WASHINGTON (IPS) - Mahmoud Abbas, the 74-year-old leader of the Palestinian Fatah movement, registered a significant achievement in holding the movement’s Sixth General Conference, which has been wrapping up its business in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank this week.
But veteran Palestinian analysts say Abbas’s biggest internal political challenges still lie ahead. Many of these challenges, they note, stem directly from the compromises he made to be able to convene the conference at all — and to ensure that it presented the trappings of success in the form of a political platform and leadership elections.
One of the biggest compromises was linked to the decision to hold the conference inside the Israeli-occupied West Bank. That meant there were numerous long time Fatah activists from the demographically weighty Palestinian diaspora — and from Gaza — who were barred from attending by Israel.
An additional 470 Fatah members from Gaza were barred from attending by the Islamist movement, Hamas, which now controls Gaza. Hamas said it would only allow Fatah’s delegates to travel to Bethlehem if Fatah released all or most of the numerous Hamas people it has imprisoned in the West Bank. Fatah refused.
The Fatah members trapped in Gaza took part in the conference’s leadership elections by phone and email.
To no one’s surprise a large majority of the conference’s 2,241 attendees ended up being West Bankers. For a movement that was founded — around 50 years ago — in the Palestinian diaspora and was based on the urgent political demands of the exiled Palestinians, that fact alone marked a sea-change.
The massive swing to West Bankers’ predominance in the movement was also evident in the first round of elections. Of the 19 people — all male — elected to the Central Committee (CC), one was from Gaza and two from the diaspora. The rest are all West Bankers.
Abbas himself was named head of Fatah by unopposed popular vote, early in the proceedings.
Preliminary CC election results were announced Tuesday — and within hours they had provoked a storm of anger from many long time Fatah members and activists.
One group of Fatah leaders from the diaspora has announced a decision to form a breakaway called “Fatah, the Awakening.” They include Muhammad Jihad, who was a long time CC member until last week — when he found he had not even been invited to the Bethlehem conference.
Two other prominent former CC members have also gone public with their anger. Farouq Qaddumi, now based in Tunis, criticized the decision to convene the conference in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from the beginning.
In mid-July, Qaddumi even publicly accused Abbas of having conspired with Israel in the poisoning death of long time Fatah head Yasser Arafat, who died of unknown causes in 2004.
Another veteran CC member, former Palestinian prime minister and long time Abbas rival Ahmed Qurei, did attend the conference. But he was so angered by losing in the CC elections that he then voiced public criticisms of the vote-counting process, saying the electoral fraud was even greater than in Iran’s recent election.
Many Western commentators have described the results of the CC vote as representing a turnover of power to a new generation. However the biggest vote-getter, with 1,368 votes, was Muhammad Ghneim, 71, who along with Arafat, Abbas, and Qaddumi was one of Fatah’s earliest leaders. Significantly, Ghneim had also been responsible for drawing up the list of conference attendees.
Coming in second was Mahmoud al-Aloul, a close associate of Fatah founder Khalil al-Wazir, who was killed by Israel in 1988.
Altogether, veteran Fatah “old guard” members made up around half of those elected. And most of even the “young guard” people elected to the CC are in their 50s or 60s — so the prospects for revitalization do not seem very large.
The two new “young guard” CC members most frequently lauded in Western capitals are Marwan Barghouthi, 50, now serving five consecutive life terms in an Israeli prison, and Mohammed Dahlan, 47, a security boss who has worked closely with US and Israeli security planners for several years.
Barghouthi came third in the voting with 1,063 votes, and Dahlan was tenth, with 853.
Supporters of each of these men had hoped they would top the electoral list. By that metric, their performance was a sharp disappointment. According to some reports, Dahlan only made it onto the list of winners at all by cutting last-minute deals with Abbas and other Fatah politicians.
Also, Barghouthi and Dahlan may belong to the same generation, but they have widely diverging views on many issues.
On the now-key question of whether Fatah should reconcile with Hamas, and on what terms, Barghouthi, like most of the other Fatah prisoners in Israeli jails, has been a strong advocate (and practitioner) of reconciling with Hamas, while Dahlan is a strong anti-Hamas hawk.
In 2007, Dahlan was a key actor in a US-backed plan to topple the Hamas government in Gaza by force. The attempt failed. Since then he has been a highly controversial figure in Palestinian politics — including inside Fatah — where some criticize the failure of his anti-Hamas coup attempt and others the fact he tried it at all.
Hussein Agha, a veteran Palestinian analyst based in London, noted that even if the CC’s “young guard” members could agree among themselves on how to revitalize Fatah, they would have a tough time of it. “The movement doesn’t have the kind of internal structures in place that would allow to them to effect real change,” he said.
He added, however, that one result of Abbas’s success in having held the conference — and having overseen the more-or-less successful generation of a new CC — is that now he will have to be much more attentive to the views of this new collective leadership, and be more proactive in trying to build support from within it, than he ever was with the previous CC.
Prior to this month, Fatah had not held a General Conference since 1989. Over the years since, many of the movement’s mechanisms of internal consultation and discipline fell into disuse.
Abbas in particular, according to many Palestinian analysts, had previously derided calls from Fatah members for more accountability within the movement. But at and since the latest conference he has shown a new attentiveness to the sensibilities of the Fatah base.
That was clearly on display in the “political report” he presented in Bethlehem.
Many long time Fatah supporters who were not at the conference — and even some who were — expressed disappointment that the report provided no critical evaluation of the movement’s successes and failures over the decades since the last conference, and that no one within the movement was held to account for the failures.
But in the report, Abbas straddled a fine line on the question of whether Fatah should support active, presumably military, resistance to the Israeli occupation. He said that though “legitimate forms of resistance” remained a Palestinian right, still, Fatah remained committed to negotiating a peace with Israel.
His remarks about “legitimate resistance” aroused predictable ire from those in Israel who do not want to negotiate a peace agreement with any Palestinian leaders, however moderate.
In his report, Abbas also spelled out that the Palestinians should only resume final peace talks with Israel after Israel stops its settlement-building program in the West Bank and releases all the 11,000 Palestinian political prisoners it currently holds.
In fact, this brings Fatah’s positions on the big diplomatic issues, on paper, very close to those of Hamas.
Reconciliation talks between the movements are scheduled to resume in Cairo later this month. But Palestinian analysts note that Abbas — unlike some people in Fatah’s new CC — remains strongly opposed to the reconciliation. And they judge there is little probability the talks will generate a ruling coalition capable of representing the Palestinians in any resumed peace talks — unless Abbas is subjected to much stronger pressure from Washington to make this happen.
For many years now the US and its allies in the European Union have been the main financers of all the Fatah-headed Palestinian institutions.
So does the record of the recent congress make Fatah stronger? Agha gave a nuanced reply. “It made nearly all the people who were at the meeting very happy,” he said. “Remember, some of them haven’t seen each other for many years. So from that point of view the conference was a real achievement for Abu Mazen [Abbas].”
But, he added, “There was no real political discussion in Bethlehem at all. None of Fatah’s many problems were resolved, or even addressed. So the feeling of happiness won’t last for more than two or three months — if that.”
Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org
All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2009). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.