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The Past of Mahmoud Abbas May Reveal the Future of the Middle East

Palestinians will elect a new president of the Palestinian Authority on Sunday January 9th. Mahmoud Abbas is leading in public opinion polls. A former Palestinian Prime Minister, he is also known as Abu Mazen. Amy Katz takes a closer look at the man and how his election might affect the prospects for peace between the Palestinians and Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas was born in 1935 in Safed, which was then part of the British Mandate of Palestine. After Israel was founded in 1948, he left for Syria. Along with the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, he was a founding member of the main Palestinian political faction, Fatah. He is credited with making early contacts -- in the 1970s and 80s -- with left-wing and pacifist Jewish groups.

In 1993, Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Washington with Yasser Arafat to sign the Oslo Accords with Israel -- a ceremony that took place on the White House lawn -- with then-U.S. President Bill Clinton looking on. Mr. Abbas is considered by many to be a one of the main architects of those accords.

In March of 2003 he was named the first Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority. But Mr. Arafat never gave Mr. Abbas the authority he wanted. So, after holding the position for just four months, he resigned in frustration.

In the wake of Yasser Arafat's death in November, Mr. Abbas emerged as the leading candidate to replace the late Palestinian Authority President. In December, Mr. Abbas called for an end to Palestinian violence against Israelis.

Former U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross, who played a leading role in the Middle East peace process for 12 years in both Republican and Democratic administrations, has worked closely with Mr. Abbas. He says Mr. Abbas has always been very clear that the violent Palestinian uprising of the last few years was a mistake. "His vision, his pathway, has been non-violence and negotiation and I believe that is a pathway that offers Palestinians hope for the future,” said Mr. Ross.

He provided these specifics: “For the last four years they tried violence and the consequence has been terrible for Palestinians. Bad for Israelis too, but terrible for Palestinians and the economy that's absolutely decimated. You know, people -- over two thirds of the Palestinian public in Gaza is living below the poverty line and over half living below the poverty line in the West Bank, 3,500 dead, maybe 25-30 thousand wounded. And for what?"

Nathan Brown is a Senior Associate at the Washington, DC “think tank” the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says the positions of Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, are not that different than those of the late Mr. Arafat. "What's different is that he has some credibility with the Israelis, he knows how to talk to them in their language [more diplomatically] and unlike Arafat, who would always take any opportunity to avoid making a decision, Abu Mazen does seem to know what's required to come to a peaceful solution.”

Mr. Brown continued, “So, Arafat's death doesn't open the door because all of a sudden the Palestinians have completely changed their outlook. He wasn't that extreme, as extreme as the Israelis thought and Abu Mazen isn't as dove-ish as they think. But what I think we see the opportunity for, is a Palestinian leadership that finally knows how to move forward."

But, Mr. Brown says things are not going to change immediately. He points out that a number of elections are being held in the Palestinian territories this year, and until all those votes take place, not too much progress toward peace can be made.

Mr. Brown ventured, "I think what will have to happen is that Abu Mazen will have to be able to have, not simply the presidency, but an entire Palestinian government, a cabinet, that he can work with. Those parliamentary elections are not scheduled until May and so what we'll probably see will be some attempt to try and contain the violence, keep it from spiraling out of control, until then."

Dennis Ross agrees new Palestinian leaders will have to establish themselves. "A new Palestinian leadership is going to have to demonstrate that they've earned the trust of the Palestinian public, not simply because they got elected, but because once they got elected, they did something. So, first things first, is to focus on how to change the day-to-day reality for Palestinians," said Mr. Ross.

That, he says, includes freedom of movement, rebuilding the Palestinian economy, making order out of chaos and giving the Palestinian people a sense of possibility and hope. Mr. Ross is optimistic about the chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but Mr. Brown is less so. "At this point,” said Mr. Brown, “what the Palestinians are looking at is a leadership that is dedicated to a two-state solution, and you have an Israeli leadership that has finally come to terms with the fact that there probably will be a Palestinian state. But on the contours of that, they're still very, very far apart."

He says a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require some very tough choices from both sides.