Skip navigation

Arafat and Abbas: Portraits of Leadership in a State Postponed

December 10, 2020


Menachem Klein, Bar Ilan University

Raffaella Del Sarto, Associate Professor of Middle East Studies, SAIS Europe

The seminar focused on the speaker’s latest book: “Arafat and Abbas: Portraits of Leadership in a State Postponed.” The book portrays the leadership style of two Palestinian leaders, past and present, their ideologies, motivations, charisma, and visions. The speaker began the seminar with an assessment of the progress made in resolving the Israeli-Palestine conflict, which he characterized as null under the outgoing Trump administration. Klein also expressed pessimism that any progress will be made under incoming US Administration, noting that the Palestinians are nevertheless hopeful.

The speaker gave a historical background of the evolution of Palestinian nationalism, which began in the 19th century. The Palestinian elites were led by a group of conservative figures during the British Mandate of Palestine. But much of Palestinian history was a struggle for leadership between rival groups. The Fatah movement was established in the late 1950, and Arafat and Abbas were prominent among its leaders who championed the cause of Palestinian statehood, drawing inspiration from the anti-colonial sentiments that were brewing around the world during the period. Importantly, Fatah leaders of were inspired by the Algerian liberation struggle against the French. They believed that they too could pursue their own liberation struggle to drive out those who Palestinian lands so that they could take charge of their national affairs. Under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, Fatah’s ideology was based on four core principles, reflecting the Algerian model: revolution, liberation by force, self-reliance, and self-determination. Fatah still uses the slogan “Revolution till Victory.”

The speaker pointed out that self-reliance became a myth because the current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas still looks to the US and Europe for progress on Palestinian statehood. Revolution is just a hope, the speaker continued. He went on to assess the personal leadership characteristics of the two leaders beginning with Arafat, whom he described as not being the most qualified among the founding members of Fatah, which came to dominate the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, Arafat became the leader because of his dedication to the Palestinian cause. He continued that Arafat created a myth that he was the embodiment of Palestinian nationhood. Once the Palestinian Authority was established in the framework of the Oslo accords and Arafat became its president, his leadership style was inconsistent and disorganized. He continued to be highly popular among Palestinians, but his political responsibilities often clashed with the ‘freedom fighter’ myth. Abbas, who succeeded Arafat after he died in 2004, has a very different personality and leadership style. The speaker described Abbas as a straightforward, but inflexible personality who has no direct relationship with his people. For example, he dreads speaking in public, according to Klein. Abbas has proved to be a pragmatic leader who opposes violence, and who cooperates with Israel on a range of issues in the hope that there will be a future State of Palestine. But the ailing Palestinian leader has also prevented any successor to emerge.

The speaker concluded by stressing that the Palestinians hope that the Biden Administration will re-engage with the Palestinian question and that a Palestinian state will eventually be realized.