Reprinted from Gush Shalom
I FIRST met Mahmoud Abbas in Tunis at the beginning of 1983.
I knew that he was responsible for the Israel desk in the PLO leadership. Said Hamami and Issam Sartawi, the PLO delegates with whom I had been in permanent contact since 1974, told me that he was in charge. But he was not present at my first meeting with Yasser Arafat in Beirut during the siege.
I came to Tunis with General Matti Peled and Yaakov Arnon, in an official delegation of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which we had founded in 1975. Before meeting with Arafat himself, we were asked to meet with Abu Mazen (as Abbas is called) and discuss our ideas, so as to present the leader with an agreed, detailed proposal. That was also the procedure in all the many meetings that followed.
Abu Mazen was very different from Arafat. Arafat was flamboyant, spontaneous, extrovert. Abu Mazen is rather withdrawn, introverted, cautious, meticulous. My first impression was that of a schoolmaster.
When Arafat was murdered (as I believe), there were two obvious candidates to succeed him: Mahmoud Abbas and Farouk Kaddoumi, both members of the PLO founding generation. Kaddoumi was far more extreme, he did not believe that Israel would ever make peace and admired the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad. The PLO leadership chose Abbas.
WHEN ABBAS assumed "power" (in quotation marks) -- he found himself in an almost impossible situation.
Arafat had accepted the status of the Palestinian Authority under Israeli occupation as a calculated risk.
First of all, he believed Yitzhak Rabin, as we all did (and as I advised him to). We all believed that Rabin was well on the way to accepting a Palestinian state next to Israel. Within five years, the State of Palestine would become a fact. No one could have foreseen the murder of Rabin, the cowardice of Shimon Peres and the ascent of Binyamin Netanyahu.
Even before that, Rabin had bowed to the pressure of his "security chiefs" and reneged on crucial parts of the Oslo agreement, such as the free passages between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Abu Mazen entered into this situation -- Rabin was dead, the Oslo agreement only a shadow of its former self, the occupation and the settlement enterprise in full swing.
It was an almost hopeless task from the start: a dubious autonomy under occupation. According to the Oslo deal, which was meant to last for five years at most, the greater part of the West Bank ("area C") was under direct and full Israeli control, and the Israeli army was free to operate in the two other areas ("A" and "B"), too. An additional Israeli withdrawal, provided for in Oslo, never materialized.
Palestinian elections held in these circumstances led to a Hamas victory, helped along by the competition among the Fatah candidates. When Israel and the US prevented Hamas from assuming power, Hamas took the Gaza strip over by force. The Israeli leadership was full of glee: the old Roman maxim Divide et Impera served its purposes well.
Since then, all Israeli governments have done everything in their power to keep Abbas in "power" while reducing him to a mere underling. The Palestinian Authority, conceived in the beginning as the embryo of the Palestinian state, was shorn of any real authority. Ariel Sharon used to refer to Abu Mazen as a "plucked chicken."
TO REALIZE the extreme danger of Abu Mazen's situation one has only to remember the most recent historical precedent of "autonomy" under occupation: Vichy.