The Fatah Conference: Finally an Abbas Victory

By August 25, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 90

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: After a 20-year hiatus, the Fatah conference was held in August 2009. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas finally appears to have gained some power in his party, Fatah. Due to persisting Palestinian internal divisions, he will still need the help of Israel and the US for controlling the West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has finally scored a victory after many defeats: his inability to prevent the degeneration of the nationalist camp after Arafat’s death in 2004, his failure to persuade the Bush administration against free elections in the Palestinian legislative assembly, his subsequent inability to rein in Fatah renegade candidates who split the Fatah party’s vote and ushered in a Hamas victory, and his failure to prevent the Hamas takeover in June 2007. At the August 2009 Fatah conference, held for the first time in 20 years, he succeeded in dictating its location – Ramallah – rather than abroad as Faruq Qaddumi, his Tunis-based rival, demanded; co-opting another leading Tunis rival Abu Mahir Ghuneim; winning by consensus (tazkiya in Arabic) the leadership of Fatah; and then appointing loyalists to the Central Committee and Revolutionary Council. In short, the Palestinians finally have an Arab leader whose ruling party’s only function is to give the impression that it shares in ruling the entity.

Far from the visible eye, Abbas adopted a strategy of building state institutions at the expense of political and terrorist organizations. In the special circumstances prevailing in Judea and Samaria this meant reaching an understanding with Israel that the IDF would destroy the military infrastructures of Fatah, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AMB) and Hamas’ Izz al-din al-Qassam, while concomitantly Abbas weakened and dismantled Hamas’ social service infrastructure. Concurrently, despite the Gaza failure, Abbas joined forces with US General Keith Dayton in building the Palestinian security forces, and finally, in controlling and neutralizing potential Fatah opposition.

The 2009 Fatah conference was a sequel to Abbas’ earlier moves against the Tanzim and the AMB. It is no wonder that Abbas made sure that Marwan Barghouti, the head of the Tanzim and the heir to Arafat’s revolutionary mantle, remained in prison and be equally incarcerated in a Central Committee stuffed with Barghouti’s rivals.

Abbas, as is the case of many Arab leaders, did not act alone. In all the meaningless discussion of the “old” guard verses the “young” guard, overlooked was the much more meaningful distinction between two rival camps that emerged with the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and in even sharper terms during the outbreak of violence in 2000. The “statists” led by Abbas and Muhammad Dahlan believed that the PA could devolve into a Palestinian state, with the help of measures of selective violence if necessary, while the “revolutionaries” led by Barghouti and later backed by Arafat, felt that violence could drive Israel into total withdrawal. Both Dahlan and Barghouti have similar biographies; they are both the same age and were founders of the Fatah youth and student movements in Gaza and the West Bank, respectively. Yet Dahlan became the head of the most important PA security agency in Gaza in 1994 and later a key supporter of Abbas while Barghuthi became head of the irregular Tanzim and then joined forces with Arafat.

Ironically, the loss of Gaza and the fleeing of hundreds of Gaza activists have made them beholden to Abbas. The three provincial governors and the security personnel of the Central Committee are also 100 percent loyal to Abbas and his “statist” vision. The largesse Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad command to the tune of an annual budget of $2 billion will be more than enough to co-opt the few members in the Central Committee who do not belong to the two camps. This means that Barghouti will be a one-man opposition, from prison no less!

By no means can Abbas rest on his laurels. Hamas taunts Abbas mainly on his attempt to build up his security forces. It points to the 14,000 troop expansion that took place in Abbas’ security forces in Gaza in 2005-06. Hamas claims that 9,000 of those troops were Hamas supporters who infiltrated the security forces and ensured that when push came to shove, most of the 30,000 personnel in the security forces refrained from fighting a vastly outnumbered but victorious Hamas. Abbas must also reflect on the problems of the American efforts to build an effective military force in Iraq and Afghanistan. For these reasons, for the time being Abbas will continue security cooperation with Israel to ensure his control of the West Bank.

Abbas’ strategy and his newly acquired strength both in controlling Fatah and appearing as a fellow Arab leader amongst his Arab state supporters deepens the conflict with Hamas. This organization is beset by its own problems, as the latest challenge to its authority from a fundamentalist al-Qaeda related group in Rafah resulting in 24 deaths demonstrated recently. Hamas has already accused the fundamentalist group of having links with Ramallah.

The Palestinian president’s success also has ramifications on the peace process. Abbas did not use his clout to transform Fatah from a violent organization into a political party or to rule out armed struggle as a means of attaining peace. Both of these outcomes run counter to Palestinian commitments made in the various agreements signed in the Oslo process in the 1990s and reaffirmed anew in the 2003 Roadmap, which ruled out both the armed struggle as a legitimate strategy and violence as a proper tactic to achieve political goals. Israel, which failed in the 1990s to make the PA accountable for such infringements, will press the United States to modify this situation as a quid pro quo for freezing settlements.

The relatively successful convening of the conference helps to create a greater parity of power between the PA/PLO/Fatah and Hamas than existed over the past three years, which was heavily in favor of Hamas. As the power differential between the two decreases so does the willingness from each side to take risks in order to achieve Palestinian unity.

A Palestinian house divided cannot make peace, meaning that US President Obama will be left to pressure Israel and the PA into making motions devoid of substance in a new status quo that benefits both Abbas and even more so, Israel.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Hillel Frisch
Prof. Hillel Frisch

Prof. Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Email: [email protected]