Foreign Relations & International Law

The Last Palestinian: An Interview with Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon

J. Dana Stuster
Wednesday, September 6, 2017, 11:30 AM

Mahmoud Abbas will be remembered as a transformative figure in Palestinian politics. He was a driving force in reaching the Oslo Accords and in standing up the Palestinian Authority, and has overseen the tumultuous 13 years since the death of Fatah founder and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. Abbas has always lacked the notoriety of Arafat, and despite being president of the Palestinian Authority for more than a decade and a key figure in the peace process for decades more, there’s never been an English-language biography of the man until now.

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Mahmoud Abbas will be remembered as a transformative figure in Palestinian politics. He was a driving force in reaching the Oslo Accords and in standing up the Palestinian Authority, and has overseen the tumultuous 13 years since the death of Fatah founder and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. Abbas has always lacked the notoriety of Arafat, and despite being president of the Palestinian Authority for more than a decade and a key figure in the peace process for decades more, there’s never been an English-language biography of the man until now. The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas, by Grant Rumley, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Amir Tibon, Washington correspondent for Haaretz, charts Abbas’ story from his childhood in British-mandate Palestine, through the internal intrigues of the PLO and his eventual selection as Arafat’s successor, to the frustrations of governance.

Rumley and Tibon’s book is a thoughtful biography of a man who, by a combination of circumstance and miscalculation, has struggled to fulfill the aspirations for which he spent his life preparing. An early proponent of negotiations, Abbas has struggled to make the necessary compromises to reach an agreement, and because of the split with Hamas, now lacks the legitimacy to follow through on a deal even if he could reach one. Rumley and Tibon describe him as “a tragic figure” whose principles were bent by the challenges of governing. “Abbas started his presidency as a man of peace and institutions,” they write in their introduction. “More than a decade into his four-year term, he will end it as just another regional autocrat.”

After reading and sincerely enjoying the book, I recently asked Rumley and Tibon a few questions about it via email.

Why did it take this long for someone to write an English-language biography of Abbas?

We’re not really sure. It’s likely a combination of who he is relative to his predecessor and a general lack of interest in internal Palestinian politics beyond the West Bank and Gaza. There are scores of volumes devoted to Yasser Arafat, the founder of the modern Palestinian national movement. His successor was just about as close to the opposite of him as possible: a hybrid between a bureaucrat and academic removed from the heady days launching attacks against Israel. From an aesthetic standpoint, Abbas is just not as colorful a person. But he’s no less important. In fact, in many ways he holds more bureaucratic control over West Bank politics than his predecessor, and he’s played a major role in the peace process over the last few decades. In many ways, he’s the reason the Palestinians are negotiating today. Yet he has operated in a way that’s calculated and more or less quiet, and thus there isn’t a ton of interest in either him or the palace intrigue he so deftly manages.

You describe several near misses in the book, where Israeli and Palestinian leaders came to the brink of reaching a final status agreement only for the negotiations to fail at the end. Does one of these stand out to you as the biggest missed opportunity? What lessons did you take from it?

There is no shortage of blame in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and nowhere is this more evident than in the debates over what was offered and who turned down what. Typically this debate revolves around three moments: the Camp David summit in 2000, Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2008, and John Kerry’s proposal in 2014. For the first two, we set out to try to flesh those moments out a bit further and explain why, from Abbas’ perspective, he either urged Arafat to walk away, or walked away himself. From the Palestinian perspective, either there were no offers or these offers were made by ineffective Israeli leaders—either way, there’s enough of a grey area for debate. That’s not exactly the case in 2014, where Abbas definitely missed a serious opportunity.

The peace plan presented to him by President Obama in the spring of 2014 included a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with a capital in East Jerusalem and a symbolic Israeli gesture on the refugee issue—a proposal that it’s hard to see this administration repeating. Not only that, but the stars couldn’t have aligned more in his favor: a president with more than two years left in his second term willing to go to bat for him with the Israelis? You almost couldn’t draw up a more favorable constellation for the Palestinians. Yet Abbas walked away without giving an answer, and a frustrated Obama dropped the issue for the remainder of his presidency. It’s likely the biggest mistake in Abbas’ tenure.

There’s a bit of an internal tension in the way you describe Abbas. He is at once acutely aware of the political effects of his actions—which has motivated him to walk away from proposals at key moments—and also somewhat scornful of politics and domestic popular opinion. What’s going on there?

Abbas’ politics are different from Arafat’s. He was never the master of retail politics: He wasn’t in the camps in Lebanon, he wasn’t a fighter, he wasn’t an activist. He’s an academic, a bureaucrat, an in-house diplomat for the PLO. As such, his approach is vastly different from Arafat’s. His governing style is more closely akin to the Soviet style: He is the master of his party and the palace politics within. Yet where he succeeds at sidelining rivals and consolidating his grip on the instruments of power, he is woefully weak at convincing everyday Palestinians of the merits of his argument.

This leaves him exposed to criticism from rival parties, most notably Hamas. Abbas may seem to give little thought to what everyday Palestinians seem to think of him, but he’s incredibly paranoid about this animosity fueling his rivals’ rise. It’s a weird dichotomy where undirected unpopularity doesn’t seem to worry him, but unpopularity harnessed by his rivals becomes an existential threat. This is his great weakness in the peace process. Any agreement will inherently require compromise, and that compromise will take convincing on a mass scale to sell to the Palestinian people. Think of all the issues where Palestinian leaders have presented hardline positions counter to what is likely to come out of negotiations: Not all of the original refugees are returning to their homes, not all of East Jerusalem will be a Palestinian capital, and not all of the settlements will be evacuated. All of these issues are significant departure points from the typical messaging coming from Palestinian leaders, and all will require a leader who can convince Palestinians of the benefits to their compromise. Abbas just doesn’t seem to have that.

Shortly after the book’s publication, the New Yorker published an article by Palestinian negotiators Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalidi that seemed to agree with a lot of your conclusions. They write, “The Palestinian loss of faith in a negotiated settlement reflects a loss of faith in the agencies that have sought to pursue it.” Can the Palestinian Authority and Fatah recover? What would that even look like?

It’s first and foremost two different asks with revitalizing the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah party. The PA needs a mission to have guidance, and guidance to have renewed donor aid. It had that under Salam Fayyad until Abbas forced him out. Aid is down due to stagnation, corruption, and increased scrutiny on Palestinian payments to prisoners and families of the ‘martyrs.’ As such, the PA has hemorrhaged money and become increasingly ineffective in addressing Palestinians’ needs. Revitalizing the PA is primarily a question of ensuring good governance and effective transmission of donor funds to the Palestinians that need it the most.

Fatah, as a party, is another story. It is still the most effective mobilizing power in the West Bank and the vanguard of Palestinian nationalism, but gone are its glory days of old. The party has plenty of fault lines, from old and young leaders to those loyal to Abbas and those associated with his rival in Muhammad Dahlan. Abbas’ consolidation of power at last November’s conference has only left the party purged and further disconnected. Rejuvenating Fatah means injecting new blood into the party’s organs, primarily the Revolutionary Council and Central Committee, as well as replenishing local leaders in areas like refugee camps and smaller municipal districts.

Both of these are serious lifts, and neither is consistent with Abbas’ behavior in 2017. He’s forced out his rivals in both the PA and Fatah, replacing them with yes-men more prone to promulgate a corrupt system and solidify his control on power. As such, as Agha and Khalidi noted, there’s a serious lack of trust between the people and the leadership.

You titled the book The Last Palestinian. One of the meanings of the title is that Abbas will be the last Palestinian leader to have been born in Palestine under the British mandate. (The description of him returning to visit his hometown, which is now Safed, Israel, is one of the most powerful passages in the book.) What’s the significance of this shift? Will it affect the peace process?

For as unpopular as Abbas gets in the West Bank and Gaza (polls regularly show two-thirds want him to resign), there will always be a paterfamilias element to his rule, simply by merit of his standing within the Palestinian national project. He’s lived the modern Palestinian existence, first as a refugee, then as a founder of Fatah, and then ultimately as a returnee in the post-Oslo landscape. No one after him will be able to embody this arc, but rather his successor(s) will be of a younger generation, likely born in the West Bank or Gaza after 1948 or even after 1967. Some of the likely contenders to replace him have spent time in Israeli prison (or in the case of Marwan Barghouti, are there now), while others have helped build the Palestinian Authority (such as former security chief Jibril Rajoub).

It’s hard to predict what that means for the peace process in general, but one area where it will have a lasting effect is in internal Palestinian politics. Whoever replaces Abbas will do so at a time when the Palestinians are more than a decade into a geographic split, the result of a civil war between their two largest parties in 2007. The next leader won’t be able to say they’re a unifying figure: They’ll be a partisan figure who has navigated the low-intensity conflict with the other party for years. That doesn’t bode well for the ongoing Palestinian civil war.

The book is a remarkable portrait of a complicated man. You don’t pull your punches and address his shortcomings head on, particularly his lurch toward authoritarianism as he has consolidated power, but the biography is also written very compassionately. I didn’t expect to be as emotionally involved in the story as I was at the end of the book. How did your understanding of Abbas change as you wrote the book? Did your perspective about him or his legacy change?

We approached this project with a simple, guiding thesis: Abbas is a tragic figure because he wanted to negotiate a deal, came to power, and lost his ability to deliver. We knew he couldn’t deliver, and he likely won’t ever be able to deliver, but we might not have known the depths to which this incapability affects him. We hadn’t dove into the moments that really changed him—from the backlash over his secret agreement in 1995, to the death of his son, to his fights as prime minister with Arafat, to the first assassination attempt by Hamas against him. In fleshing those out, we came to understand the gap between him and his peers and the depths of the disconnect with the Palestinian people.

On the other hand, we also heard time and again from people who have worked with him—Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans—about his commitment to non-violence, his stubbornness is opting for negotiations, and his dogged fights with Arafat during the darkest moments of the second intifada. Some have called him “the best partner Israel never had,” and that’s probably the best way to describe him. All of this made an already tragic tale even more somber. And that’s ultimately his legacy.

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare and a PhD candidate at Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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