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BIPR | Arafat and Abbas: Portraits of Leadership in a State Postponed
Arafat and Abbas: Portraits of Leadership in a State Postponed

December 10, 2020 - 18:30

Online Event

Menachem Klein, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Event Recap

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.

Full Audio:

Arafat and Abbas: Portraits of Leadership in a State Postponed
Leaders, Friends and Foes in the Middle East Series

hosted by Professor Raffaella A. Del Sarto

Menachem Klein
Bar-Ilan University, Israel

In his latest book Menachem Klein presents vivid and intimate portraits of Palestinian Presidents Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, revealing the impact these different personalities have had on the struggle for national self-determination. Arafat and Abbas lived in Palestine as young children. Uprooted by the 1948 war, they returned in 1994 to serve as the first and second presidents of the Palestinian Authority, the establishment of which has been the Palestine Liberation Organization's greatest step towards self-determination for the Palestinian nation. Both Arafat and Abbas were shaped by earlier careers in the PLO, and each adopted their own controversial leadership methods and decision-making styles. Drawing on primary sources in Arabic, Hebrew and English, Klein gives special attention to the lesser-known Abbas: his beliefs and his disagreements with Israeli and American counterparts. The book uncovers new details about Abbas' peace talks and US foreign policy towards Palestine, and analyses the political evolution of Hamas and Abbas' succession struggle. Klein also highlights the tension between the ageing leader and his society. "Arafat and Abbas" offers a comprehensive and balanced account of the Palestinian Authority's achievements and failures over its twenty-five years of existence. What emerges is a Palestinian nationalism that refuses to disappear.


Menachem Klein is a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

Klein is Senior Fellow of the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, board member of Palestine – Israel Journal, and previously was board member of B'etselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

He studied Middle East and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in 1992-3 and 2001-2 was a fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. In 2006 he was a visiting professor at MIT, and in 2010 was Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence. In 2011 Klein was a visiting scholar at Leiden University, Holland, and in 2015 Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London.

In 2000 Klein was an adviser for Jerusalem Affairs and Israel-PLO Final Status Talks to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prof. S. Ben-Ami, and a member of the advisory team operating in the office of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Since 1996 he has been active in many unofficial negotiations with Palestinian counterparts. In October 2003, together with prominent Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, Klein signed the Geneva Agreement – a detailed proposal for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

His book Lives in Common – Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron Oxford University Press NY and C. Hurst London was awarded by the New Republic as one of best 2014 non-fiction books.

In the past he published The Shift: Israel – Palestine from Border Conflict to Ethnic Struggle Hurst and Columbia University, 2010, new edition Oxford University, 2013; Jerusalem: The Contested City C. Hurst (London), 2001 and New York University (New York), 2001; The Jerusalem Problem: The Struggle for Permanent Status, University Press of Florida, 2003; A Possible Peace Between Israel and Palestine - an Insiders' Account of the Geneva Initiative, Columbia University Press, 2007.
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