When Fatah was established as a Palestinian national liberation movement by Yasser Arafat and other young Palestinian radicals in the late 1950s, they could probably never have imagined that it might one day hold a crucial convention in Israeli-occupied Pales-tine, and with the blessing and cooperation of the Zionist state. The fact that this is precisely what happened in Bethlehem early last month is a measure not only of how much has changed in terms of the Palestinian struggle, but also how much Fatah has changed since its last general convention in Tunis in 1989.
For Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah and president of Palestine since the death of Arafat in 2004, the institutionalisation and legitimisation of these changes within Fatah was a major objective of the convention; and the fact that the Israelis and their allies did everything possible to facilitate the convention confirms beyond any doubt whose interests Abbas now serves. It was no surprise that the convention was portrayed as a stunning success for Abbas in the Western media, reflecting Israeli and American anxiety to build Abbas up as the genuine and legitimate leader of the Palestinians; but no amount political spin could disguise the reality for Palestinians and other more perceptive observers: that the convention was more accurately characterised by political manipulation, intimidation and vote-rigging, and that Fatah remains deeply divided on key issues, and barely able to operate as a cohesive political movement, let alone accurately reflect Palestinian political interests and aspirations.
Almost until the expensive limousines carrying senior Fatah members began converging on Bethlehem on August 3 and 4, it had been unclear whether the convention would go ahead. Hamas had decided against allowing Fatah members to travel from Gaza, in protest at the torture of Hamas prisoners being held in jails in the West Bank, and Israel had placed restrictions on members travelling to the West Bank from exile. There had also been internal debates within Fatah as to whether it was appropriate to hold the convention in Bethlehem under the circumstances. As the convention opened, however, the fact that over 2,000 delegates had been able to come was presented as a triumph for Abbas and vindication of his determination to press ahead with the convention despite the obstacles. Only later did it become clear that the numbers had been made up by many delegates with only tenuous links with Fatah, allegedly including the secretaries, neighbours, chauffeurs and gardeners of senior Fatah members, roped in to ensure that key votes were cast in favour of the leadership rather than their critics. According to some reports, up to 700 of those present were not originally registered to attend the convention. This despite that fact that even those who were invited were in fact hand-picked by senior Fatah leaders, after the elections committee whose job it originally was to select invitees had been inexplicably disbanded.
The fact that Abbas needed to be all things to all people in order to hold the movement together, while also satisfying the outside powers on whom his authority depends, was reflected in his opening address. The angle picked up by the world media was that Palestinians remain committed to peace talks with Israel as long as there was a possibility of “a just peace”. For his Palestinian audience, struggling under the occupation, and fed up of the Palestinian leadership making concessions to Israel without getting anything in return, Abbas asserted that resistance remains a legitimate option in case political efforts failed to achieve results. But commentators were quick to note Fatah actually abandoned any possibility of pursuing armed resistance long ago, and that the fact that Israel and America were not in arms at the mere suggestion was evidence that they knew that Abbas’s words were no more than lip-service designed to appease Palestinians angry at his well-established subservience to them.
It was presumably for the same reason that Abbas was equally contradictory in his references to Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement that won the last polls in the country in January 2006 and has been demonised and marginalised ever since, despite their democratic legitimacy. On the one hand, Abbas lashed out at Hamas, repeating the pretence that they had overthrown a ‘legitimate’ Fatah government in Gaza, and attacking them for preventing Fatah delegates from Gaza from travelling to Bethlehem. On the other, he spoke of Hamas as being “an integral part” of the Palestinian people and movement, and stated that “with our determination and unity with Hamas, we will transform self-rule into an independent Palestinian state”.
In reality, however, the only transformation that Abbas and his allies in Fatah were concerned with was the formation of Fatah itself, from its original status as a major and credible Palestinian liberation movement, to its current status as a political party operating with Israeli approval in a subordinate political system. In particular, they want to make it possible for Fatah to be established as the undisputed ruling party in the Palestinian Authority, in place of the US-backed administration of Salim Fayyad. For this to be achieved, Abbas needed the established old guard leaders in Fatah’s hierarchy, particularly the central committee, many of them based in exile, to be replaced by representatives of the so-called “new generation”, basically Abbas allies based in the West Bank. This was the real object of the convention, and the reason for its political manipulation.
In the event, Abbas and his allies probably achieved their wish. Abbas was re-elected as Fatah’s head without a contest, by a show of hands from the carefully selected delegates. The elections to the Central Committee were a little more difficult, but overall Abbas would have been satisfied. A number of his key allies were elected on to the committee, including Muhammad Dahlan, Tawfik Tirawi, Hussein al-Shaikh, Azzam al-Ahmed and Saeb Erekat. Two other key figures, Ahmed Qureia and Tayib Abdul Rahim, were initially not thought to have won seats on the committee, but were declared winners after dubious recounts. Only four members of the previous committee were re-elected.
The other issue which was discussed, without anything being finalised, was a revision to Fatah’s charter. There had been demands from the international community that Fatah should follow up on its commitment to peace negotiations since the early 1990s by explicitly renouncing armed struggle. This is clearly politically impossible for Abbas, as indicated by his reiteration of the Palestinians’ right to resist, but some form of words legitimising Zionist state is likely to be found, probably in terms of a re-assertion of its commitment to a two-state solution based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders. This was the formulation used in a 30-page political manifesto published by the leadership on the second day of the conference, as an alternative to substantive discussions on fundamental objectives.
Once the euphoria (or relief) of a potentially tricky convention wears off, however, Abbas is going to find himself back facing such difficult issues on the ground in Palestine. One of these will remain the popularity of Hamas, despite the PA’s attempts to suppress it in the West Bank. Another will be the relationship between Fatah and the government of Salim Fayyad. Questions about Fatah’s financial dependence on the government were raised at the convention and many delegates felt that they were not properly addressed. Internal politics within Fatah is likely to remain difficult for Abbas, despite the strengthening of his position in the Central Committee.
Most of all, however, he will continue to face demands from Israel and the US that he accept further political talks on the basis of even greater concessions, which Palestinians are unlikely to accept. While Abbas was focusing on internal politics in the weeks leading up to the convention, the Obama administration in Washington was reportedly working on a plan to re-launch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, hoping that the convention would make Abbas a more credible partner in the “peace process”. Leaks to the press have suggested that the plan would be announced within weeks of the convention, and that it would be based on a freeze of Israeli settlements, normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel, and an international conference giving its blessing to a two-state solution.
What can be said without doubt is that Abbas will be expected to make even more concessions to Israel without receiving anything of substance in return. This is unlikely to be acceptable to many Palestinians, and so the fundamental contradictions between being national liberation movement, and a subservient ally of the occupying power, will return to haunt Abbas once more; not least because Hamas remains a model of the sort of genuine resistance movement that most Palestinians really want.