The Atlantic

The Political Education of Mahmoud Abbas

How the Palestinian leader tried to escape the ghost of Yasser Arafat
Source: Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters

When Israeli tanks besieged Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah in 2002, the Palestinian leader famously declared, “Oh God, grant me a martyr’s death.” Two and a half years later, his wish came true, in part. In November of 2004, the “Old Man” died in Paris after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

Arafat’s death left his party, Fatah, in disarray. The Palestinian leader was unconscious for days, yet when he finally passed away the party he had led for decades seemed unprepared. In the middle of the night, while senior Palestinian politicians argued over who should succeed the Old Man, Mahmoud Abbas—also known as Abu Mazen—sat in the corner, silent. Technically, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)’s bylaws dictated that power should go to him, since he was the organization’s secretary general. Still, some Palestinian officials were not convinced that he was up to the task.

Eventually, it was the members of smaller factions within the PLO that steered the decision in Abbas’s direction. “They [Fatah] quarreled with us, so we said if they don’t do it we’ll do it for them,” remembers Executive Committee member Abed Rabbo. “We told them the Executive Committee’s choice was Abu Mazen. They had to approve it. We said ‘our candidate is Abu Mazen, and if you want someone else, go meet in the next room and get us another name.’ But we could not wait three days. We had to tell people today there was a leader.”

Early in the morning on November 11, 2004, as ordinary Palestinians woke up to the dramatic news of Arafat’s death, Fatah finally came to a decision on his successor: “Abu Mazen it is.”

Just a year earlier, Abbas had resigned from the premiership and was in political exile. He had retained his position as the PLO’s number two, technically, yet many believed his political career was effectively over. But as the reality of Arafat’s death sank in, the only thing the panicked Fatah and PLO leaders could agree on was that

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