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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

They've since been reopened. But there are lingering concerns that Mr. Kaddoumi, who claims to be Arafat's constitutional successor as Fatah chairman, and other "outside" Fatah figures boycotting the conference will continue to call for a different path.

These critics are likely to point to the fact that many others will not be in attendance. Israel has refused entry permits to some Fatah members, while others didn't bother to apply because they're considered wanted men.

But Israel – which, together with the US, has a vested interested in Fatah's ability to deliver a peace deal – did allow entry to scores of Fatah operatives, some of whom participated in armed attacks against Israeli civilians. Hundreds of Fatah delegates have arrived in Bethlehem over the past few days from various Arab countries, including Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan.

Meanwhile, about 400 Fatah members in Gaza are being denied permission to leave by Hamas.

"Those who will attend will reflect a bias toward Abbas. And for critics, this will affect the legitimacy of the conference," says Mr. Shaheen, the columnist.

The very fact that the conference will take place in Bethlehem – right in Israel's backyard, instead of some location abroad – prevents the discussion of sensitive but important questions, he says. Should Fatah still have a military wing, even while the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority has a security apparatus? How is Fatah making its money, and who's getting paid what?

"These are discussions you cannot have in Bethlehem," he says. "In other words, how can we discuss things while Israel is listening?"

A time limit on peace talks?

While Abbas and his supporters see the convention as an opportunity to bolster the party, younger activists want to overhaul it. They hope to elect new blood and drive out corruption-tainted figures from two decisionmaking councils, the Fatah Central Committee and the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

Various proposals for Fatah's charter are anticipated. Some support an old charter that calls for Israel's destruction and supports armed struggle to "liberate" Palestine. Others want a revised charter to keep Abbas from being able to agree to the current Israeli leadership's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel explicitly as a Jewish state.

Others from the party elite, including PLC lawmakers, would like to set clear guidelines on the party's position vis-à-vis Israel, such as a time limit on peace talks. If a deal were not reached during that period, Palestinians would return to other means – such as resistance and another intifada, or uprising.

"The end of 2010, that should be the ceiling," says Mr. Abu Rubb, the PLC member from Jenin. This concern is repeated by many Fatah officials. They say that having an open-ended peace process is allowing Israel to draw out talks over years, meanwhile expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank – something that would make the establishment of a Palestinian state there more logistically complicated.

"A time limit – or not" is a key question, says Kaddoura Fares, a veteran local Fatah official. He points to others as well. "We have to find a compromise with Hamas" – and, he adds, acknowledging the ranks of the disgruntled, "Fatah needs to rejuvenate itself. We need to regain our credibility."

Egypt has been trying for months, without success, to get Fatah and Hamas to agree on a deal for national reconciliation after their unity government collapsed in 2007. Abbas apparently wanted to have the Fatah congress before the next round of talks, scheduled to begin Aug. 25.

Has Fatah's tent gotten too big?

If the sixth Fatah congress turns into a blamefest, that could open a can of worms for Abbas. But Abu Rubb says that the airing of issues can only make the party stronger – and will show that it is a place that values democracy.

For that to happen, however, Abbas will have to make room for critique but figure out as well how to survive the possible departure of rivals from the big tent that was once Fatah.

"A small Fatah that is coherent is better than having a big one with too many differences," says Shaheen. "Fatah as it is now is a burden on Abbas."

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