As the Fatah party convention wrapped up Tuesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas emerged stronger, signaling a comeback for the US-backed peace proponent after his party was trounced by Hamas.
His success in shepherding the long-anticipated congress, which updated Fatah's political platform and ushered in a new guard of leaders in the first party elections since 1989, enabled him at last to come out from under the long shadow of Yasser Arafat – the late party founder and icon of Palestinian nationalism.
"Abbas is the main winner. He is leaving the conference much, much stronger than when he entered the conference. It is a historic achievement; he did the impossible," says Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian cabinet minister who is not a member of Fatah. "So far he has been a weak leader.... He seems to be coming out of the conference as a leader who is much less in need of using the memory of Yasser Arafat as a tool."
Despite being marred by fractious bickering, the Fatah conference has been hailed as key to jump-starting badly needed democratic reform in Palestinian government and politics. Palestinians have long complained of corruption in the party, and criticized the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority – under pressure from Israel to bolster its security forces as part of an eventual peace deal – for setting up a police state.
Rival Palestinian faction Hamas, the militant organization in charge of Gaza, lambasted Fatah on Monday for unjust detention and torture after Hamas activist Fadi Hamadne committed suicide in his West Bank cell.
Hamas's criticism came as the votes of 2,000 delegates were being counted for a new slate of politicians expected to revive moribund institutions of the mainline Palestinian political movement.
New guard ushered in
Winners for the 23-member central committee came largely from a younger generation and include Marwan Barghouti, an occasional critic of the party establishment who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail. Ahmed Qureia, a prominent former prime minister and peace negotiator, failed to get reelected. The outgoing central committee included 10 members who were either deceased or unable to serve. The youngest member was 70.
Results for the 125-member revolutionary council, which is like a parliament for the party, have not yet been released.
The newly elected central committee and revolutionary council will be responsible for carrying out the governing principles of Fatah, which were refined at the conference. While the political program reflected Mr. Abbas's preference for Western-backed peace talks with Israel, nostalgia for Fatah's original role as leader of the armed struggle against Israel was evident. A huge poster of Arafat served as a backdrop to the conference, which revisited the party's charter but left intact a call to "liquidate the Zionist entity." The congress adopted a resolution that all of Jerusalem be returned to the Palestinians and asserted the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes left before the 1948 war over Israel's independence. In addition, a Fatah policy statement issued during the conference reserved the right to exercise "resistance" in "all its forms" if future peace negotiations were not successful.
Israel dismayed by congress results
"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."
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."