Mahmoud Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen, was born in the Palestinian city of Safed (now in Israel). Following the death of Yasser Arafat, he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2005 after a brief tenure as prime minister in 2003. He was a founding member of Fatah and was essential in establishing networks and contacts that lay the groundwork for both Israeli-Palestinian peace and Palestinian self-determination through a two-state solution. Since 2005, no election has been held since he became president of PNA.
Despite his family’s refugee status, Abbas graduated from the University of Damascus with a law degree. He entered Qatar’s civil service in the 1950s and began to build a network of Palestinian individuals and groups. Yasser Arafat recruited Abbas in 1961 to join Fatah, which pioneered the Palestinian armed struggle and eventually came to control the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)
Abbas was vital in developing relations with Israeli peace groups as the head of the PLO’s foreign bureau in the late 1970s. Abbas received his doctorate in history in 1982 after successfully defending his dissertation at Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies. That essay, which looked at Nazism and Zionism, was later criticized by Jewish groups as Holocaust denial, and he distanced himself from some of its most contentious sections in the 1990s..
Abbas established a Palestinian negotiating strategy in the early 1990s, both at the Madrid peace conference (1991) and in secret discussions with Israelis in Norway. The Oslo Accords (1993) granted Israel and the Palestinians mutual recognition, and Israel handed up some governance powers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority.
In July 2000, Abbas was a key part of the Palestinian team at the Camp David peace talks. He opposed the second intifada (Arabic for “shaking off”), a violent Palestinian revolt. Abbas was established as Palestinian Prime Minister in 2003, under considerable international pressure, in an effort to bypass Arafat, which Israel and the US deemed a peace barrier. Abbas repudiated terrorism as prime minister, called for an end to the intifada against Israel, and pledged to form a unified Palestinian military force, but he resigned soon after, saying that he had been undercut by Israel, the US, and Arafat.
Following the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004, Abbas was named the PLO’s new leader. He handily won the election to succeed Arafat as President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in January 2005, receiving more than 60% of the vote. He was elected to a four-year term, but he stayed in office for much longer than that since elections to replace him were constantly postponed. Throughout his reign, he was chastised for his handling of domestic issues and inability to progress the peace process with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He attempted to pursue Palestinian statehood through a number of unilateral initiatives once the peace process stalled.
In November 2007, Israel and the Palestinian Authority restarted their peace discussions, and direct talks lasted into 2008. At the height of the negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—whose term was coming to an end due to a corruption scandal—offered Abbas more than 93 percent of the West Bank territory claimed by the Palestinians, and both sides appeared to agree in principle on other key issues like Jerusalem division. Abbas, on the other hand, was left in the dark about the idea and refused to sign it on the spot.
Tzipi Livni was elected to succeed Olmert in party elections the next day, but she was unable to assemble a coalition to become prime minister, and discussions stalled while Israel held early elections. In 2010, Abbas met with Olmert’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, for indirect peace talks. Netanyahu, on the other hand, refused to pick up where Abbas left off with Olmert, and the talks rapidly came to a standstill when Netanyahu refused to prolong a freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.
Abbas declared plans to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in May and July 2021, anticipating a chance to mend relations with the United States following the inauguration of Joe Biden as that country’s president. Many observers believed the initiatives were designed to bolster Abbas’s government’s popular legitimacy while also showing the PA’s commitment to a two-state solution.