Fatah leader Abu Mazen carried off the Palestinian movement’s first Congress in 20 years without a hitch, strengthening his hold on power and bolstering the group’s diminished appeal. As the proceedings of the Sixth Congress came to a close, it appeared that he had succeeded in integrating new generations into the leadership, consolidating his hold on power, and reviving the fortunes of an organization many had all but written off. Fatah emerges from the conference significantly rejuvenated, with a younger set of leaders close to the top, a renewed commitment to the peace process, and a chance to recapture public appeal and counterbalance Hamas.
When the results of elections for Fatah’s powerful Revolutionary Council were tabulated, only four of the Central Committee’s old guard had survived the election, and 14 new members -- in their fifties and early sixties -- had won. These results signal an end to the rule of Yasser Arafat’s most senior minions, and the empowerment of a new team. The new leaders are not united or homogeneous, and several of them will jockey for power. However, they are an experienced group: including seven former ministers, eight members of parliament, three heads of security agencies, and three community mobilizers.
The Congress, which was held in Bethlehem on the West Bank, was the first in 20 years, and the first ever to be held on Palestinian territory. At the last conference, held in Tunis in 1989, the mood was more upbeat. Palestinian hopes were riding high after the first intifada in 1987, and the Palestine National Council’s symbolic announcement of a Palestinian state in 1988 was greeted with wide international support. High hopes were placed on the prospects for a negotiated peace. Yasser Arafat’s leadership of the Palestinian national movement was virtually uncontested; Hamas was in its infancy, and posed no political challenge.
As the delegates assembled for the conference earlier this month, the mood was more somber. Fatah seemed in shambles. The iconic Arafat was dead, and factions were accusing Abu Mazen of complicity in his assassination. Abu Mazen had taken over from Arafat in 2004 but had nowhere near his appeal. The peace process had not delivered a state, had not ended the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, nor apparently had it slowed Israeli settlement activity. The interim Palestinian Authority had delivered neither security nor prosperity, and its officials -- most of them affiliated with Fatah -- were widely seen as corrupt and nepotistic. Arafat’s old guard of septuagenarians had clung to power, creating a growing gap with the movement’s rising leaders and costing the movement the support of the Palestinian youth.
Fatah’s weakness had been on full display when it lost elections to Hamas in 2006, and then lost Gaza to Hamas in an armed confrontation in 2007. Even as this Congress was assembling, hundreds of Fatah prisoners languished in Israeli jails, Hamas prevented hundreds of others in Gaza from attending, and some anti-Abu Mazen factions stayed away. The continuous postponement of this Congress -- which is supposed to be held every five years -- further undermined Abu Mazen’s legitimacy and seemed to indicate that the movement was too bankrupt to survive a reckoning.
Yet the Congress gathered momentum as it got underway. The decision to hold the meeting in an area effectively still under Israeli occupation was initially controversial, as was Abu Mazen’s heavy-handed dismissal of the Preparatory Committee and direct control over who was invited to the conference and what items were on the agenda. But as the meeting proceeded, attention shifted to matters of policy, and elections to key bodies.
Abu Mazen’s keynote address proposed Fatah’s policy outlines and was broadly approved. He reaffirmed Fatah’s commitment to the peace process and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of return for Palestinian exiles. He reserved in principle the right of Palestinians to resist occupation by all means possible according to international law, but in practice excluded armed resistance. What he did propose focused on reforming the Palestinian Authority, calls for more international and Arab support, and the need for rapid, negotiated progress toward a two-state solution.
Abu Mazen’s policy statement drew angry responses from the Israeli right wing, with Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman charging that Fatah’s pronouncements “buried any chance” for an Israeli-palestinian peace.
But for the delegates to the Congress, who numbered over 2,000, elections to the leadership councils were the story. Abu Mazen was elected, unopposed, as head of the movement. In what appeared a transparent process, 100 candidates vied for the 18 seats in the influential Central Committee. Another 646 candidates contested seats for the 120-member Revolutionary Council.
Abu Mazen has broad support in the new Council; he has the prerogative to appoint four additional members. With the Council elections, Abu Mazen has renewed his influence and legitimacy within the movement and moved further out of Arafat’s shadow.
While some had feared that the Congress might mark Fatah’s funeral after a long decline, it rejuvenated the movement and gave it a new lease on life. The scene of hundreds of delegates debating policies and contesting in open elections contrasted sharply with Hamas’s ideologically rigid and centrally controlled party life, and the rise of a new generation of leaders gave hope that Fatah might reconnect with young activists and bring better governance to the PA.
Moving forward, Fatah and Abu Mazen must face daunting challenges. At the helm of the PA, he and the new leadership must show that they are turning a corner with regard to corruption, and they must persuade a skeptical international community to deliver the $12 billion in assistance that was promised earlier. With regard to reconciliation with Hamas, there will be a struggle among hard-liners and more flexible officials among the new leadership, but the two groups must find a way to form a national unity government, lift the siege of Gaza, and proceed toward parliamentary and presidential elections.
The question of Abu Mazen’s succession will remain thorny. He has no deputy or heir apparent, and contests for the succession will probably be a hallmark of intra-party life for years to come. Marwan Barghouti, who is in jail in Israel, won election to the Central Committee and might be the most popular choice, but he cannot lead from prison, nor is his leadership uncontested. Mahmoud Dahlan, the hard-line, anti-Hamas security chief, who has leadership ambitions of his own, also advanced in the elections, but without the slate of candidates whom he had hoped would give him additional leverage in the Central Committee.
For the time being, the Fatah Congress has given Abu Mazen a much-needed shot in the arm, and conferred new legitimacy on the peace option among Palestinians. In the end, however, Fatah’s fate is linked to the fate of the peace process. If conditions improve markedly on the West Bank, and real progress is made toward a two-state solution, Fatah can parlay the progress into renewed popularity, enabling it to win future elections. But if the peace process reaches another dead end, Fatah will be weakened again, and Hamas will be left to pick up the pieces.