Paving the way for Abbas’ successor
Palestinians are pinning high hopes on the outcome of Fatah’s seventh congress, which opened in Ramallah on Tuesday, against a background of critical internal divisions within the movement as well as the rift between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas in Gaza. About 1,400 delegates are attending, whose names have been carefully vetted by aging Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He is said to be ready to allow a younger generation of Fatah members, mostly from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to fill vacant seats of the Revolutionary Council and Central Committee.
Moreover, the congress will be discussing the liberation movement’s strategy in light of the failure of the peace process and ways to end internal Palestinian rivalries. Although not on the agenda, delegates will be discussing the sensitive succession issue. Abbas, 81, has not named a successor and has wavered on the subject even as the state of his health has become a public concern. Delegates overwhelmingly re-elected Abbas as head of the Fatah movement, but that did not end speculation about the possibility of the president naming a deputy to pave the way for a transition sometime in the future.
Waiting in line are close aides, most of whom lack support, especially among the new generation of Fatah members, while many are seen as fighting to maintain their privileges as senior PA executives. According to polls, the majority of Palestinians believe Abbas, whose term has ended in 2009, should step down paving the way for a new leadership. But the elephant in the room will be the fate of renegade Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan, who was excluded from the meeting. For Abbas, Dahlan’s sidelining is key to maintaining control over the movement, allowing him to handpick his successor independently. By excluding him and his supporters, Abbas is risking dividing a movement, the largest within the PLO that is showing signs of internal dissent. Dahlan and other senior members, who were excluded from Ramallah congress, may well retaliate by holding their own conference. Abbas’ ability to keep Fatah united will be tested in the coming few days.
Abbas’ record as president is controversial at best. Fatah has been losing ground since the 2005 municipal elections and the 2006 legislative elections. It has been kicked out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007 and for almost 10 years Abbas has failed to bring about Palestinian reconciliation. But the biggest failure has been his inability to kick-start peace negotiations with Israel, bring pressure to bear on the Netanyahu government to freeze settlement activities, release thousands of Palestinian detainees from Israeli jails and present an alternative to the Oslo path. The five-day conference will shed light on the Abbas’ plans for Fatah in particular and for the PA in general. The former remains an important symbol for Palestinian national liberation, but in recent years Hamas has been gaining ground among Palestinians in the West Bank as well. Renewing Fatah blood is an important step toward restoring the movement’s credibility. Hamas too will be holding its own congress to choose a successor to Khaled Mishal. Overall, the Palestinian political scene will witness major changes in the coming months, but will this make it easier to achieve national reconciliation, or will it deepen the divide?
One hopeful sign was the attendance of representatives from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in response to an invitation from Abbas. This has raised hopes that Abbas may seek to open talks with his Gaza rivals. Palestinian democracy has been one of the main casualties of the past decade. Under Abbas it has seen many setbacks. He has been unable, or unwilling, to introduce wide-ranging reforms to the PLO in order to lure in Hamas and perhaps the Islamic Jihad, both of which have growing grass-roots support. In addition, he has resisted calls to review Palestinian strategy for liberation and self-determination as the peace process faltered and the two-state solution became increasingly untenable.
It is imperative that this congress moves beyond the usual protocols toward presenting a clear way forward not only for Fatah, but for the Palestinian people at large. This would entail that Abbas does not limit himself to ostracizing his opponents but to open the way for long-due presidential and legislative elections. It also means that he should trust new members to chart a new course for the movement that takes into consideration the geopolitical changes that had taken place in the past decade.
Abbas should also aim to convene the Palestine National Council (PNC), which has not met for over a decade, in order for the new leadership to receive a fresh mandate and to allow Palestinians to choose a new course for the future. For the tenacious president this may be too much to ask. But at this dangerous juncture; when Jewish settlements continue to spread and when Israel is pushing hard to legalize its colonization of West Bank land and when a new US president is vowing to pressure Palestinians to accept a deal, Abbas must free himself from previous convictions and allow his people to make their own existential choice.
• Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.