicap Abbas must overcome. Arafat still runs the show at the PLO (which has inked every peace agreement with Israel so far), and he’s trying desperately to stifle Abbas’ power by manufacturing public demonstrations of fealty, such as forcing Abbas to delay a presummit meeting with Sharon at Aqaba. According to Newsweek, the Bush administration “has asked every foreign leader who visits Israel—including the French—to stop meeting with Arafat.” That kind of pressure may help Abbas abroad, but it only complicates his task at home. As a publicity-shunning insider, Abbas commands infinitesimal respect compared to Arafat. Abbas will only be able to sideline Arafat if Arab nations obey Bush’s plea to endorse Abbas wholeheartedly, which they so far have not.

Instead, Abbas is combating Arafat’s influence indirectly by attacking the corruption rampant in the PA, much of which involves untangling the shady web of Arafat’s unofficial power structures. Abbas’ champion in this battle is Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, who is making genuine inroads into the financial quagmire of the Palestinian government by using international auditors and refusing to distribute funds until officials and security commanders play by his rules. Fayyad has earned the respect of European bankers and even the Israelis, who have begun releasing Palestinian tax revenue previously held in escrow to Abbas’ administration. And as Bush has promised, “[t]here is plenty of help coming” from the United States, both financial and rhetorical. But Arafat has deep pockets to keep security forces loyal, and he still controls the PLO.

And, unfortunately, no amount of money will help Abbas complete his administration’s first challenge—negotiating a cease-fire with Hamas and other opposition groups. A prominent Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, put it succinctly: “Abu Mazen gave the Jews what they did not deserve.” The hard-liners are upset with Abbas because he didn’t mention the status of Jerusalem or the right of return for Palestinian refugees in his Aqaba speech. Hamas has cut off negotiations with Abbas, and militants renewed their attacks on Israel. Israel, in turn, yesterday tried to assassinate Hamas’ most visible leader. The odds of a cease-fire have sunk to zero, at least in the near future.

Like everyone crazy enough to become a politician in Palestine, Abbas has demonstrated bravery and conviction, but he will need more to win over Arafat’s supporters and the likes of Hamas. Abbas needs to resurrect the possibility of peace. He needs to sell Palestinians on the self-fulfilling prophecy of political momentum and the idea that he can succeed where Arafat has failed.

The greatest weakness of the prime minister’s position is his dangerously passive role. The Israelis have the power to demonstrate their good intentions with a series of concrete steps like bulldozing settlements and releasing prisoners. But as long as he is hamstrung by Arafat, Abbas has no power to negotiate for a cease-fire. All he can do is fight the slow fight for legitimacy, gradually earning his own supporters and hopefully winning the peace-versus-violence debate in Palestine. Abbas will have to stick it out and hope that a combination of external pressures on Sharon and Hamas and his own internal machinations will give him some good news to show the Palestinian people.

The one card Abbas has to play is the novelty of his position. If Abbas can deliver real-life benefits for the average Palestinian, the specters of Arafat and illegitimacy will melt away. The Palestinians’ new prime minister is at a rare focal point in world opinion—almost every other country with influence in Palestine wants him to succeed. If Abbas can learn to harness Palestinian public opinion half as well as Arafat did, maybe peace does have a chance.