So that was that then.
After much fanfare, plenty of controversy, some violence and a two-year delay, Fatah finally held its seventh general conference to sort out its internal affairs and, by extension – for it is still, just about, the most important Palestinian political faction – to set a direction for Palestinians in occupied territory and beyond.
It was billed as a crucial meeting, a five-day opportunity for the party of the late Yasser Arafat to finally house clean and start afresh, as new challenges loom and old obstacles have yet to be surmounted.
And it passed off without incident and without surprise, exactly how Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who was re-elected unanimously to another five-year term as Fatah chairman, would have wanted it.
For almost everyone else, this is not good news.
Time of crisis
Even for a people in a chronic state of crisis, the immediate future appears particularly bleak for Palestinians.
Israeli politicians are emboldened by an American president-elect who has said he will move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and who has appointed pro-Israel right wingers to crucial positions in his incoming administration.
Israel can also feel comforted by an outgoing administration that rewarded the country for its continued settlement building with the most generous American military aid package ever, a 10-year, $38 billion deal that commits the US straight through the next administration.
The Israeli parliament is now busying itself with legislation to “legalize” settlement outposts – once again displaying the low regard in which Israeli lawmakers hold international law, under which all civilian settlement in occupied territory is illegal.
They are divided between the Hamas-administered Gaza Strip and PA-run areas of the West Bank.
Within the West Bank, they are divided between those outside Jerusalem and those in the city, which is being encircled by settlements and walls and where Israel is dreaming up ever newer and more innovative ways to make life hard to the point of impossible for Palestinian residents.
And Palestinians are divided between those in historic Palestine – including 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel – and those outside, where a majority now resides.
Make like an ostrich
The Oslo peace process was meant to end with two states nearly 20 years ago. It has long been on life support and there is little to no serious international appetite – French overtures notwithstanding – to revive it.
All of this constitutes a major crisis for a movement that over the past 23 years since the Oslo accords were signed has declared again and again that a negotiated two-state settlement is the only way to go and has looked to the international community for support.
But there was no serious attempt to address any of these issues at the Fatah conference or to look a precarious future squarely in the eyes.
There wasn’t even an attempt to address the fissures in Fatah itself, the divide between Abbas and the exiled former Gaza security services chief Muhammad Dahlan, who now lives in the United Arab Emirates and apparently enjoys the backing of the so-called Arab quartet, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
Rather, dissenters in Fatah and supporters of Dahlan were simply not invited to the conference (1,400 delegates were invited this time around compared to 2,500 for the sixth conference in 2009).
And those who did attend simply heard the same slogans and the same speeches from the same people – and then voted to keep most of them in the same positions of power. Indeed, 16 of 18 seats up for grabs in the ruling central committee went to Abbas loyalists, and 13 were taken by incumbents (including Abbas), putting to rest any hope of seeing significant new blood injected into Fatah’s body politic.
The conference was, in others words, an exercise in burying your head in the sand, the political equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and singing “la, la, la.” It was exemplified by the three-hour speech Abbas gave at the outset of the conference, where he insisted, yet again, that a negotiated path to a two-state solution was the only way forward, and that the international community would have to help in this, as if the past two decades simply hadn’t happened.
Abbas has made some short-term gains. He held the conference over the heads of the Arab countries that wanted him to make nice with Dahlan first.
He effectively squeezed out any internal dissent to his rule. And he left to Dahlan – who has vowed to hold his own seventh conference but who in any case offers no new thinking – the challenge of whether to attempt to formally split Fatah.
He has also evaded talk of successors for now. No procedure was agreed or position announced to clarify the issue of succession to the 81-year-old Abbas.
This will suit the increasingly authoritarian leader: the continued popularity of Marwan Barghouti is no threat to him from behind the bars of an Israeli prison, while Abbas has avoided creating another center of power in the West Bank around someone like the former West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub, now head of the Palestinian Football Association, who garnered the second-most votes in elections to the central committee after Barghouti.
But with nothing resolved, internecine Fatah violence in the refugee camps of major West Bank cities that has killed at least seven since August is likely to continue flaring.
And with no new ideas on the table, an unknown quantity about to assume his place in the White House and no international courage to hold Israel accountable, Fatah’s general conference was inexcusably complacent.
The Fatah leadership, which dominates both the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization, is sleepwalking into disaster. It is little wonder that poll after poll in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip show a significant majority of Palestinians are desperate for change at the top.
Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.