Fatah Conference Boosts Abbas, but Peace May Remain Elusive

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers the opening speech of the 6th Fatah Convention in Bethlehem.

Leadership elections inside Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, are a lot like comets: they only come around every 20 years or so, and are marked by a brief but spectacular display of pyrotechnics that don't alter reality on the ground. For ordinary Palestinians, life after the Fatah conference will go on much the same — they will still face the daily travails of Israeli military checkpoints around their towns, and dealing with a Palestinian government rotten with corruption and cronyism.

But within the leadership circles of Fatah, a major shift has occurred. The 2,000 delegates to the movement's first conference in two decades re-elected Abbas as their leader — no surprise there, since he ran unopposed — but it unceremoniously dumped from the ruling Central Committee many of the shuffle-footed old guard associated with the late Yasser Arafat.

Younger Palestinians, more pragmatic when it comes to accepting the existence of Israel, won 10 of the 14 empty seats on the 18-seat Central Committee. They have seen that the older generation's refusal to compromise with Israel has doomed Palestinians to an ever-shrinking future state. For every year that passes without a deal, another Jewish settlement rises on a hilltop inside the West Bank. As one new Central Committee member tells TIME, "We can't keep living on radicalism. We have to be practical and negotiate with Israel." Implicit in his remark is the realization that the Palestinians need to be ready to compromise.

Having successfully dodged demands by party delegates to account for the millions in missing aid money and donations that have flowed through Fatah's Central Committee over the past 20 years, many of Arafat's defeated cronies clambered into their limousines and sped across the Jordan Valley to their plush villas in Amman. Many of Fatah's leadership live in exile and cling to the demand that all Palestinians turned into refugees by the creation of Israel in 1948 be allowed to return to their confiscated land and homes. Successive Israeli governments have refused to recognize a right of return for the refugees, claiming that the return of millions of Palestinians would soon outnumber Israel's Jewish majority. The conference affirmed the principle of the right of return for some 4.5 million Palestinian refugees scattered mostly throughout Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf States.

Still, the leadership election gave President Abbas a much-needed political booster shot. The conference has allowed him to regain control over Fatah and oust a few rebellious party rivals who were a liability and an embarrassment. But it is doubtful, say party delegates, that the new members of the influential Central Committee will assist Abbas in patching up with Hamas, the Islamist rival movement that beat Fatah in the elections of January 2006 and forcibly ejected Fatah militias from Gaza the following year. Arab and Western leaders have emphasized reconciliation between the rival Palestinian power centers as a key condition for moving forward with the peace process.

The new Central Committee includes two influential security chiefs — Mohammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub — both of whom are accused by Hamas of leading a brutal crackdown against its members in Gaza and in the West Bank. Dahlan, in particular, is loathed by Hamas and even by many in Fatah, who accuse him of carrying out Israel's and the CIA's bidding in trying to sabotage the result of Hamas' 2006 election victory. Hamas, which refused to let 400 Fatah delegates leave Gaza to attend the Bethlehem conference, having demanded that President Abbas first release 1,000 Hamas prisoners being held in the West Bank, displayed wariness toward the outcome of their rival's conference. As a Hamas spokesman in Gaza put it: "Time will judge whether they will protect the interests of the Palestinians."

As a way of flexing its own muscles while Fatah held the spotlight, Hamas has renewed talks through the Egyptians over the release of captive Israeli soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit in exchange for several hundred Palestinian prisoners. If Hamas pulls off the deal, it would undermine Abbas' own credibility, since his years of negotiating with the Israelis in U.S.-sponsored peace talks yielded few positive results hailed by ordinary Palestinians. Over 11,000 Palestinians remain in Israel captivity, and Abbas has long demanded that Israel free many of them, but to no avail.

During the conference, Abbas, in typical fashion, bombarded the Israelis with mixed messages. On one hand, delegates proposed revising the charter of Fatah — which was founded in the 1950s to wage an armed struggle against Israel on behalf of the dispossessed Palestinians — to embrace the principle of "two states for two people," a recognition that Palestinians accept Israel's right to exist. This revision is expected to be adopted by Fatah's newly elected leadership bodies. But, on the other hand, the conference delegates refused to strike out a sentence in their charter vowing to "liquidate the Zionist entity," and the delegates did not rule out the possibility of a return to arms if the faltering U.S.-brokered peace process collapses. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have yet to meet, despite the White House clamoring for a resumption of talks, with the Palestinian leader insisting that Israel first accept a full settlement freeze.

One of the rising stars in Fatah elected to the Central Committee was Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five consecutive life sentences inside an Israeli prison for terrorism. Despite the terror charges against him, Barghouti is seen as relatively moderate and a pragmatist who advocates both a two-state solution and reconciliation with Hamas. He is also viewed a possible successor for Abbas if the Israelis decide to release him from prison. Although Israel's Minister of Minority Affairs Avishay Braverman suggested this week that Barghouti be released to help strengthen the hand of Israel's Palestinian peace partner, it remains unlikely that Netanyahu's right-wing government will free a man convicted for the death of five people. Meantime, Israel's hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Fatah's "radical and uncompromising positions" created "an unbridgeable gap between us and them." So, while Abbas may be rejuvenated by Fatah's first elections in 20 years, his job hasn't gotten any easier.

— With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem