Mahmoud Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, is the current President of the Palestinian Authority, succeeding Yasser Arafat after his death in 2004.
Abbas was born in 1935 in the town of Safed in what was then northern Palestine and today Israel. During the War of Independence of 1948, Abbas fled with his family to Syria, where he received a law degree from Damascus University. He later obtained a Ph.D. in history in Moscow. The topic of his dissertation – the relations between the Nazis and Zionist leaders during the Holocaust – has led to accusations that he is a Holocaust denier, which he rejects. From Russia, Abbas moved to Qatar, where he began to work with Palestinian groups.
During this time Abbas joined with Yasser Arafat to form the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was to become the internationally recognized umbrella organization of all Palestinian groups.
In 1968, Abbas became a member of the Palestinian National Council. He was elected as the Council's secretary general in 1996, informally confirming his position as Arafat's deputy. In January 1993, Abbas became the first PLO official to visit Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War, where he reportedly apologized to the Gulf States for the PLO's pro-Iraq position during the war.
Abbas' contacts with Israeli leftists throughout the years gave him a reputation as a PLO dove, and he was chosen to head the Palestinian negotiating team dispatched by Arafat to the secret peace talks with Israel in Oslo, Norway. It was Abbas who signed the Oslo Accords with Israel in September 1993, on behalf of the PLO.
In 1995, Abbas returned to the Palestinian territories for the first time in 47 years, taking up residence in Gaza, and Ramallah in the West Bank. In March 2003, he was named the first Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, but was never granted full powers as Arafat insisted on final veto of all decisions. Arafat also maintained control over several Palestinian security services. He resigned as prime minister in September 2003, after just four months in office, and was replaced by Ahmed Qurei.
In the aftermath of Arafat’s death, Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority on January 9, 2005, winning 62 percent of the vote, and sworn in six days later. In his inauguration speech Abbas called for the armed Palestinian groups to lay down their weapons, arguing that the armed conflict had yielded few results. His calls, while welcomed in the international community, were not greeted with broad acceptance in the territories.
Abbas' time in office has been marred by Palestinian infighting, mainly between his own Fatah movement and the militant Hamas over policies toward Israel and control over the various internal security apparatuses, as well as clashing with Israel over continued Palestinian violence and the stagnant peace process.
In June 2007, Abbas dissolved a Hamas-led unity government, declared a state of emergency, and appointed Salam Fayyad as prime minister. As a result, Hamas men stormed Fatah-controlled installations inside the Gaza Strip, instigating a round of bloody infighting that effectively ended Fatah’s influence in the Gaza Strip. Subsequent Arab-mediated efforts at reconciliation between the two factions have been largely unsuccessful.
In January 2009, Abbas’s term as president came to an end. He extended his term for another year, a move that was again opposed by Hamas as illegal.
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