Mahmoud Abbas entered Yasser Arafat’s office in the Palestinian presidential complex, commonly referred to as the muqata‘a (compound), in the center of Ramallah. It was October of 2000, and violence was raging in the streets. Dozens of people had already died in clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli military. Hundreds were wounded. This was no longer just a burst of anger—it was coordinated, and it was turning into another intifada.
When Abbas arrived at the muqata‘a, Arafat was busy taking phone calls from world leaders. France invited Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to attend a peace conference in Paris, the United States was willing to renew its efforts as a mediator, and Egypt was also working behind the scenes to calm the situation. Abbas was involved in all these efforts, but it wasn’t the main thing he had come to discuss with Arafat. Inside the Palestinian leader’s office, where a large photo of Jerusalem hung on the wall, Abbas delivered a stark warning to Arafat: If you don’t instruct all of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces to stop the violence, the Palestinian people will suffer terrible consequences.
Arafat, in fact, was doing the exact opposite: actively encouraging his security forces to participate in the violence. At one meeting with his top security officials, he reportedly asked, “Why do the Jews not have more deaths? You know what to do.” Qaddura Fares, a former PA cabinet member, explains that “Abu Ammar [Arafat] led Palestinians according to our reality. So, when there was a need to struggle and fight, he did.” Abbas found this direction extremely disturbing. “We are losing control over the street,” he warned Arafat, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation. “This thing will turn against us.”
Arafat acknowledged his deputy, but refused to commit to ending the violence. Over the next few weeks, things only got worse. On October 12, two Israeli soldiers accidentally entered Ramallah after taking the wrong turn at a checkpoint. They were arrested by PA police officers, taken to a local station, and then brutally lynched by hundreds of angry Palestinians, including members of the PA security forces. Horrific pictures from the event were broadcast for hours on Israeli television. Israel retaliated that evening by bombing, for the first time since the creation of the Palestinian Authority, office buildings used by its security agencies. The two sides were now practically at war, just three months after the failed peace summit in Camp David.
If his role during the summit was that of an intransigent hardliner, Abbas’s conduct during the first weeks of the Second Intifada was almost the opposite. “Abu Mazen was one of the first to warn against [violence],” says one of his former advisers. “This might not have been terribly popular, but it did distinguish him from others.”
In opposing the violence and calling for moderation, Abbas was resisting not only his boss but the sentiment of the street. “He was the only one to stand up to Arafat and tell him about the dangers posed by the intifada,” says Avi Dichter, who was the head of Shin Bet at the time. “He realized very early where this was going, and why it had to be stopped. Arafat refused to listen to him.”
Ahmad Tibi, a close associate of Abbas’s, explains that his opposition to violence was a mixture of morals and politics: “He believed it was morally wrong to use violence, and also that it was against the Palestinian people’s interests. He never thought violence would lead to the end of the occupation.” What Abbas wanted, says Tibi, was a “non-violent intifada” consisting of civil protests that would elicit the world’s sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians. “He thought violence would have the opposite effect.”
Ahmed Qurie, Abbas’s former deputy, wrote in his memoirs that “At this time, there were also internal differences within the Palestinian leadership. In private discussions, there were sharp disagreements between us.” Arafat had unleashed the violent elements within his own party and coordinated with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another terror group. There was little Abbas and the negotiators in the leadership could do to stop it. “Some Fatah leaders in the field,” wrote Qurie, attempted to “construct their own organizational bases inside Fatah.” The party was fracturing, and older leaders like Abbas and Qurie were ceding influence to a younger, more hostile generation.
In December of 2000, President Clinton, weeks away from leaving the White House, presented both sides with a last-minute peace proposal known as “The Clinton Parameters,” which included a Palestinian state on 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, Palestinian sovereignty over the Aqsa Compound (the Temple Mount), a split Jerusalem based on ethnic lines, and a gradual Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza.
“I knew the plan was tough for both parties,” Clinton wrote in his autobiography, “but it was time—past time—to put up or shut up…. It was a hard deal, but if they wanted peace, I thought it fair to both sides.” Barak, who had lost his majority in the Knesset and was forced into early elections, accepted the parameters. Arafat rejected them. “The deal was so good I couldn’t believe anyone would be foolish enough to let it go,” recalled Clinton, who thought Arafat’s rejection was an “error of historic proportions.” Clinton believed that unlike Arafat, who said no, “Abu Ala and Abu Mazen also would have agreed but didn’t want to be at odds with Arafat.”
By rejecting this offer, Arafat put the last nail in the coffin of the peace process, while simultaneously green-lighting the escalation of the intifada. “[Arafat] saw that repeating the First Intifada in new forms would bring the necessary popular, international, and Arab pressure upon Israel,” recalled Fatah leader Nabil Sha‘ath. Arafat’s wife, Suha, famously recounted her husband urging her to leave before the violence rose: “He said, ‘you have to leave Palestine, because I want to carry out an intifada…. He ordered me to leave him because he had already decided to carry out an intifada after the Oslo Accords and after the failure of Camp David.”
Arafat took most of Fatah on this turn toward terror. Mahmoud Abbas was the most prominent member of a small group of officials who refused to follow him. For much of Abbas’s life, he had been politically isolated. Yet at no point was he more politically removed from the center of Palestinian power than during the Second Intifada. “During that period,” recalls Fatah parliamentarian Nasser Juma‘a, “there wasn’t one Palestinian who declared his or her objection to the intifada.”
“He was very unhappy with Arafat,” recalls Martin Indyk, then the U.S. Ambassador to Israel. “He didn’t at all agree with what was going on. He thought it was tremendously destructive. He was very clear about this, and also very frustrated, because he didn’t have the influence to stop it. He did the right thing, and he paid a political price for it.” Munib al-Masri, a close associate of Arafat, adds that, “Abu Mazen didn’t hide his opinion. He went to Fatah gatherings and said very clearly: this is wrong and it won’t help us end the occupation.”
Jerusalem expressed a similar sentiment regarding Abbas’s conduct during this period. “I think he risked his life,” says one former senior Israeli official. “He walked around and told the young Fatah activists who were organizing to carry out terror attacks: ‘this is a mistake, you are ruining the Palestinian dream.’ This episode convinced me and many others in Israel that despite all his other shortcomings, his opposition to violence and terrorism was sincere.”
Some Palestinian officials, however, are skeptical about Abbas’s efforts and impact. No one doubts that he was opposed to the violent nature of the intifada, but there is a debate on how effective that opposition was. “Abbas was against the Second Intifada, but he did nothing,” argues Juma‘a. “He did not express his views in an influential way. Had he been clearer and more influential—and even stronger—he may have found many who share this opinion.” “I’m not sure this was the biggest disagreement between [Arafat and Abbas] at the time,” says Fares, the former cabinet member. Fares adds that the friction in the relationship between the two leaders was perhaps just because “Abu Ammar was ignoring Abu Mazen at the time.”
Failing to influence the direction of the Palestinian uprising, Abbas found himself in a familiar position of exile. Just as he had done in the past when he disagreed with Arafat, he physically removed himself. He traveled frequently to places like Tunisia and the Gulf. His eldest son, Mazen, was running a successful business out of Qatar, which for decades was somewhat of a second home to the Abbas family. Mazen Abbas was personally close to Hamad bin Jassim, the Qatari Foreign Minister, and also enjoyed a cordial relationship with Eli Avidar, an Israeli diplomat stationed in the rich emirate. The two would play tennis together from time to time. “During those matches, Abbas Jr. often spoke of his despair at the failure of the Camp David summit and his anger at Arafat’s attempts to remove his father from the circle of senior leadership after he had severely criticized the rais’s [President’s] conduct at Camp David,” Avidar wrote in his memoirs.
While the Abbas family began spending more and more time in Doha, terror kept raging in the West Bank and Gaza. Frustrated with Barak’s failure to tamp down the violence, the Israeli public rewarded Ariel Sharon with a landslide victory in the February 2001 special elections. Any prospect of peace negotiations was now gone: Arafat was fully committed to terrorism; Sharon was fully committed to crushing it. In addition, the personal enmity between them, going back to their 1982 standoff in Lebanon, was beyond repair.
With the derailment of the peace process, Abbas’s political standing was at a historical low point, despite (or perhaps because of) the accuracy of his early warnings about the dangers of the intifada. “Arafat was very skillful at cutting down any critics; he was a master at that game” says Indyk. “Ridiculing, spreading rumors, bashing—whatever he needed to do in order to discredit those who dared speak up against him.” Abbas wasn’t doing himself any favors, either. “When Arafat was besieged in the muqata‘a [by the Israelis in 2002], Abbas invited some cadres within Fatah to meet and write a document critical of Arafat,” recalls Yasser Abed Rabbo. “Even if you agree with him on the principles, the time was the worst. Arafat accused him of treason: ‘I am under siege, and you are joining my enemies in criticizing my leadership style?!’” Even after all these years of politicking within the Palestinian national movement, Abbas did not understand the finer points of dealing with Arafat.
The tongue-lashings from Arafat didn’t stop Abbas from campaigning against the intifada. “What have we achieved?” he demanded at a closed-door meeting of local leaders in Gaza in 2002. “What positive or negative aims have we accomplished?” In the heat of a popular uprising, here was the number two official in the Palestinian national movement criticizing everything his colleagues had supported since September 2000. The thousands of lives lost, the international condemnation, the destruction of Palestinian institutions—it all weighed heavily on Abbas. “What happened over these two years,” Abbas bemoaned at that event, “has been the total destruction of all we have built and all that had been built before that.”
Underlying the intifada’s gruesome terror attacks was an escalating battle between the two largest Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas. Some analysts have argued that Arafat decided to launch the uprising in part to take a swipe at Hamas’s increasing “resistance” appeal. Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, saw the uprising as an opportunity to replace Fatah as the leader of the Palestinian national movement. In Abbas’s view, this bloody competition between his party and Hamas was devastatingly destructive to the national cause.
The events of 2002, the bloodiest year of the intifada, certainly strengthened his case. In late March, following the murder of thirty Israeli and foreign citizens by a suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Netanya, Israel carried out a large military operation throughout the West Bank, resuming complete control of the Palestinian cities that had been handed over to the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords. The Israel Defense Forces also surrounded the muqata’a, putting Arafat under siege within his own compound, parts of which were destroyed in the fighting. Two years earlier, Israelis and Palestinians were negotiating over an Israeli withdrawal from approximately 90 percent of the West Bank; now, Israel was reversing the withdrawals it had already undertaken in the mid-1990s, and Arafat, instead of being invited to another signing ceremony on the White House lawn, was eating pita bread in the dark while Israeli tanks and snipers surrounded his office.
Abbas’s warning that the Palestinians could lose everything as a result of the intifada had come true. And yet, even then, Arafat still refused to listen to him.
President George W. Bush entered the White House in January 2001, just four months after the beginning of the intifada and a month before Sharon’s election victory. It didn’t take long for him to develop a negative opinion of Yasser Arafat. The outgoing President Clinton famously said to Colin Powell, Bush’s Secretary of State, about Arafat, “Don’t you ever trust that son of a bitch. He lied to me and he’ll lie to you.” Bush appeared to take that message to heart. Despite expressing support for Palestinian statehood at his first UN General Assembly speech that fall, Bush was not eager to launch a full-blown peace initiative. Instead, the new administration was looking to avoid the fruitless peace process in which Clinton had invested so much. Bush’s senior advisers viewed Arafat more as a menace and less as a partner.
“I would divide it into three periods,” says Elliott Abrams, Bush’s top Middle East expert. “The first is pre-9/11. There’s a general distaste for Arafat and a desire not to engage with him. But on the other hand, he is ‘Mr. Palestine,’ and Powell, among others, is saying we have to deal with him, that he is what he is.” But then 9/11 happened, and the White House’s calculation shifted dramatically. All of a sudden, the Bush Administration was engaged in a war on terror, and Arafat’s support for terror in the Second Intifada put him in the Administration’s sights.
The question for the Administration in this second period of Bush-Arafat relations was basically what to do with Arafat and his connection to terror. According to Abrams, “That question [was] not answered until the Karine A affair in January 2002.” Less than six months after the events of 9/11, Israel seized a cargo ship laden with weapons bound for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. According to the Israeli military, the freighter carried over fifty tons of war equipment. Arafat denied the freighter was bound for his PA, but the Bush Administration wasn’t buying it. “The administration basically concluded that [Arafat] really is a terrorist,” recalls Abrams, “Bush [was] for a Palestinian state, but Arafat cannot lead that state.”
Palestinian officials, too, could see the writing on the wall after 9/11 and the Karine A affair. “It was obvious immediately after the 9/11 events that the intifada was extremely harmful to Palestinian interests,” says Juma‘a. “The whole formula on the international level changed. Suddenly countries of the world were being classified as either pro-terror or anti-terror…. That’s when we started to lose the international compassion and sympathy for our cause.”
These political developments, dramatic as they were, became somewhat meaningless for Abbas in June of 2002, when his oldest son, Mazen, died of a heart attack at the age of 42. Besides running the family’s business interests in Qatar, Mazen was also one of his father’s most trusted political advisers. “He was very close to Mazen and very proud of him,” recalls Tibi, a longtime friend of the family. “His death was a terrible blow to the entire family. He was still young and had a bright future ahead of him.” Mazen’s body was flown to Ramallah, where hundreds attended a state funeral, including Arafat. “We went to the mourning house, and Arafat left the muqata’a to join,” recalls Fares. The Palestinian newspapers were filled with condolence advertisements for an entire week.
While Abbas was grieving the death of his beloved son, the developments on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza continued to make him look prophetic. In his conversation with Arafat in October of 2000, Abbas had said that if Fatah and the PA encouraged terrorism, they would eventually lose control and strengthen their own internal rivals. In October of 2002, a group of Hamas terrorists assassinated a senior commander of the PA’s police force in Gaza in broad daylight. When the heads of the security agencies in Gaza asked Arafat to order a painful retribution against Hamas for the assassination, Arafat refused to do so, disappointing his own security chiefs and causing the entire PA establishment to appear ineffectual. “When they didn’t even try to take care of that problem in Gaza, it became clear to many Palestinians how weak they had become in just two years,” says Dichter. Two years prior, Arafat had refused Abbas’s demand that he use his security forces to stop the violence against Israel. Now, he was too weak to use them to stop violence against his own institutions.
With Israeli tanks rolling into Ramallah, Palestinians began to believe that the intifada had failed them. Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department adviser on Arab-Israeli issues, recalls visiting Arafat with Bush Administration envoy General Anthony Zinni: “[We] saw Arafat when he was being besieged by the Israelis and the muqata’a was a scene out of a bunker: all the windows were blocked and Arafat was there in candlelight with his pistol on the table. Zinni described Saeb [Erekat, a top negotiator] and [Yasser] Abed Rabbo looking like a bunch of drowned rats.”
A possible peek into Abbas’s thoughts during that period, after two and a half years of a bloody and ultimately failed uprising, can be found in a 2003 article coauthored by his close confidant Hussein Agha in the New York Review of Books: “[Abbas] looks around him and sees Palestinian land thoroughly reoccupied by Israel, the Palestinian Authority destroyed, widespread economic distress, and political mayhem. Practically anyone can acquire a gun and claim to make policy by showing it off. This is not resistance; it is anarchy…. In the court of international official opinion, the Palestinians have lost the moral high ground so patiently acquired for years.”
Agha and his writing partner, former Clinton adviser Rob Malley, wrote that, in Abbas’s eyes,
“the last two and a half years…have been disastrous for the Palestinians, and Arafat, who, better than anyone else, could have brought the disaster to an end, chose instead not to exercise his full authority. There was nothing new about Arafat’s behavior; Abu Mazen was familiar with it as much as he was familiar with the man himself. Only this time, the result was an unmitigated catastrophe because it violated so many of Abu Mazen’s cardinal rules: do not confront Israel with violence but deal with it through negotiations; maintain bridges with the Israeli public; do not dissipate the Palestinians’ international legitimacy.”
Between 2000-03, Abbas emerged as the anti-Arafat. He gained the respect of a small group of peers while also making himself known in Israel and Washington as a man of principle. It’s a testimony to his character that he was averse to terror, yet it’s a barometer of his political acumen that he was unable to stop or even slow the bloody onslaught. Confronting Arafat and the Fatah militants would have been a tall order, but in secluding himself abroad and avoiding the spotlight he showed his tendency to retreat in times of confrontation. It has become a theme in Abbas’s political life ever since.
Arafat’s gamble on terrorism and violence unleashed a disaster upon his own people. Abbas failed in his attempt to stop it. But in defeat he also carved out a position for himself as leader of the disunited opposition. It was a position that soon led to a power struggle between the founder of the Palestinian national movement and his stubborn deputy. Abbas got his chance at righting what had gone so terribly wrong, in his view, during the intifada.
The Second Intifada was a seminal moment in Abbas’s political career: His aversion to terror was tested at home and praised abroad, yet his inability to effect real change on the ground revealed a broader weakness. This inability to convince the Palestinian street of the merits of his arguments plagues him still.