Can Abbas Save Fatah?
A convention in Bethlehem might be the Palestinian leader's last chance to save his dying party.
More than one participant at the opening of this week's Palestinian Fatah convention in Bethlehem likened the scene to "a really big wedding." Only the sixth such meeting since the movement was founded a half century ago and the first one in 20 years, it comes at a key moment for a party struggling with declining popularity, internal discord, and a violent rivalry with Hamas. Everyone who was anyone in Fatah was there.
More than one participant at the opening of this week’s Palestinian Fatah convention in Bethlehem likened the scene to "a really big wedding." Only the sixth such meeting since the movement was founded a half century ago and the first one in 20 years, it comes at a key moment for a party struggling with declining popularity, internal discord, and a violent rivalry with Hamas. Everyone who was anyone in Fatah was there.
Between Fatah’s West Bank leadership, young Fatah loyalists, diplomats representing dozens of countries, and exiled Fatah members convening from Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, the streets were lined with a mix of luxury cars and armored autos. Talk of the conference monopolized radio discussions, taxi chats, and conversations on the streets. Security was tight: The roads around the Church of the Nativity, near the school hosting the convention, were shut down, and Palestinian security perched on every rooftop. The convention hall was closed even to the majority of credentialed journalists.
There are countless issues on the table for Fatah to address this week, but the biggest triumph will no doubt be that the multiday convention is even happening at all. It’s a long-overdue reunion for a party that has been in steady decline since the 1993 Oslo Accords and the formation of the Palestinian Authority. Now, Fatah must face up to a trio of challenges: reconciling with Hamas, pinning down its strategy for either negotiations with or resistance to Israel, and repairing internal rifts within the party. The conference won’t solve all, or maybe any, of these problems. But many Palestinians hope the gathering will be a reckoning of sorts, an acknowledgement, at least, that Fatah needs a new approach to solve its many crises.
The most apparent, and urgent, quandary is the high-profile rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, which has split the Palestinian territories literally in two, with Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip and Fatah retaining hold of the West Bank. The logistical complexity of the conference shows just how deep the trouble runs. From the outset, many Fatah members in exile protested the event’s being held in the occupied West Bank, claiming that the setting itself would drain legitimacy from a party committed to ending the Israeli military presence on Palestinian land. But Hamas was the more formidable obstacle; the Gaza rulers prevented about 400 Fatah delegates from traveling to the West Bank for the conference. Some Gaza-based attendees made it to the West Bank by sneaking out in the days before the conference, but one such delegate reportedly returned home the night before the opening in solidarity with those who remained trapped.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is well aware just how sour relations between the two factions have turned, and he devoted much of his two-hour opening speech to the Hamas-Fatah rift. Although offering positive overtures in favor of unity talks and reconciliation, he also had harsh words for Hamas. He called the party "coup makers," in reference to Hamas’s forceful 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip. Hamas members were "forces of darkness," Abbas said, condemning them for denying Fatah delegates the ability to travel to the conference (Hamas says it did so in hopes of securing the release of Hamas prisoners detained in the West Bank by Abbas’s forces).
The splits, however, don’t end there. Since the death of its founder Yasir Arafat in 2004, Fatah itself has grown ever more divided, as is evident at the conference. The delegates here, draped in the black-and-white checkered scarves of the Palestinian national movement, range from hard-line party founders in exile, who, having seen several rounds of peace talks with Israel fail, still prefer armed resistance, to the West Bank leadership, whose painful experiences living through two intifadas have convinced them to pursue negotiations.
Abbas is walking the line between these two camps within his party. He promised to prioritize negotiations while reserving the right to "resistance," preferably in the form of civil disobedience and nonviolent protests, if peace talks fail. The result is a slow, steady softening of Fatah’s principles, which date back to its start as a guerrilla liberation movement committed to armed resistance. That history is proving tough for the party to denounce entirely.
Yet most Fatah leaders know that revitalizing the party — and regaining popular support — will mean completing the long transition from liberation movement to internationally recognized political party. Fatah, the recipient of regular donations from the United States and other countries, is making strides under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a technocrat with a laserlike focus on delivering services and good governance to the Palestinian people. But finishing the job will take many more fresh political faces — no small task for a party that has failed to produce an inspirational Palestinian figurehead since Arafat’s death.
Elections set for the final day of the conference, which might run longer than its expected Thursday closing, in theory offer a chance for new leaders to emerge and take positions in the central committee or ruling council. But no dramatic change looks likely. Abbas and his longtime cronies in the Palestinian Authority worry that new faces could threaten their already tenuous hold on the party. Several hundred delegate names were added at the last minute, a ploy rumored to draw more votes for those currently in power. The vast majority of the few hundred delegates milling about after the opening speech were men over 50, some quite elderly, while young men like those at the front lines of Fatah’s former days of armed resistance were conspicuously absent. Many younger members vied for seats at the conference, but complained of receiving only a few spaces.
Despite the celebratory and hopeful atmosphere in Bethlehem, there is a sense that this is an urgent moment for Fatah, when the party’s implosion is a real and imminent risk. It’s a disturbing thought that the future of Arafat’s once revered movement, the governing Palestinian Authority, and indeed the entire peace process hinge on the emergence of a strong alternative to Hamas and chaos. Holding the conference at all is a victory for Abbas — a "miracle," as he called it in his speech. But now is the time for him either to step up, strengthening the Palestinians from within, or step aside, letting new leadership reach for the goal of Palestinian statehood that has eluded him so far.
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