Abbas to Drive Hard Bargains

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Mahmoud Abbas (search), the man who exit polls said overwhelmingly won Sunday's Palestinian presidential election, is a demonstrated pragmatist who opposes violence but who can still be expected to drive hard bargains in any future peace talks with Israel.

Long the No. 2 man in the Palestinian hierarchy after the late Yasser Arafat (search), the 69-year-old Abbas is well liked both at home and abroad despite a gray, businesslike image that always stood in sharp contrast to Arafat's theatrics.

Three respected exit polls had Abbas winning between 66 and 70 percent of the vote. Final results were expected on Monday.

On the campaign trail before Sunday's victory, Abbas stuck by his at times less-than-popular stance that the armed uprising against Israel should end.

However, he repeatedly called for a return of all Palestinian refugees to their original homes — a deal breaker for Israel — allowed himself to be hoisted aloft by militant gunmen and at one point referred to Israel as "the Zionist enemy."

All in all, though, Abbas' longtime support of dialogue and a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is expected to bode well for Mideast peace despite enormous challenges such as the need to rein in violent militants.

Abbas's relationship with Arafat, who died on Nov. 11, was stormy, culminating with his angry resignation as Arafat's prime minister in September 2003 after just four months in office.

The two men later made amends and Abbas emerged as a unifying force among Palestinians as Arafat lay dying in a Paris hospital.

Born in 1935 in the ancient city of Safed, in what is now Israel, Abbas and his family fled to Syria during the upheavals that accompanied the Jewish state's creation in 1948.

Colleagues say that experience shaped his world view, turning Abbas into a pragmatist intent on finding a solution with Israel that would end his people's suffering.

Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, became involved with Palestinian underground groups in his 20s and helped found the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964. He distanced himself from terror activities, remaining in Syria when the PLO moved its base to Lebanon in the 1970s.

He became one of the first top PLO officials to recognize Israel and led Palestinian negotiators in peace talks in the 1990s. He returned to the Palestinian territories in 1995, as a result of interim peace deals, and was made secretary-general of the PLO's executive committee in 1996.

He held several secret meetings with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak between 1999 and 2001 and met once with the current prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Abbas, a devout Muslim, avoided the spotlight for much of his career and was criticized for being removed from ordinary Palestinians.

"He was not a leader and not a hero and not a symbol and not a fighter," said Madhi Abdul Hadi of the Palestinian Academic Society in Jerusalem. "He never carried a gun in his life. He never ran for elections in his life."

Abdul Hadi added, however, that he believes Abbas has undergone a transformation during the campaign, becoming closer to the people.

"I don't see him weak now because he's reflecting the pulse of the street. He's speaking the language of everybody."

On the campaign trail, Abbas has made it clear that he will not back down from key Palestinian demands such as the return of refugees, the release of some 7,000 prisoners in Israeli jails and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital.

"If (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon thinks that because he is a moderate and polite, he will back down from national principles, he is mistaken," said Arab-Israeli lawmaker Ahmed Tibi.

Abbas is married and has two grown sons.