Reprinted from Gush Shalom
MAHMOUD ABBAS was not present at my first meeting with Yasser Arafat during the siege of Beirut in the First Lebanon War. That was, it may be remembered, the first meeting ever between Arafat and an Israeli.
Some months later, in January 1983, a meeting was set up between Arafat and the delegation of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, consisting of (retired) General Matti Peled, former Director General of the Treasury Yaakov Arnon and myself.
At Tunis airport, a PLO official asked us to meet with Abbas before meeting with Arafat himself. Abbas was in charge of relations with Israelis. Until then I had heard about him only from the two senior PLO members with whom I had conducted secret talks -- Said Hamami (who was murdered) and Issam Sartawi (who was murdered).
My first impression of Abu Mazen (the nom-de-guerre of Abbas) was that he was very different from Arafat, that he was indeed the total opposite. Arafat was a warm person, flamboyant, extrovert, touching, hugging. Abbas is a cool person, introvert, matter-of-fact. (Mazan, by the way, is Hebrew for "balance sheet")
Arafat was the perfect national liberation leader, and took care to look that way. He always wore a uniform. Abbas looks like a high-school principal and always wears a European suit.
WHEN ARAFAT founded Fatah at the end of the 1950s in Kuwait, Abbas was one of the first who joined. He is one of the "founders."
That was not easy. Almost all the Arab governments disliked the new-born group, which claimed to speak for the Palestinian people. At the time, each Arab government claimed to represent the Palestinians itself and tried to exploit the Palestinian cause for its own purposes. Arafat and his people took that cause out of their hands, and were therefore persecuted all over the Arab world.
After that first meeting with Abbas, I met him on all my visits to Tunis. I conferred first with Abbas, discussing plans for possible actions to promote peace between our two peoples. When we had agreed on possible initiatives, Abbas would say: "Now we shall submit this to the Ra'is."
We moved to Arafat's office and put forward the proposals we had devised. When we had hardly finished, Arafat would say "Yes" or "No" without the slightest hesitation. I was always impressed by his quickness of mind and his capacity for making decisions . (One of his Palestinian opponents told me once: "He is the leader because he is the only one courageous enough to make decisions.")
In the presence of Arafat, Abu-Mazen's place was clear: Arafat was the leader who made the decisions, Abbas was an adviser and assistant, like all the other "Abus" -- Abu-Jihad (who was murdered), Abu-Iyad (who was murdered) and Abu-Alaa (who is still alive).
On one of my visits to Tunis, I was asked to do a personal favor: to bring Abbas a book about the Kasztner trial. Abu-Mazen was writing a doctoral thesis for a university in Moscow about the cooperation between Nazis and Zionists -- a theme very popular in Soviet times. (Israel Kasztner was a Zionist functionary when the Nazis invaded Hungary. He tried to save Jews by negotiating with Adolf Eichmann.)
ARAFAT DID not send Abbas to Oslo, because Abbas was already too recognizable. Instead he sent Abu-Alaa, the unknown financial expert of the PLO. The entire operation was initiated by Arafat, and I assume that Abbas had a part in it. In Israel, there was a quarrel between Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres (who died this week) and Yossi Beilin about who deserved the glory, but the Oslo initiative actually came from the Palestinian side. The Palestinians initiated, the Israelis reacted. (That explains, by the way, the sad story of the Oslo agreement.)
As I have already pointed out in a previous article, the Nobel Prize committees awarded the peace prize to Arafat and Rabin. Peres' friends around the world raised hell, so the committee added Peres to the list. Justice demanded that Abbas, too, should receive the prize, but the Nobel statues allow only for three laureates. So Abbas did not get the prize. That was a glaring injustice, but Abbas kept quiet.
When Arafat returned to Palestine, all the festivities were held for him. That evening, when I made my way among the delirious crowds around Arafat's temporary HQ in Hotel Palestine, Abbas was nowhere to be seen.