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ISRAEL/PALESTINE: Leading Figures

Author: Esther Pan
April 11, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Who are the key Israeli and Palestinian political leaders?

As plans move forward for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, hopes for peace in the Middle East are higher than they have been in many years. These prominent Israeli and Palestinian leaders will play influential roles in the events to come. Some are familiar, while others--including many members of the newly named Palestinian cabinet--are relative unknowns.

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Israelis:

  • Ariel Sharon, 77. Israel's prime minister has long been considered a tough-minded leader whose top priority is ensuring Israel's survival. The head of the conservative Likud Party, he leads a coalition government and has been the driving force behind two controversial projects: Israel's unilateral withdrawal of settlements from Gaza and its construction of a security fence between Israeli and Palestinian areas.

    Sharon's background is largely military. He fought in all of Israel's major wars: the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that followed the creation of the Jewish state; the 1967 Six-Day War; and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. First elected to Israel's parliament, the Knesset, in 1973, Sharon served as security adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1975-77), and as agriculture minister (1977-81) and defense minister (1981-83) under Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Sharon led the army's 1982 invasion of Lebanon to uproot the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from its base in Beirut. During the invasion, hundreds of Palestinians were massacred by Lebanese Christian militiamen in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. An Israeli tribunal found Sharon indirectly responsible for the deaths in 1983, and he was forced to resign. He returned to government in the 1990s as housing minister, a post he used to accelerate the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, overseeing the largest growth in the construction of settlements since Israel occupied those areas in the 1967 war. Sharon became leader of the Likud Party in 1999. His fall 2000 visit to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem was one of the triggers of the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising that lasted more than four years. Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001, defeating Ehud Barak in a landslide. Sharon accused Barak of making too many concessions to the Palestinians in negotiations and promised Israelis protection from Palestinian extremists. His first term as prime minister, when he governed in a coalition with the Labor Party, faltered in 2002 after Labor withdrew over budget disputes. Sharon called early elections and was re-elected in January 2003. In late 2004, after losing support from far right-wing parties opposed to his Gaza withdrawal plan, Sharon invited the left-leaning Labor Party back into a coalition.

  • Binyamin Netanyahu, 56. Like Sharon, Netanyahu is a leading figure in Likud; the two men are longtime political rivals. Currently serving as finance minister, Netanyahu opposes Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan and has called for a national referendum on the issue. Netanyahu was Israel's youngest prime minister when he took office in 1996 at age 47. Fluent in English, Netanyahu earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked as deputy chief of mission in the Israeli embassy in Washington from 1982-84, and was Israel's ambassador to the United Nations from 1984-88. He lost the prime ministership to Ehud Barak in 1999. Since then, Netanyahu has served under Sharon despite their differences. He was foreign minister from 2002-03, and has been finance minister since 2003. Ambitious and media-savvy, Netanyahu is seen as a potential future candidate for prime minister.
  • Silvan Shalom, 66. Israel's foreign minister is seen as a Sharon loyalist and is popular with the Likud Party faithful. He was appointed foreign minister in 2003 after serving as finance minister from 2001-03 during the worst economic slump in Israel's history. Some observers say Sharon appointed Shalom in 2003 in order to sideline Netanyahu and ensure reliable support from the foreign ministry. Born in Tunisia, Shalom grew up in Israel and studied accounting and economics at Ben Gurion University and law at Tel Aviv University before entering politics. He was elected to the Knesset in 1992, and served as deputy minister of defense from 1997-98 and minister of science from 1998-99.
  • Shaul Mofaz, 57. Mofaz, Israel's defense minister, was appointed by Sharon in late 2002 after the collapse of the Likud-Labor coalition government. From 1998-2002, Mofaz served as the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) chief of staff and oversaw Israel's withdrawal in 2000 from Lebanon. In response to the second intifada, forces under his command blockaded Palestinian homes and villages, targeted Palestinian militants for assassination, and demolished the homes of suicide bombers. Mofaz was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel with his family when he was nine. He joined the IDF in 1966. In the Six-Day War, he fought in an elite paratrooper unit in the Sinai, and later commanded a paratrooper unit in the Yom Kippur War. He also took part in the 1976 rescue of 105 Jewish hostages from Entebbe, Uganda, whose plane had been hijacked by terrorists demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners. He commanded an infantry unit during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and held increasingly senior positions in the military until joining the IDF General Staff in 1996.
  • Ehud Olmert, 60. Olmert, vice prime minister and minister of trade, industry, and labor, is seen as a moderate member of Likud who is close to Sharon. Olmert favors separation from the Palestinians and withdrawal from the Gaza settlements. A two-term mayor of Jerusalem (1993-2003), Olmert was previously a combat-infantry officer and a journalist in the IDF. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology, philosophy, and law from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, worked as a lawyer, and was elected to the Knesset in 1973 at age 28. He stayed in the Knesset until 1998 and served as minister of minorities (1988-90) and minister of health (1990-92).
  • Shimon Peres, 82. Vice prime minister as of January 2005, Peres is a veteran Labor Party leader who has filled a variety of high-ranking posts in many Israeli governments. Peres played a central role in the Oslo peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in the early 1990s and, in 1994, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israel's then-prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

    Peres immigrated to Israel with his family from Poland. In Israel's 1948 war of independence, he was in charge of arms purchasing and recruitment. Peres spent much of the 1950s in the ministry of defense and was first elected to the Knesset in 1959. He was deputy minister of defense from 1959-65, twice minister of defense (from 1974-77 and 1995-96), and twice minister of foreign affairs (from 1992-95 and 2001-02) in both Labor and coalition governments. He has also served as minister of immigration, minister of transportation, and minister of information. In 1977, he was elected chairman of the Labor Party. He was prime minister from 1984-86 and again in 1995-96, after Rabin's 1995 assassination.

  • Ehud Barak, 63. The most decorated soldier in Israel's history, Barak is a former prime minister reportedly putting together another bid for the post. Experts say Barak plans to run for prime minister again, and will seek to become head of the Labor Party in July party elections. Born on a kibbutz, Barak joined the IDF in 1959. He led a reconnaissance group in the Six-Day War and commanded a tank battalion in the Sinai in the Yom Kippur War. He was deputy commander of the Israeli force during its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In 1991, he became the youngest IDF chief of staff in Israeli history and is credited with modernizing the Israeli army. He retired from the military in 1994 and entered politics the next year as interior minister under Yitzhak Rabin. He was foreign minister from 1995-96 under Shimon Peres, became head of the Labor Party in 1997, and was elected prime minister in 1999, defeating Netanyahu. While in office, he pushed peace talks, offering terms--his critics called them excessive concessions--unprecedented in the long history of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. But the negotiations broke down in 2000 and Barak's governing coalition failed. He was defeated by Sharon in elections in February 2001.
  • Haim Ramon, 55. An up-and-coming member of the Labor Party, Ramon is minister without portfolio in the new government. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was part of a group of dovish young Labor members led by Yossi Beilin, one of the main negotiators of the Oslo peace plan. There is speculation Ramon may make a bid for a top post in the Labor elections. A former captain in the Air Force, Ramon has a bachelor's degree in law from Tel Aviv University. He was elected to the Knesset in 1983 and later served as health minister and minister of internal affairs. He was chairman of the Labor Party in the Knesset from 1988-92.
  • Ophir Pines-Paz, 44. Also considered a Labor up-and-comer who might figure in Labor's July elections, Pines-Paz is currently minister of internal affairs. Elected to the Knesset in 1996, he was secretary general of the Labor Party and worked to rehabilitate prisoners and assimilate Jewish immigrants. As a young man, he was an IDF staff sergeant and earned a bachelor's degree in international relations from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a master's degree in public policy from Tel Aviv University.

Palestinians:

  • Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), 69. Yasir Arafat's successor as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Abbas is currently the most influential Palestinian political figure. Elected PA president in January 2005, Abbas is considered more moderate than Arafat. Since assuming the PA presidency, he has appeared willing to insist on an end to Palestinian attacks on Israelis and consolidate the PA's complex array of security forces --steps Arafat shunned. Bush administration officials welcomed Abbas' election. They had refused to deal with Arafat, citing his links to terrorism.

    Born in 1935 in Safed, Galilee, in what was then-British Mandate Palestine, Abbas was raised in Syria, where his family fled in 1948. He studied law in Egypt and received a doctorate in history from Oriental College in Moscow. Abbas, a close associate of Arafat, helped the former leader found Fatah, the political wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO); Arafat headed both organizations until his death in November 2004. In the 1970s, he established contacts with left-leaning Israelis, and in the 1980s, he spoke out against Arafat's support of then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Abbas became head of the PLO's international relations office in 1980. A key participant in the Oslo peace process, he conducted negotiations with the Israelis and accompanied Arafat to the White House in 1993 to sign the Oslo Accords. In the summer of 2002, President Bush and representatives from the United Nations, Russia, and the European Union unveiled the so-called road map peace plan, which required Arafat to lay the foundations of a viable Palestinian government. Under pressure from those groups, Arafat named Abbas prime minister in March 2003. Abbas resigned after four months of power struggles with Arafat.

  • Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), 68. Qurei, the current PA prime minister, is an Arafat loyalist and a member of the Fatah old guard. Like Abbas, he is thought to be a more moderate and pragmatic leader than Arafat was. Qurei trained as a banker and succeeded Abbas as PA prime minister in 2003. Born in Jerusalem, Qurei joined Fatah in the 1960s and came to prominence in the mid 1970s, when he headed the group's economic wing in Lebanon. He designed a key Palestinian development plan, which was presented to a World Bank aid conference in 1993 and became the cornerstone of the Palestinian development strategy. Qurei also headed the Palestinian Legislative Council, was instrumental in the Oslo negotiation process, and helped design the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction.
  • Mohammad Dahlan, 44. A former head of the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF) in Gaza, Dahlan is minister of civil affairs in the new Palestinian cabinet. Dahlan is seen as a member of Fatah's younger "new guard," but some critics say he and his peers lack the national stature and credibility to negotiate with the Israelis. Born in a Gaza refugee camp, Dahlan was a founder of the Fatah Youth Association in 1981. Arrested 11 times by Israel, he was deported in 1987 and made his way to PLO headquarters in Tunis; from there, he continued to orchestrate street protests in the West Bank and Gaza, earning Arafat's trust. When Arafat and his fellow Fatah partisans returned to Palestinian territories under the terms of the Oslo Accords in 1994, Dahlan was made Gaza's security chief. Civil-rights advocates criticized his tactics as head of the Gaza security forces, accusing him of using the PSF to harass and intimidate Arafat's political enemies. While he is generally popular with younger members of Fatah, his periodic arrests of Palestinian militants--demanded by Israel and the United States--have been deeply unpopular on the Palestinian street. A critic of Arafat who both participated in and suffered from PA infighting, Dahlan resigned as security chief in June 2002, but returned to serve as interior minister in Abbas' short-lived 2003 cabinet.
  • Jibril Rajoub, 51. Rajoub is the PA's national security adviser and a longtime rival of Dahlan's for control over the PA security forces. Experts say Rajoub will likely be appointed the next Palestinian security chief in charge of the Palestinian armed forces and police in the West Bank. A former national security adviser to Arafat, Rajoub also headed the PSF in the West Bank. He is seen as a pragmatist and moderate who used his forces to clamp down on Hamas and Islamic Jihadmilitants in 1996 and 1997. He has said militants who target Israeli civilians undermine the Palestinian cause, but has also argued that bringing Hamas and other extremist groups into the political process is the only way to move the peace process forward. Born near Hebron, Rajoub was arrested at 15 for throwing a grenade at an Israeli convoy and spent 17 years in an Israeli prison, where he learned English and Hebrew. He was released in a prisoner swap in 1985 and expelled to Lebanon in 1988 during the first intifada. He moved to Tunis and eventually became a close associate of Arafat. He survived an Israeli rocket attack on his home in May 2001. In July 2002, Arafat, resisting U.S. pressure to consolidate PA security forces into a single agency under Rajoub's leadership, fired Rajoub.
  • Nasser Yusuf, 72. The interior minister and head of national security in the current Abbas government, Yusuf has been Gaza police chief, and in the 1990s, oversaw national security in Gaza and the West Bank. In his new position, Yusuf is tasked with bringing the many branches of the Palestinian security forces under his control. Yusuf was a Fatah commander in Jordan in the late 1960s, a brigade commander in Lebanon, and a general in the Palestinian National Liberation Army. He received a master's degree in Islamic history from the University of Lebanon, studied military strategy in the Soviet Union, and attended Fatah leadership training in China. He has been a member of the Fatah Central Committee since 1989. He was once considered close to Arafat, but they fell out over Arafat's refusal to consolidate the PA security forces as required in the road map peace plan. During Qurei's term as prime minister, Yusuf briefly held the job of interior minister, but Arafat stymied his efforts at security-force reform.
  • Nabeel Shaath, 68. A longtime politician and negotiator, Shaath is deputy prime minister and minister of information in the Abbas government. He formerly served as minister of planning and international cooperation, as well as foreign minister under Qurei. A member of Fatah's central committee since 1971, Shaath worked with the organization in Beirut. In 1974, he headed the first PLO delegation to the United Nations. He was involved in the Oslo negotiations with Israel and headed the Palestinian negotiating team from 1993-95. He also took part in subsequent peace negotiations, including those at Camp David in 2000 and Taba in 2001.
  • Marwan Barghouti, 46. One of the most popular Palestinian leaders, Barghouti is currently serving multiple life terms in an Israeli prison. He briefly challenged Abbas for the PA presidency, which caused alarm among some Israeli and U.S. officials: Barghouti eventually withdrew from the race and supported Abbas. Born in Ramallah, he became active in the Fatah movement at age 15. He was arrested and sent to Israeli prison, where he learned Hebrew. After his release, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. One of the leaders of the first intifada against Israel in 1987, he was arrested and deported to Jordan, where he lived for seven years. He was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996 and earned the respect of the Palestinian street by criticizing corruption among PA officials and human-rights abuses by the Palestinian security services. During the secondintifada, Barghouti worked with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a division of the Tanzim militia associated with Fatah that conducts violent attacks against Israeli civilians. Israeli soldiers arrested Barghouti in 2002; he was convicted of four counts of murder in an Israeli court and sentenced to five life terms in prison.

--by Esther Pan, staff writer, cfr.org

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