August 8, 2009
by Pinhas Inbari , Meyrav Wurmser
Fatah's sixth annual conference convened in Bethlehem on August 4 after a hiatus of over twenty years. The event attracted much global speculation, anticipation and planning. Expectations in the White House were high that under the leadership of Abu Mazan this largest Palestinian political party — which many in the West's still hold as their best hope for peace -- will be able to moderate its platform, rejuvenate itself and open the door for an accelerated and better-grounded peace process.
As long as Fatah's late leader, Yasser Arafat, overshadowed the party, it continued to embrace violence and terrorism. But now, the Obama administration hopes that a new generation of young local and more peaceful leaders could emerge in Fatah to deal with Israel. Were Fatah in its conference to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and embrace Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad's concept of "the Intifada of Peace" (namely, civil disobedience) against Israel, then the administration hoped the road to Israeli-Palestinian peace would be paved. Coupled with Egypt's attempt to bring about reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the administration believed the Palestinian Authority can be strengthened, Hamas weakened, and peace advanced with Israel. Such a collection of developments could even help remove Hamas from Iran's orbit, dissolve Iran's threat to Egypt's stability via Hamas, and even possibly drive a wedge between Syria (where Hamas's political leadership resides) and Teheran.
But as the historic gathering got under way, it became clear that it was likely to fall short of Washington's great ambitions. Israel's key demand and the two most important aims the West is seeking -- that Fatah recognize Israel as a Jewish state and fully abandon the armed struggle against it –– seem as remote as before the Conference convened.
Fatah's Constitution (articles 42 and 43) defines how the movement's General Conference, comprised of over 1,500 members, is conducted. The conference, as the organization's highest authority, elects members to its key political institutions and authorizes its political program. According to the Constitution, the Conference should convene every five years, but the last time it did was 1989, well before the end of the Cold War and the signing of the Oslo agreements. Thus, the movement's leadership and its political program do not reflect almost two decades of events – from the Soviet Union's collapse, to the organizations' return to the West Bank and Gaza to the current division in the Palestinian polity between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Over a third of the leaders elected in 1989, together with Yasser Arafat, died and were never replaced. Most surviving members are well over 65, and are often ill and out of touch with the young Palestinian population, which is mostly under the age of 30. The convening of the Sixth General Congress, in which new leadership can be elected and new principles can be adopted was, therefore, long overdue.
Fatah's inability to gather its General Committee in so many years is seen by many as one of the key reasons leading to the Hamas's election victory in 2006 and then its violent takeover of Gaza in 2007. Palestinian Ambassador to Egypt recently noted "Fatah is full of thieves, spies and corrupt people, enough to destroy any country." Fatah's long failure to adjust to the changing circumstances and reflect the needs of its young severed it from reality, and made it irrelevant to the lives of many Palestinians. Therefore, Palestinian commentators frequently harshly criticized the movement and predicted that without gathering its six General Conference, the declining Fatah may not survive.
But several factors afflicted the Conference and threatened its success. The first had to do with the divisions and rivalries within the Fatah itself. Preparations for the conference revealed that Fatah was still fragmented and torn by bitter personal, generational, locality-driven and factional rivalries. Fatah remains a constantly shifting collection of competing power centers — often centered on not only individuals but also their unique reasons for splintering (patronage, ideology, shared history, geography, policy, foreign sponsorship, etc.). Fatah's old guard -- founders who led the organization while in exile – competed with the younger generation -- local leaders who matured and developed their political awareness during the years of the two Intifadas. The old guard itself is divided. While most members returned with Yasser Arafat to the West Bank after the signing of the Oslo accords, others — including prominent figures such as Farouk Qaddoumi, the Secretary General of Fatah's Central Committee -- remained opposed to the Oslo accords and still refuse to enter the territories.
The jockeying among these factions has been intense. For example, while Qaddoumi threatened Abu Mazen's leadership in previous months by plotting with Hamas's political head Khaled Mashaal to form a new PLO, another prominent Tunis-based Fatah Central Committee member, Abu Mahir Ghneim, returned recently to the West Bank in order to participate in the Sixth Conference. His return was a boost to Abu Mazen and served as a counterweight to Qaddoumi's opposition. Since his return, Ghneim has been mentioned as Abu Mazen's potential successor, despite the fact that he is over 70 years old. But the divisions among members of the old guard are not Fatah's only problem. The younger generation is also divided into roughly three equal groups: supporters of former (prior to Hamas' takeover) head of preventative security in Gaza Muhamad Dahlan; the "al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade;" and supporters of prisoner Marwan Barguthi who is serving a sentence in Israeli jail. These groups continued to battle each other over seats and influence in Fatah's sixth Conference.
Beyond these internal fissures, Fatah's Conference, like the organization as a whole, was threatened by Hamas's challenge to its legitimacy. The PLO, an umbrella organization in which Fatah is the largest faction, was recognized by the 1974 Arab League Summit in Rabat as "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." The formation of Hamas in 1987 created a new Palestinian political force, outside the PLO, claiming to represent Palestinian aspirations.
Following the signing of the Oslo agreements and Yasser Arafat's death, the PLO lost much of its power and influence and started to be viewed by Palestinian merely as a symbol embodying their national aspirations. As a result, Hamas demanded to reform the PLO institutions, revitalize them, and ensure that all Palestinian factions are represented within them. Naturally, this demand threatened the unique status and seniority of the Fatah faction within the PLO. Various attempts to conduct a Palestinian national dialogue between Fatah and Hamas were held starting in 2005, but to no avail.
Despite tireless Egyptian efforts to mediate Palestinian national reconciliation -- a move which some hoped could pave the way to "bringing Hamas into the tent" and remove it from Iran's sphere of influence by making it a part of a future peace deal with Israel -- Hamas still contests Fatah's role as the representative of the Palestinians and hopes to complete its ascent to domination, which began with its election victory in 2006 parliamentary elections and the subsequent takeover of Gaza. Moreover, even were the factions to agree over the terms of an eventual agreement, so deep is the enmity that they continue to clash over which body will hold the supreme authority in the period between the signing of a Fatah-Hamas agreement and the time in which general Palestinian elections take place. Ultimately, Fatah fears that under any major change, Hamas will attempt to swallow the PLO by forming a new body in which it has the majority.
The relations between Fatah and Hamas have reached an all time low in the past few weeks as the organizations skirmished over the upcoming Conference. Over 400 representatives and delegates of the Fatah Conference reside in Gaza and live under Hamas's rule. Fatah asked Hamas to allow them to attend the Conference, but Hamas demanded that in return Fatah will release 900 of its supporters who are serving sentences in PA jails. Fatah rejected this demand, so Hamas banned Fatah's representatives from attending the Conference. Nevertheless, 27 Fatah delegates managed to flee Gaza (some of them on the backs of donkeys) in order to participate in the conference. Learning about their escape, Hamas announced that they will be put on trial upon their return to Gaza.
But maybe the greatest threat to the Conferences' success was the extent to which Palestinian affairs continued to be subject to broader Arab politics, conflicts, and competitions. This, in part, resulted from the traditional role of the Palestinian question as the leading collective "Arab" issue. Any country seeking a regional role still exploits the issue to enhance its own stature. In recent years Iran's backing of Hamas and its actions to solidify a radical regional block (which includes Iran, Syria, Qatar, Hamas, Hizballah and the Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood) to confront Egypt and Saudi Arabia (who back Abu Mazen and the Fatah), have thrust the Palestinian problem back into the center of the conflict among regional powers. Iran's growing role and influence deepen the competition between Fatah and Hamas and made Palestinian reconciliation more remote.
Since the Gaza conflict last winter, Hamas's ideological identification with Iran became more obvious. It had not always been so. The relations between the two initially were based on a marriage of convenience. Hamas was internationally isolated following its 2006 elections victory and sought money, weapons and military training. Iran, which searched for regional clients in order to advance its regional hegemony, could provide all of the above. But today there is evidence that this alliance is turning into a real meeting of the minds, despite the fact that the patron is Shiite Persian while the client is Sunni Arab. This was made clear in February, when Hamas' political chief, Khaled Mashaal, addressed the Iranian parliament. In that speech he called Ayatollah 'Ali Khamenei – the Supreme Leader of Iran -- "the ruler of the Muslims." By using this term, Mashaal acknowledged Iran's Supreme Leaders' (who is Shiite) supreme political (if not religious) authority over the Sunni Hamas.
Since the end of the conflict in Gaza, Hamas has sought to advance Teheran's agenda by escalating its rhetoric against Fatah and by accelerating its threat to create a new Palestinian source of authority — a new PLO. Hamas argued that since the PLO did not participate in the armed struggle -- the "resistance" -- against Israel during the 2008 Gaza conflict, it no longer represented the Palestinian people. While Hamas sought to undermine the PLO and Fatah, Iran and its radical axis were in parallel challenging Egypt and Saudi Arabia, arguing that by not joining the fighting against Israel, they betrayed the cause of the Muslim brothers in Gaza. Iran even called on the Egyptian and Saudi people to revolt against their governments, and offered a million dollars bounty to any Muslim who assassinated either Egyptian President Mubarak or Saudi King Abdullah. Along the way, Iran nearly succeeded in destroying the Arab League.
Against this background, the sixth Fatah Conference faced difficulties in setting a genuinely more moderate course on Israel. Even after the signing of the Oslo accords Fatah, which historically led the Palestinian struggle against Israel, continued to state that it viewed Zionism – the movement to create a Jewish state -- as racial, colonial and aggressive in ideology, goals, organization and method and continued to embrace the path of resistance and armed struggle against it. Fatah's internal divisions and regional challenges prevented the organization from espousing a real change. It forced the organization to preserve the radical elements of its own political platform and threatened to make any progress toward peace with Israel less likely.
Despite these stated difficulties, the organization demonstrated a certain willingness to temper its positions in order to satisfy Western and moderate Arab states' expectations. At first glance, the draft political program of the sixth Conference accepts the Arab Peace Initiative and talks in vague terms about the fulfillment of the "right of return." On this most controversial issue, it adopted a formula "that is based on UN resolution 181" and not on the fulfillment of this resolution. Namely, it suggests a certain Palestinian willingness to accept a symbolic and limited expression of the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in Israel rather than demand that it is carried out in full. The draft also gives the model of the "Stones Intifada" — rather than full blown violent resistance and use of terror — as the recommended method to struggle for Palestinian rights. The principle of the "armed struggle" against Israel is mentioned as the option of the past that must be re-examined and compared to other, less brutal, options of struggle.
But what Fatah gives, if even somewhat vaguely, it then takes in starker terms. Whatever more peaceful language it adopted, was completely contradicted elsewhere in the document. The Fatah Conference's new "internal order document," which outlines the bureaucratic organization and workings of the organization, omitted or contradicted all the moderate phrases present in the political document. The "internal order" document refuses to acknowledge Israel's existence as a Jewish state, demands that Israel withdraw to the 1967 line, and calls for the full right of return of Palestinian refugees, which would amount to the destruction of Israel. Moreover, the draft embraces the method of "armed resistance," namely violence and terror, as the means to achieve a Palestinian state. Furthermore, while the draft political document is trying to fit the struggle into the demands of "international legitimacy," the internal order is very clear in rejecting all international peace initiatives. The unsurprising Israeli reaction to this draft Fatah document was rapid and harsh. "It is a declaration of war on the state of Israel," said Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.
The contradiction between Fatah's new political program and the internal order document reflects the organization's fundamental dilemmas. It is caught between Western, Saudi and Egyptian pressures to embrace moderation-and internal and external factors that push it to maintain its old radical stands. In that sense, the sixth Fatah Conference fell short of being a vehicle for a sincere and fundamental change of traditional Palestinian positions. Even the hope that a generational change would bring about moderation and reform, seem remote. The younger generation of Fatah leaders will not necessarily help the cause of peace. Shaped by the incitement of the last 15 years, they are more hard-line and have already encouraged the creation of violent street gangs of supporters who further spread chaos and violence in Palestinian streets. Hamas's (and by extension Iran's) continued challenge to Fatah also make moderation remote. Due to these pressures, Fatah's historic gathering has been pressed to adopt a platform which appeals to its members' lowest common denominator, and continues to embrace violence and struggle. Rather than breaking the logjam toward peace, Washington will likely oversee exacerbated Middle Eastern tensions as Palestinians will demand payment for their vague and tenuous concessions, while Israel will remain skeptical and reject their claims. Fatah's 'big six" Conference failed to be the event that will help Washington's efforts at peace easier. Rather, it would have created further accrual of difficult hurdles toward peace.
Meyrav Wurmser was formerly a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute.
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