Anyone who has sought an interview with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat learns the drill -- agree with his lieutenants on a range of days, pick a nearby hotel and wait. At some point after midnight, you will be summoned. The old man, dressed in battle fatigues with his headdress folded in the diamond shape of mandatory Palestine, a pistol attached to his hip, will arrive in a hurricane of aides and hangers-on. He will grab your hand for emphasis but ignore many of your questions.
It is against such a background that one measures an appointment with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen). The hour for our interview earlier this month in his functional Ramallah office was set in advance -- 7pm. At two minutes past, dressed in a dull brown suit, he walked in accompanied by two aides. There is no bravado, no hand grabbing. When asked if the Palestinian Authority has the strength to take charge of West Bank cities that he wants the Israeli military to evacuate, the 67-year-old prime minister replies that it will be hard, but we will try to manage. Asked about Palestinian terror, he says there is no role for violence in the Palestinian national struggle.
Humility is not a trait associated with political leadership, and many of Abbas' supporters fear it is not serving him well among his people. Abbas is not a man of public charisma. He is a serious person of decency and integrity who has emerged as the No. 2 in the Palestinian political structure largely because he knows how to get things done behind the scenes.
The result is a kind of prime-minister-despite-himself, a reluctant leader who dislikes the spotlight. With his arrival in power, the feuding Palestinian factions -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah -- have agreed to a ceasefire, giving Israelis and Palestinians their first break from violence in nearly three years.
Israel's leadership, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, say they take Abbas seriously in his profession of nonviolence -- although so far they have done little to help him survive politically.
The things Abbas says are welcome to nearly all Israelis. He vows, through the use of Palestinian checkpoints and police, to confiscate illegal weapons (although, for now, he refuses to search for weapons in people's homes). He says that the past two-and-a-half years of Palestinian violence have been appalling. And unlike a whole slew of Palestinian officials, Abbas seems actually to understand Israel's needs and plans. Abbas recognizes that Israelis need security and that Palestinians must provide it. He reads Israeli opinion polls and knows that if he does in fact provide such safety, Israeli willingness to compromise over land and dismantle settlements will be substantial.
Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli Parliament, says he has, at Abu Mazen's request, taken the new prime minister around to meet Israelis of various stripes in their homes, to hear their concerns and desires.
One of the most delicate issues facing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators is the right of Palestinian refugees to settle in what is now Israel. Abbas was born in what is today the Israeli town of Safed. Abbas says he has no desire to return to Safed because it is Israel and he believes most of his fellow refugees feel the same way (recent polling data lend support to this view). His notion is to persuade the Israelis to let the Palestinians assert their right of return and then make sure the vast majority of Palestinian refugees exercise it in a way that does not involve moving to Israel, through financial compensation or settling in the new Palestinian state.