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Abbas's big move to revamp Fatah

On Tuesday, the Palestinian president convened his party's first congress since 1989 to strengthen its position in negotiations with Israel, Hamas.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 4, 2009

Ramallah, West Bank

For the first time in two decades, the most enduring force in Palestinian politics convened a partywide congress Tuesday to strengthen its position in negotiations with rival Hamas as well as with Israel.

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"Although peace is our choice, we reserve the right to resistance, legitimate under international law," said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the party's pro-West chairman, in his opening speech.

Fatah – the party of the late iconic Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat – faces its most serious credibility crisis since its founding half a century ago. It has lost significant popular support in the past few years; younger Palestinians have long viewed the group as corrupt and ineffective. Trounced by the militant Hamas organization in Gaza – first in 2006 elections, then at gunpoint in June 2007 – it now seeks to regain face.

The results of the three-day conference, called by Mr. Abbas and held in Bethlehem, should clarify Fatah's platform ahead of renewed peace talks with Israel – and gauge the strength of Abbas's authority, which senior Palestinian leaders have challenged in recent weeks.

"Actually holding this conference is a miracle," Abbas told delegates, according to Reuters. "People are expecting results."

But some worry that the gathering of more than 2,000 officials, which excludes several key Fatah figures unable to travel here, could further weaken the party by exposing its divisions and disarray.

"Fatah might be pushed toward a split. There might even be violence afterward," says Khalil Shaheen, a columnist for the Al-Ayyam newspaper in Ramallah, during a conversation at his home here. "All of this reflects how fragile of a situation Fatah is in."

Abbas's authority challenged

Fatah is the main faction in the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the official representative of Palestinians internationally. Daily affairs, however, fall under the mandate of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), a body of 132 elected lawmakers from a wide array of political parties.

Supporters of the congress say that Fatah and Abbas will emerge stronger, but critics say both the location and key absences weaken Fatah's mission.

"Everyone who's going to the congress believes a strong Fatah will help us," says Jamal Abu Rubb, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) from the Jenin area of the West Bank. "But that doesn't mean we won't open files and hold people responsible for their mistakes. After 20 years, it's about time. We believe in self-criticism. I believe that [Abbas] will come out stronger because of this."

Abbas won Palestinian presidential elections with Fatah's support in January 2005, shortly after Arafat died. But Hamas, which joined Fatah in a unity government for several months leading up to Fatah's June 2007 ouster from Gaza, no longer recognizes his presidency.

And in the past two weeks, senior PLO figures who live abroad have mounted a de facto challenge to Abbas, fueling speculation that there could be a split in the party.

Foremost among these is Farouq Kaddoumi, who gave an interview to Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV channel, in mid-July, in which he accused Abbas of working with Israeli leaders to assassinate Arafat. Abbas's headquarters, based here in Ramallah, ordered Al-Jazeera's local bureau to be shut.