Abbas emerges stronger from Fatah conference
The mainline Palestinian party elected a new guard in its first leadership vote in 20 years, revamping a council whose youngest member was 70.
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"Unfortunately it appears that the decision of this congress is to keep [violence and terrorism] as an option," said a senior Israeli official who spoke from talking points not yet authorized for publication. "That's a serious problem, the gravity of which can't be understated."Skip to next paragraph
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Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was more blunt. "A situation whereby there is a split between Hamastan in the Gaza Strip and Fatahland in the West Bank, together with the Fatah platform that is being formulated, bury any possibility of reaching a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians in the coming years," he said, according to the center-left Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Khalil Shikaki, a Ramallah-based pollster who has been surveying party delegates over the past week, says the political statement's policies are only recommendations to Abbas, and are not binding, though they are in line with his vision.
"Overall the program reflects where Abu Mazen wants to take it. He is gaining the upper hand. He is probably very pleased," says Mr. Shikaki, using a popular nickname for Abbas.
Why Abbas was reelected, despite weak image
Abbas ran unopposed for party leader and won on an overwhelming show of hands rather than a secret ballot in a process some say recalls Arafat's authoritarian dominance of the party. The central committee is technically responsible for electing a party leader.
Shikaki said Abbas's election violated Fatah rules, was undemocratic, and betrayed insecurity. At the same time, his polling showed that he is the most popular figure among delegates, despite the fact that he has widely been perceived as a weak leader.
"I think he was the only one in town that can create consensus," says Said Zeidani, a Ramallah political analyst. "He is the one who doesn't antagonize the different groups."
Shikaki said that Abbas has been repairing ties with the Fatah "young guard" – such as Mr. Barghouti and former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who also won a spot on the central committee. Still, some members of the young generation charged that Abbas allies had stacked the delegate rolls against the reformists.
A new beginning?
It remains to be seen whether the party can successfully overhaul a reputation for corruption, mismanagement, and nepotism.
Abbas needs a more united party that responds to the Palestinian public if he has any hope of defeating Hamas in a new general election or winning support for concessions in peace negotiations. Abbas's stronger role might give him more leverage, avoiding a repeat of the 2006 parliamentary defeat to Hamas, which was partly due to party infighting.
How to grapple with the absence of the Gazan delegates sparked stormy debates both during and before the conference. Abbas had to contend with calls to cancel the conference or hold it outside the West Bank, a demand made by the Tunis-based Farouk Kaddoumi, who has been the most vocal challenger of Abbas's leadership. Mr. Kaddoumi, who several weeks ago accused Abbas of participating in an assassination plot against Arafat, was among a handful of senior leaders who boycotted the conference.
Moving past the convention, Abbas's prospects depend on the success of the US-backed peace process, and the degree to which Fatah connects with ordinary Palestinians and promotes civil society, says Dror Bar Yosef, a research fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem.
"It's the first time something looks like it's functioning in the [Palestinian Authority]. Three months ago no one believed that the convention would happen," he says. "It could be a new good beginning, but in the Middle East we have many new beginnings, and usually we find a way to stumble."