Tony Blair rarely gives a speech or press conference these days without mentioning Mahmoud Abbas - though he prefers to use the new Palestinian Prime Minister's Arabic nickname, Abu Mazen.

After a lifetime behind the scenes, 67-year-old Abbas is suddenly at centre stage. With Yasser Arafat's capitulation in their row over the make-up of the Palestinian Cabinet, he is about to take up power.

It will be Abbas who will have to fight the Palestinians' corner when negotiations begin in earnest over the road-map peace plan, which calls for an independent Palestinian state within three years, and which US President George W. Bush has promised to release once Abbas' Cabinet is approved by the Palestinian Parliament.

It will be to Abbas that the Israelis and the US will look to fulfil the demand of the road-map that the Palestinian Authority stop the suicide bombings and other militant attacks - after all, in a speech carefully leaked to the press, Abbas said recently that violence had been a disastrous mistake.

But that demand could thrust him into a dangerous confrontation with groups such as Hamas that have no intention of hanging up their guns. And it will be Abbas whom the Palestinians, and probably the Israelis, will blame if this latest attempt at peace fails, as so many have before.

For all the fanfare with which his appointment has been greeted by Israel, the US and Britain, on the Palestinian street he is unpopular, and viewed with suspicion.

A few months ago, few outside Israel and the occupied territories had heard of Abbas. But, in fact, he has been involved in the peace process from the start. Flick back through the album of failed initiatives to 1993, and there he is on the White House lawn with Bill Clinton, Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, for the signing of the Oslo accords.

Together with the Israeli peace negotiator Yossi Beilin, Abbas drew up a plan to solve the vexed question of Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians want as a capital.

A few years ago, at a gathering with Palestinian journalists in the West Bank city of Ramallah, he dropped a bombshell. He was, he claimed, behind Issam Sartawi's dramatic speech to the Palestinian National Congress in which Sartawi became the first Palestinian politician to propose publicly that Palestinians should recognise Israel, back in the 1970s when there was no peace process. Abbas said he prompted Sartawi, and that he was pushing Palestinian intellectuals to start a dialogue with the Israeli left.

Journalists there at the time say Abbas spoke with pride. But it was an episode that left a bad taste in some Palestinians' mouths: Sartawi was killed for his speech by the Palestinian mercenary Abu Nidal. Abbas remained in the shadows, and safe.

To Israeli eyes, Abbas' credentials are excellent. Not only is there his track record in the peace process, but there is also that carefully leaked attack on the use of violence in the intifada. Israeli Foreign Ministry officials have been busy briefing journalists that not only is Abbas a man they can do business with, but that they are under orders not to be too effusive about him, for fear that their support will alienate him from ordinary Palestinians.

The fact that Abbas once wrote a book, The Other Side: The Secret Relationship between Nazism and the Zionist Movement, in which he claimed that the number of Jewish people killed in the Holocaust was not six million but fewer than one million, has been quietly brushed aside. References to the book have recently disappeared from an Israeli Government website.

Abbas' reported defence when asked about the book was telling. "When I wrote The Other Side, we were at war with Israel. Today I would not have made such remarks."

His biggest problem may be that he has little support among Palestinians. An uncharismatic, greying figure in poor health who never turns up at political rallies or makes speeches, he is viewed with suspicion in the occupied territories.

Many Palestinians are wary of Abbas' good connections in Israel, and say they fear he is being set up as a dupe to sign up to a peace deal dictated by Israel and its US ally in which they will get nothing.

"The new Palestinian Cabinet is a security Cabinet to oppress Palestinian people," said Abdel Sattar Qassem, professor of political science at Nablus' al-Najah University.

But it remains to be seen whether Abbas, who once said "Israel is a state created to defeat all the Arab world in one second", will turn out to be as compliant to Israeli wishes as Palestinians fear. Unlike Arafat, who was born in Egypt, Abbas was born into the crucible of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His birthplace, the hilltop town of Safed, is today a completely Israeli town, a quiet place favoured by artists. But in 1948 it was the site of a bloody battle for the control of British-mandate Palestine.

In 1935, when Abbas was born, Safed had a majority Palestinian population. There was a history of violence between the Arabs and the small Jewish community. In the confrontation in 1948, Jewish militia captured the town. Thousands of Palestinians fled, harassed by the Jewish militia. Those who did not were forced to leave. Abbas and his family ended up in Syria as refugees.

Despite his middle-class, intellectual image today, his early years in Syria appear to have been hard. At 13 he left school and worked for two years to help to support the family. After that he went back to school, and went on to study law in Damascus and Cairo.

His path back to the occupied territories lay through 13 years working at a ministry in Qatar, during which he was involved in setting up a political leadership-in-exile for the Palestinians. In 1965, he was one of the founders of Fatah, the Arafat-led faction that still dominates Palestinian society.

One of the consistent features of Abbas' career has been his insistence that he will not give up on pursuing the "right to return" for refugees who were forced to flee from British-mandate Palestine in 1948 when Israel was founded - probably the Palestinian demand which the Israelis are least prepared to agree to, because of their fears that an influx of Palestinians would tilt the demography of Israel against them.

Yossi Beilin, the Israeli peace negotiator who got to know Abbas well over the years, has said of him: "Abu Mazen has remained a Palestinian secular nationalist. He says everywhere that he will not abandon his dream to return to Safed where he was born. He is trying to get recognition of what he considers a Palestinian right."

A test is looming for Abbas here. For only recently, while world attention was fixed on Iraq, Ariel Sharon announced that the Palestinians would have to abandon the "right of return" as a condition for Israel accepting the road-map.

It is not the only possible pitfall that awaits him. Sharon's Government has talked of wanting to make more than 100 changes to the road-map. And the Israelis are demanding that Abbas stop the suicide bombs and other violence before they are prepared to put into practice any of what the road-map calls on Israel to do - including withdraw the Army from Palestinian towns and cities it has reoccupied.

But Abbas has consistently argued that stopping the violence is a tactic that will, in fact, favour the Palestinians. To go back to his leaked attack on the use of violence in the intifada, if you look at what he actually said, characteristically he was condemning the violence for tactical and not moral reasons.

"Many people diverted the uprising from its natural path and embarked on a path we can't handle, with the use of weapons," he said. "What happened in these two years, as we see it now, is a destruction of everything we built."

Abbas has told Fatah leaders he believes Sharon would be out of power in three to six months if the Palestinians pursued a non-violent policy. He has said he does not believe Sharon is sincere about making peace with the Palestinians, and that the best tactic is to expose this. "We should not allow [Sharon] to take us to where he wants, which is military confrontation, but we should impose our agenda on him and take to the position that he dislikes, which is negotiation," he told Fatah leaders.

But Abbas will have to deal not only with Sharon, but also with Sharon's old enemy, Arafat. Already Abbas almost resigned before even taking up his job as Prime Minister in the face of Arafat's attempts to stop him from appointing the Cabinet of his choice, particularly Mohammed Dahlan, the man Abbas wanted as Interior Minister to lead the crackdown on the militants.

Arafat backed down, it is rumoured, in the face of some nasty threats from Western diplomats, and agreed to a compromise with Dahlan as junior minister at the Interior Ministry. But, Palestinian observers say, that is by no means the end of the power struggle between the two men.

As Professor Qassem of al-Najah University says: "Arafat can ... stop his decisions with a no-confidence vote."


Herald Feature: The Middle East

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