President Barack Obama's Middle East peace plan faces a key hurdle on Tuesday, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas convenes the first conference in two decades of his Fatah movement. The conference, to be held in the West Bank city of Bethlehem under heavy Palestinian Authority security, is seen as critical to restoring Abbas' waning political legitimacy and authority. But early signs suggest that the conference will, if anything, weaken the Palestinian leader's ability to follow Washington's script.
Since the death of Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat, U.S. peace efforts have relied on the moderate and relatively pliable leader to negotiate a two-state agreement with Israel. But the prevailing view within Fatah is that Abbas has achieved precious little for his negotiation efforts and that this has been a prime factor in weakening Fatah in the face of the challenge by its more militant rival, Hamas. The Islamists trounced Fatah in the last democratic elections for the Palestinian parliament in 2006, and many fear that a candidate backed by Hamas would likely beat Abbas in presidential elections currently scheduled for early next year. Much of the Fatah rank and file and even many in the leadership believe that the only way the movement can be saved is to break with American tutelage and seek to reclaim the mantle of "resistance" from Hamas. The result is that the political statement adopted by the conference is unlikely to please the U.S. and Israel.
Indications from within Fatah suggest that the conference political document will reaffirm the Palestinians' right to resistance, specifying nonviolent challenges to the occupation but remaining silent on the question of armed resistance and the future of the Fatah-affiliated militants of al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade. It will flatly reject Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, on the grounds that this undermines the rights of Palestinian refugees and of those with Israeli citizenship. It will also insist on a complete freeze on Jewish settlements in occupied territory as a precondition for any talks with Israel, which it will stress must be based on U.N. resolutions which will include recognition of the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees expelled from Israel in 1948, a demand that Israel deems a deal breaker.
Then again, making a deal on the terms currently on offer is clearly not the priority for much of Fatah, which believes that such an agreement would kill its organization. Instead, the conference will seek to rebrand Fatah with a more radical stance in order to more effectively compete with Hamas. Unlike Arafat, who framed his negotiation strategy with Israel in revolutionary language (which, of course, heightened Israeli suspicions over his bona fides as a peacemaker), Abbas is unable to couch his positions in the language of struggle, and without Arafat's charisma, he is seen as lacking a clear political vision to offer the Palestinians.
While much of the younger generation of Fatah and many of its leaders who remain in exile are contemptuous of the leadership of Abbas, to which they attribute their movement's political demise, they don't plan to try to unseat him just yet. Instead, they'll seek to tie his hands. But there is a move afoot at the conference to take down Abbas' national-security adviser, the Bush Administration's favorite strongman, Mohammed Dahlan. The conference will hear proposals for an investigation into the events that saw Hamas eject Fatah forces and take control of Gaza by force in 2007 with many blaming Dahlan for having at least partly provoked the takeover. Demanding an inquiry and targeting one of his key allies is seen as another means of weakening Abbas' authority. A second target will be Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a political independent appointed by Abbas at Washington's behest, although against strong opposition from both Hamas and Fatah.
Abbas is likely to fight back fiercely, seeing the conference as integral to maintaining his prestige. Critics within Fatah have complained about his decision to hold the event in the West Bank, which remains under Israel's control, giving it veto power over which delegates from abroad will be allowed to attend. Many Fatah members in Arab countries and even some in Gaza have challenged the decision to hold the event in Bethlehem, and Abbas has also been accused of summarily expanding the delegate list to boost his support. The debate at the conference will certainly be intense, and its outcome will either radicalize the movement's profile or exacerbate the divisions within Fatah in a manner that hastens its collapse.
The shadow of Hamas looms large over the conference, and not only because the movement is blocking Fatah delegates in Gaza from traveling to Bethlehem until Abbas agrees to release some 1,000 Hamas prisoners being held in the West Bank. Hamas, quite simply, has eclipsed Fatah in leading the Palestinian fight against Israel. It directly controls Gaza, and only the ongoing suppression of free political activity in the West Bank prevents the Islamists from making a far stronger challenge to Abbas on his own turf. The steady stream of Western officials and journalists traveling to Damascus to meet with Hamas leaders is a sure sign that the U.S.-led boycott of the organization has failed to weaken its influence and, of course, when the Israelis want to discuss a cease-fire or a prisoner exchange, it is with Hamas that they're forced to deal, albeit via Egyptian mediators. The fast-emerging conventional wisdom is that no peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is possible without the consent of Hamas, which is why Western and Arab governments have set much store by Egypt's efforts to mediate a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. The dynamics around the conference, however, are likely to render that prospect more remote, at least in the short term.
The conference marks the first opportunity Fatah's membership will have to comment on the moderate negotiating strategy adopted by Abbas, and the result is likely to weaken his mandate to pursue the sort of talks the Obama Administration is hoping to see in the near future. For many, the priority is to rebuild Fatah, which requires that the movement return to the kind of politics that can challenge Hamas for the mantle of resistance. Since the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, successive Israeli elections have shown the voters moving steadily away from support for the peace process envisaged in the Oslo Agreements. So, too, have Palestinian exercises in democracy, and the Fatah conference is unlikely to buck the trend.
With reporting by Jamil Hamad / Bethlehem