Mahmoud Abbas

Mahmoud Abbas was born in Safed, in British-occupied Palestine in 1935, became a refugee in 1948, was educated in the University of Damascus, and received a doctorate in history from the Peoples Friendship University of Russia in Moscow in 1962. His doctoral dissertation was about Zionism and Nazism. He spent most of his adult life working with Arafat in Fatah as a founder and leader becoming a member of its Executive Committee and head of the Negotiations Affairs Department. He achieved international renown in 1993 with the Oslo agreement and the White House famed lawn signatures. After developing a reputation as a “pragmatist”, he was urged upon Arafat as a possible Prime Minister acceptable to Israel and the United States. Arafat reluctantly agreed in March 2003. Arafat, however, was not anxious to cede much power; other Palestinian groups were resentful of Abbas support by Israel and the United States, and even his own sponsors did little to shore him up over the next few months, so he found it necessary to resign in September 2003. Upon Arafat’s death in November 2004 he was named head of the Executive Committee and became President. He ran for election in January 2005, garnering 62% of the vote on a platform that advocated the end of armed confrontation with Israel, developing economic capacity of Palestinian territories, and expansion of Palestinian political participation. He has continued to be President without having run for a second term.

Transitional Leadership

If the West Bank and Gaza are to join forces again, and if Fatah and Hamas are to form a new coalition government, at least in the short-term, it would be necessary to turn leadership of the Palestinians to leaders of both organizations who currently enjoy a measure of name recognition and popular support. Fatah, the largest political organization, faces a particular challenge in finding a replacement for Mr. Abbas, for no one individual at this time seems to have garnered sufficient support to assume his place. The new leaders would need to have, as a group if not individually, a modicum of support from the U.S., the Arab League, and the European Community. Fortunately for the Palestinians, there is no shortage of such personalities. The individuals named here are but a sample of many members of the political elite of the West Bank and Gaza from which the new generation of leaders would emerge.

Salam Fayyad, the current Prime Minister (at least one of two disputed Prime Ministers) was born in Deir Al-Ghusn, West Bank, in 1952. He is a graduate of the American University of Beirut, who received his MBA from St. Edward’s University and has a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas at Austin. He taught economics at Yarmouk University, Jordan, and served as regional manager of the Arab Bank in the West Bank and Gaza. He worked at the World Bank 1987-1995 and was the IMF’s representative to Palestine until 2001. He was appointed first as Finance Minister in the Fatah-controlled administration 2002-2005. When President Abbas dismissed Mr. Ismail Haniyeh as Prime Minister, Mr. Fayyad was appointed Prime Minister in 2007. He is known for his efforts to rebuild Palestinian economy despite the occupation.

Ahmad Qurai was born in Abu Dis, a suburb of Jerusalem in 1937 and is an economist and businessman. He became head of the Economics Department of the Executive Committee of the PLO in 1983 and has specialized in Palestinian economic matters since 1994. He has taken interest in security issues developing a reputation as a pragmatist and a close associate of Mahmoud Abbas whom he replaced in October 2003 as Prime Minister. Qurai resigned his Prime Ministerial position when the second legislative elections resulted in the overwhelming defeat of Fatah. He is now a member of the PLC, and may yet be heard from again.

Then there are current leaders of Hamas. Ismael Haniya, the Hamas-designated Prime Minister, was born in 1963 and grew up in a refugee camp in Israeli-occupied Gaza and received his entire education in the Islamic University in Gaza. He was arrested several times by the Israelis and escaped at least one Israeli assassination attempt. His entire work experience is connected with student organizations in Gaza on behalf of Hamas, at the Islamic University, and with Hamas itself. He was exiled for a while to Lebanon. He was selected by the majority in the PLC and given his charge to form a government by President Abbas. He was not allowed to demonstrate leadership ability or lack of it over both the West Bank and Gaza. His task of managing the affairs of Gaza under siege and attack is not enviable. Khaled Mesha’al, the ideological head of Hamas now exiled to Damascus, was born in the West Bank near Ramallah and received a BA in physics from the University of Kuwait, but rose to world attention when Israeli agents tried to assassinate him with a slow-acting poison on the streets of Amman in 1997. Mahmoud Zahar, the leader of the Hamas majority in the PLC, is a surgeon who has been teaching at the Islamic University in Gaza; the Israelis bombed his home trying to kill him, but killed several members of his family instead.

Marwan Barghouthi (b. 1959) is perhaps the most popular Palestinian political leader today. He was born in a village near Ramallah in the West Bank. He grew up and spent his entire life under Israeli occupation in resistance to Israeli occupation, participating in both Intifadas and perhaps more. He attended Birzeit University, which granted him a BA in History and Political Science in 1994, and then MA in International Relations in 1998. In 2002, the Israelis arrested him and he was sentenced to five life sentences for alleged killing of Israeli civilians. Nevertheless, he ran for elections from prison in 2006 and was elected to the Palestinian Parliament.

More Leaders Will Emerge

The 2006 elections were much cleaner than those held in 1996. But did new leaders emerge? Elections, no matter what the result, are still better than reliance on a foreign power selecting a cleric with no political skills as the nation’s leader (the Grand Mufti), or neighboring countries looking for a token Palestinian mouthpiece to call a leader (Shukairy), or a handful of activists crowning a young firebrand (Arafat). But legislative elections were not allowed to take their “normal” course in political development. U.S. and Israeli opposition to the success of Hamas helped derail the search for a new Palestinian leadership. At a minimum, the 1996 and 2006 elections helped end the haphazard way of the last eighty years for selecting leaders. Elections set precedent by selecting two prime ministers (Abbas and Qurai) and two presidents (Arafat and Abbas) through open elections and legislative majorities. The advice and assistance of countries such as the United States, urging elections, may yet prove to have been extremely valuable. Legislative and presidential elections (in the next few months or year) may be seen as further steps in towards Palestinian democracy. The coming legislative and presidential elections must proceed, under international oversight, to select the next generation of Palestinian leaders. The U.S. and Israel will be well advised to support and respect the results of future elections.

Emerging leaders may not have significant leadership and government experience. Chances are, however, they will be well-educated. Most of them will be young and products of Israeli occupation. The torch is being passed to a new generation that has been schooled under Israel’s own tutelage. Israel and the world will have to accept the fact that after more than forty years of occupation the leaders of the Palestinians are the products of Israel’s own occupation, those same people who have been imprisoned (650,000 Palestinians are estimated to have been arrested by Israeli security forces since 1967), tortured, or dehumanized.

Chances are that the Palestinians will find their new leaders among the thousands who now organize and manage a myriad of civic organizations that have sprouted in the West Bank and Gaza, despite or perhaps because of the Israeli occupation. Palestinians have developed an elaborate network of sophisticated voluntary organizations in many fields of daily and civic life. They are firmly supported by a mostly literate population. There is no lack of talent or know-how among Palestinians. This is especially true if the residents of the West Bank and Gaza can also be augmented by other Palestinians scattered in many countries around the world. Bringing expatriate Palestinians in the electoral process, much as was done recently with expatriate Iraqis, will go a long way to enlarging the pool from which Palestinians can select their leaders. Expatriate Palestinians, in any event, should assume a greater role in helping in the recovery of Palestine much as have members of the international Jewish community contributed to building Israel.

The Palestinian people deserve better leadership than that which they had to call their own for four generations. The time is now.