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Who is Mahmoud Abbas?

Palestinian front-runner much different from Arafat

Mahmoud Abbas greets supporters Thursday in the West Bank city of Nablus.
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CNN's John Vause profiles Mahmoud Abbas, the leading Palestinian presidential candidate.
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Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian Authority

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- If polls are correct, Palestinian voters will elect Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday to be the second president of the Palestinian Authority and the successor to legendary Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

In choosing Abbas over five other candidates, they will be electing a man who believes the only way to peace with Israel is through negotiation, but who has campaigned for the votes of Palestinian militants, many of whom continue to reject Israel's right to exist and who have refused to stop their attacks on Israelis despite his appeals.

And, if he wins, Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, will be under enormous pressure, not only from Israel but also from the international community, to lead the Palestinians in a new direction and end the latest Palestinian intifada, or "uprising," that began in September 2000.

The campaign itself has already been a right of passage for Abbas, 69, who has never run before for public office and who has stood for decades in the shadow of Arafat.

"The election campaign gave him power, gave him confidence and made him for the first time in his life to feel the pulse of the street, and not to be seen as a second man or a show man," said Dr. Mahdi Hamdi, a leading Palestinian academic.

In the eyes of Israel and the United States, Abbas is a moderate and a pragmatist capable of compromise.

But Israeli parliament member Yossi Beilin, who was in tough and detailed negotiations with Abbas that ultimately resulted in the Oslo accords, has warned that Abbas is no moderate and will not be a pushover.

'The only way is the choice of peace'

A sign of Abbas' pragmatism has been his opposition to terrorism. In a recent newspaper interview, Abbas repeated his belief that the Palestinians cannot win a military struggle with Israel because they are outgunned.

"The only way is the choice of peace. It is impossible to liberate Palestine with the use of weapons because the balance of power is not with us," he said.

But a sign of Abbas' determination is that he ran his campaign based on the major principles espoused by Arafat -- a Palestinian state within the borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war with its capital in east Jerusalem and the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees who fled or were removed from Israel in 1948.

In the closing days of the campaign, Abbas' rhetoric became more shrill. After seven Palestinians were killed by an Israeli tank shell on Tuesday, Abbas told thousands of cheering supporters in Gaza: "We came to you today, while we are praying for the souls of the martyrs who were killed by the shells of the Zionist enemy in Beit Lahia."

"Zionist enemy" is a term often used by Palestinian groups who oppose Israel's existence.

But two days later, Abbas told a crowd in the militant stronghold of Nablus that he would be willing to return to the negotiating table with Israel if he wins election.

"We will put the road map on the table and say that we are ready to implement it completely," Abbas said, referring to the U.S.-backed plan for Mideast peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has treated Abbas' campaign remarks with deference, and insiders in the prime minister's office said that what matters is what Abbas does after the election, not what he said during the campaign.

On Wednesday, a day after the "Zionist enemy" remark, Sharon said he hoped to meet with Abbas soon after the election.

Sharon has said if Abbas will act to stop terrorism, Israel is willing to coordinate with the Palestinian Authority as Israel begins its disengagement plan that will pull about 8,000 Jewish settlers, as well as the Israeli army, out of Gaza and four small villages in the West Bank.

The road map calls for the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terrorism and for Israel to freeze all settlement activities.

While Abbas has campaigned as the faithful aide and heir to Arafat, he is strikingly different in many ways from the charismatic Palestinian leader who died Nov. 11.

Abbas wears a suit, not the military uniform and kaffiyeh that were Arafat's trademarks. While Arafat loved crowds and was considered a master showman, Abbas has shunned the spotlight.

Instead, Abbas has preferred to confer with only a small circle of advisers, and, according to Beilin, is a quick study and a relentless negotiator.

Has studied Israeli history, politics

Abbas was born in 1935 in the town of Saffed, which became part of Israel in 1948. His family fled to Syria, where Abbas graduated from Damascus University with a law degree. He is one of the few Palestinians to study Israeli history and politics.

"He never carried a gun in his life, he never fought a battle, and he (has) never run for election. He has been known as sulking, as a reluctant person," said Hamdi, "not interested in details, not interested in so many stories; he wants the final thing as soon as possible."

When Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to the Oslo peace accords in 1993, Abbas was one of the major players behind the scenes who made it happen.

Ten years later, he reluctantly agreed to become the first Palestinian prime minister, signed the U.S.-backed road map to a Middle East peace, and then quit after four months in office, accusing Arafat of undermining his authority by refusing to give him control of the Palestinian Authority's security organizations.

After Arafat's death in November, Abbas was elected to replace him as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Then, Arafat's Fatah movement picked Abbas to be its candidate in the race for Palestinian Authority president.

One of the questions to be answered by Sunday's vote is how large Abbas' victory will be. In the final days of the campaign, Mustafa Barghouti, the most serious challenger for Abbas, said he had picked up the support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The militant group Hamas, which has shown surprising support in local elections, has said it will not participate in Sunday's election, but the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported Hamas leaders may tell their supporters to vote for Barghouti, who is expected to get around 20 percent of the vote.

CNN Correspondents John Vause and Guy Raz contributed to this report.

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