The news report, which was based on research carried out by two Israeli professors, revealed that the cryptic information was hidden in documents from the Mitrokhin archive, a collection of handwritten notes by KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin. Mitrokhin smuggled his notes out of Russia in the 1990s when he defected to Britain. Cambridge University's Churchill College made the papers public in 2014.
In the documents, the report says, just few lines refer to the now octogenarian Palestinian leader: His code name was “Krotov” or Mole and he worked with the Soviet secret police and security agency in Damascus circa 1983.
Gideon Remez and Isabella Ginor, the two researchers from the Truman Research Institute at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that Abbas worked for the KGB under Mikhail Bogdanov, who was then based in Damascus and is now Russia’s special envoy to the Middle East.
On Monday, Bogdanov held meetings in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an attempt to broker a summit between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Wednesday’s news report also pointed out that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a KGB lieutenant colonel during the 1980s.
Speaking to Channel 1’s Foreign News Editor, Oren Nahari, the Hebrew University researchers said the documents are relevant today because of Russia’s growing role in the region and its possible influence on Abbas.
The Palestinian Authority, however, issued a statement denying the report. It called the allegation a "smear campaign" by Israel.
Jamal Dajani, director of strategic communications at the prime minister’s office, dismissed the report.
“The Israeli Government and its surrogates are using smoke and mirrors to confuse the public and deceive the international community in order to derail any efforts to revive the peace process, while appropriating more Palestinian land and building new illegal settlements,” Dajani said.
Mohammed al-Madani, a member of Abbas’s Fatah party told Israeli daily Haaretz that it was another attempt by Israel to “discredit Abbas.”
“There's a clear trend of attempting to damage Abu Mazen by various elements, including Israel," said al-Madani, referring to Abbas by his nickname. "This is another attempt to slander him."
Madani said the relationship between the Soviet Union and the Palestine Liberation Organization started after then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat visited Moscow in the 1960s and the Soviets once supplied the Palestinians with firearms.
Abbas eventually served as a liaison to the Russians on behalf of the PLO. He also spent time in Moscow as a student and wrote his doctoral thesis on the Holocaust while studying there.
Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy who has advised the Palestinian leadership in its negotiations with Israel, said the Soviet Union’s relationship with the PLO and with Abbas in particular were already known. At the time in question, Abbas acted as the PLO’s outreach person to Moscow, a city where he lived while working for the equivalent of a doctorate at Patrice Lumumba University, so he clearly spoke with Soviet officials.
Elgindy, who has not seen the documents himself and cannot confirm their authenticity, said it is difficult to assess whether Abbas was a full-fledged KGB agent.
“There are a lot of world leaders who were, for example, CIA agents at various times in their political careers,” he said. “King Hussein of Jordan and others were on the CIA payroll at one point or another. But it’s not entirely clear what that meant.”
If the accounts are true, Elgindy said, it likely will have no political impact, neither domestically nor diplomatically.
“I don’t think it will affect his standing, such as it is, among the Palestinian public,” he said. “Russia is not that controversial for Palestinians to begin with. He’s at the end of his career anyway. People are already talking about successors and what comes next. And if suddenly tomorrow there was a breakthrough in the peace process, I doubt this would have any bearing whatsoever. He would still be the head of the PLO and president of the Palestinian Authority.”
Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.