Under fire at home and abroad, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian National Authority on Tuesday moved to solidify his decade-long hold on power with a party conference that had already been purged of most of his opponents.
The carefully selected delegates wasted little time in formally re-electing Abbas as the leader of Fatah, the party that controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
The conference, Fatah’s first in seven years, comes as the Palestinians face economic troubles, violent clashes among competing clans and the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Critics complain that Abbas’ leadership has grown insular and out of touch. He convened the conference to demonstrate his continued grip on the Palestinian National Authority and to restock the Fatah party leadership with allies.
“It represents a renewal of legitimacy; there is no doubt about that,” Nasser Al Kidwa, a former Palestinian foreign minister, said in an interview. Kidwa is a nephew of Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who is still revered by many Palestinians. The vote at the conference, Kidwa said, “turns the page on some of our internal problems that have existed in recent times.”
Omar Shalabi, a party member, said that Fatah activists wanted to bolster Abbas in the face of the challenges before him. “We assured the president that we are with him,” Shalabi said. Even Abbas’ supporters, though, said change was necessary, and they expressed hope that Abbas would bring in fresh blood. “We need a new strategy because we are facing a very hard situation,” said Hatem Abdul Qader, a former Palestinian government minister. “We need to think out of the box. We need new hope.”
Abbas, 81, who was treated recently for heart problems, has been a central figure in Fatah for decades. He was a lieutenant to Arafat and a member of the team that negotiated the Oslo Accords with Israel in the 1990s; he ascended to the Palestinian leadership after Arafat’s death in 2004. In the 12th year of what was initially supposed to be a four-year term, Abbas has lashed out at opponents, and they have been ousted from party positions and at times arrested.
Abbas is caught between Palestinians who consider him too close to the Israelis, and Israelis who say he is no partner for peace. His own would-be state is split between the West Bank, where he governs amid the Israeli occupation, and Gaza, which was seized nearly a decade ago by the more militant Hamas faction. What remained unclear was whether Abbas would lay out a succession plan during the gathering, which was scheduled to last at least five days. He has rebuffed calls from Arab nations and Palestinian activists for him to groom a successor. Because of the split with Hamas, it is not certain who would be next in line to lead the Palestinian Authority if Abbas were incapacitated.
Missing from the conference were Palestinian leaders and activists who had fallen out with Abbas, including those affiliated with Muhammad Dahlan, a former security chief who has lived in exile since 2011. Allies of Dahlan, and even some Palestinians who were only thought to be his allies, have been purged from Fatah or arrested, and competing factions have engaged in violent clashes. Diana Buttu, a former Palestinian official who is now a critic of Abbas, named 10 party figures who had been ousted recently.
“To me, the story is who is not at the conference,” said Grant Rumley, a scholar at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington and a co-author of a forthcoming biography of Abbas. “This conference will formalise the split within his own party.”
Some supporters of Abbas played down the divisions. “This is Israel’s strategy, for us to butt heads with each other,” said Jamal Muheisen, a member of the Fatah central committee. “Even though we have difficulties with other parties, everybody recognises Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian people.”
Several potential successors or their representatives attended the conference, including Kidwa and the wife and son of Marwan Barghouti, a popular figure who is serving multiple life terms in an Israeli prison for murder.
The son, Qassam Barghouti, 30, said that Palestinians were “very committed” to his father, but that the goal for now was bringing the party together.
“After the divisions we’ve been seeing in the last two to three years, what we saw shows that Fatah is united,” he said during a break in the conference.
Abbas hoped that the event would be a step toward reconciliation with Hamas. Ahmad Haj Ali, a senior Hamas legislator, was invited to address the conference. “We are partners in this homeland, our cause, struggle and resolutions,” he told the delegates, “and we in Hamas are ready to fulfil all requirements of this partnership with you and all factions.”
— New York Times News Service
Peter Baker is the occupied Jerusalem Bureau chief for the New York Times while Rami is a Palestinian journalist.