Fri, Nov 12, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Mahmud Abbas likely to take reins of power

DE FACTO LEADER Although few Palestinians mourned his departure last year, the former prime minister might be able to galvanize the stalled peace process

AFP , RAMALLAH, WEST BANK

Former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas listens to Palestinian National Council spokesman Salim Zanoun, unseen, as a poster of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat sits on his chair during a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) meeting in Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah yesterday. The PLO elected Mahmoud Abbas as its chief on Thursday, virtually ensuring he will succeed Arafat as the next leader of the Palestinians, at least for an interim period.

PHOTO: AP

Former Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas, widely tipped as a favorite to succeed late leader Yasser Arafat, is a polished and moderate politician more admired abroad than at home.

Better known by his nom-de-guerre Abu Mazen, a name taken from his dead first-born son, Abbas quit as Arafat's first-ever premier in September last year.

After barely four months in the job, he walked out after failing to wrest full control of the Palestinian security apparatus from the former strongman.

From September last year until Arafat's dramatic flight from the West Bank for emergency treatment in France, Abbas kept out of the spotlight, retaining many of his key positions and trying to patch up his differences with Arafat.

But with Arafat in Paris, he swung center stage, becoming de facto Palestinian leader, assuming control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the central committee of the Fatah party.

If he were to take Arafat's place, his formal appointment could galvanize the peace process which ground to a halt after he left office.

A Washington favorite, Abbas held talks with US President George W. Bush, who cold-shouldered Arafat, in the White House in July last year.

Last year, he led the Palestinian delegation at a summit in Jordan to launch the roadmap peace plan, where he pledged to "resort to peaceful means in our quest to end the occupation."

Unlike Arafat's second prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, Abbas was also regarded by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a man to do business with, although his failure to gain more concrete results from their talks on issues such as the release of Palestinian prisoners ultimately undermined his authority.

Few Palestinians mourned his departure last year, as many believed he had become too close to both Sharon and Bush.

An outspoken critic of the "militarization" of the Palestinian uprising, Abbas managed to persuade armed factions such as Hamas to call a truce in their campaign of attacks against Israel in July last year.

The truce collapsed seven weeks later amid mutual recriminations.

Amid signs of a rapprochement with Arafat, Abbas was recently tipped by officials to play a possible role in a new round of negotiations to persuade the factions to agree to a new truce.

A party man who traditionally shunned the spotlight, the 69-year-old has been PLO secretary general since 1969 -- for 35 years Arafat's number two. A co-founder in the 1960s of Arafat's Fatah party, which is the largest group in the PLO, Abbas has long been convinced that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in negotiation.

Back in 1974, he was the first high-ranking Palestinian to initiate contact with left-wing Israeli figures and peace groups.

With no meeting held at all in the year after he resigned, Abbas made a personal visit to inquire about his old colleague's health on October 25, before returning to the Muqataa compound two days later to be by Arafat's bedside.

He also was among four top Palestinian officials who this week visited the French military hospital where Arafat ended his days.

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