Abbas was born in March 1935 in Safad, then part of British-administered Palestine and now in northern Israel. Abbas's family fled to Syria during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, as did nearly all of Safad's 10,000 residents. Abbas taught school before he received a bachelor's degree in law from Damascus University. Abbas later earned a doctorate in history from the Soviet Union's Oriental College in Moscow.
In the late 1950s, while working for the civil service in Qatar, Abbas was involved with organizing Palestinian exile groups. Along with Yasir Arafat and others, Abbas in 1959 was a founder of a Palestinian nationalist movement known as Fatah ("conquest"), which would become the core of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). A PLO member since its establishment in 1964, Abbas was elected to its executive committee in 1980. In 1996, Abbas rose to the position of secretary general, Arafat's second-in-command.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Abbas in 1993 signed the Oslo peace accords, which granted the PLO limited autonomy over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho. The accord led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which under a 1995 agreement assumed administrative powers in the West Bank and Gaza.Abbas blamed Israel, the U.S. and Arafat for undermining his efforts, saying that Israel had failed to fulfill its commitments under an internationally backed peace plan known as the "road map."
Abbas and Olmert restarted the peace process in late November 2007. Peace talks were suspended in March 2008 after heavy violence erupted in the Gaza strip between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers. Abbas agreed to rejoin talks on March 5.
Abbas and his wife, Amina Abbas, had three sons. The eldest, Mazen Abbas, died of a heart attack in 2002 at the age of 43. The nom de guerre Abu Mazen meant "father of Mazen."