Does Abbas Suit the New-Look Fatah?


[First appeared in Gulf News 13 August 2009]

Choosing Israeli-occupied Bethlehem as the location for Fatah's first general congress in 20 years was one of the most significant decisions taken by its Chair, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas.
Had an Arab city outside the occupied territories been chosen instead, key Palestinian figures living in exile abroad would have been able to attend. As it was, men like Abbas' arch-rival and outspoken critic, veteran PLO foreign Minister Farouk Kaddoumi (who is exiled in Tunis), were side-lined and effectively silenced.

Holding the congress under Israeli occupation is as incongruous as a Taliban conference in Kabul or an al-Qa'ida convention in Baghdad. The decision gave the Israelis total control over who could attend, with obvious political implications.

Israel was not the only obstacle to the democratic process taking place in Bethlehem. Hamas attempted to bartar the right to attend the congress for the release of more than a thousand political prisoners in PA jails. Abbas refused to budge on the matter and Hamas duly prevented 450 delegates from leaving Gaza – as a result they had to vote by mobile phone or email.

The US (who financed the event) clearly wished to see Abbas' position endorsed by the 2,300 delegates attending congress, to confirm both that he warrants their continued support and that he has sufficient weight to counter-balance Hamas.

Abbas' strategy for keeping his critics at bay paid off. He was the only candidate for the position of Fatah leader and after a marathon opening speech worthy of Castro in that it lasted two and a half hours, he received a standing ovation and congress' endorsement of his leadership without the tedious business of a ballot.

Despite the extraordinary length of his speech, Abbas had few achievements to relate to congress. He hailed the issuing of Palestinian passports, which began in 1995, as a major breakthrough – overlooking the fact that nobody can travel on them without Israeli approval. The PA's introduction of compulsory seat belts throughout the occupied territories earlier this year (to conform with legislation inside Israel) was also highlighted.

Notable for their absence in Abbas' address were matters dear to Palestinian hearts such as how to progress the Peace talks, the establishment of an independent state, the dismantling of the hated racist wall and the removal of illegal Israeli settlements.

If the consolidation (for now) of Abbas' position was predictable the congress was not without its surprises. Elections for the Central and Revolutionary Councils saw many of the so-called 'old guard' dismissed and a much needed injection of new blood into tired old veins with fourteen out of eighteen members of the executive Central Council taking their seats for the first time. Regrettably, none of the female candidates were successful.

While there are no truly youthful newcomers – most are in their 50s – there are several contenders among them for Abbas' position whenever it becomes vacant. These include: Mahmoud Aloul, former governor of Nablus, who polled the second highest number of votes; the late President Arafat's nephew, 50 year-old diplomat Nasser al-Kidwa; Saeb Erekat, 54, a seasoned negotiator who has been an active participant in the Peace talks since 1991 and Jibril Rajoub, 56, Mahmoud Abbas' national security advisor.

Two other notable newly elected members of the Central Council are Marwan Barghouti who is currently in jail in Israel for his role in the intifada and Mohammed Dahlan, former head of the Palestinian National Security Council whose surprise election to the Central Council has greatly upset those who blame him (among other things) for fomenting animosity between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza and Hamas' subsequent takeover.

Only four of the 'old guard' were re-elected. Most notable among them is Abu Maher Ghneim, one of the founders of Fatah, who polled the most votes (1338). Ghneim had been in exile in Tunisia since 1993 having left in protest at Arafat signing the Oslo Accords. Despite having stated that he would never return to Palestine until all its territories were liberated, he struck a deal with Abbas who obtained Israeli permission for the 72 year-old to stage a dramatic return to Ramallah days ahead of the Congress.

For the time being Abbas will continue to preside over a revived and (to some extent) united Fatah but this does not mean the road ahead will be smooth for him. No longer will he be able to ignore the Central and Revolutionary committees with their younger, vociferous and independent-minded new members.

Whilst it is true that some of the more corrupt and biddable personalities were among those elected, the majority of new members made clear their determination to return Fatah to its roots and reclaim its status as the dominant force in Palestinian politics and the resistance.

Many of the resolutions adopted by Congress reflect a newly robust political agenda which took Abbas by surprise and greatly displeased the Israelis with an emphasis on the legitimacy of all forms of resistance (including re-igniting the intifada), antipathy towards Israel and rapprochement with Hamas in the interest of strength through unity.

The test for Abbas will be how well he is able to adapt to this new reality and whether he can win – and retain – the approval of his new colleagues. He has a conditional mandate to continue his old policies for the time being, but if he fails to make any progress on the road to an independent Palestinian state – and all the other demands that entails – he will be forced either to quit or to implement the political manifesto endorsed by congress. Both options would prove extremely difficult for Abbas, used as he is to buying time and placing all his bets on negotiations with the Israelis. He has never mentioned more militant alternatives and has condemned attacks on Israelis as acts of terrorism on more than one occasion.

What we have is a new start – but a new start with an old horse. It remains to be seen if Fatah's old guard can stay the course.