Palestinian Affairs: The rocky road to Bethlehem

Fatah's upcoming general conference will determine policy on the peace process with Israel.

mahmoud abbas pensive 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
mahmoud abbas pensive 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Barring a last-minute change of plans, the PLO's largest and oldest faction, Fatah, is finally expected to hold its sixth general conference in Bethlehem on August 4. The mere fact that the conference is being held is an achievement for Fatah's leaders and members, because the last time the conference was convened was about 20 years ago. Since then, Fatah's veteran old-guard leadership has done its utmost to delay the gathering, mainly out of fear that it could pave the way for the rise of young grassroots activists. Succumbing to internal and outside pressure earlier this year, PA President Mahmoud Abbas decided - contrary to the advice of many of his aides - to hold the general assembly in Bethlehem. Abbas's aides expressed concern that holding the conference at this stage would only deepen divisions between Fatah's young and old guards. They also warned that convening the conference in the West Bank would mean that hundreds of Fatah representatives living in the Gaza Strip and Arab countries might not be able to attend. Indeed, Abbas's decision has already triggered a crisis in Fatah. Many operatives living abroad - including one of Fatah's founders, 78-year-old Farouk Kaddoumi - have come out publicly against the decision to hold the conference "under the Israeli occupation." Kaddoumi and his supporters had initially sought to hold the conference in an Arab country, but were turned down by most of the Arab governments, including Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. It's still not clear whether they are planning to boycott the conference in Bethlehem. Abbas is hoping to bring together about 1,500 Fatah members and leaders in what is expected to be the faction's most significant meeting since its founding 45 years ago. The reason it is so important is because it will determine the identity of Fatah's future leaders, and lay out its political and security strategy. And since Fatah controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, whatever decisions its members make at the conference will impact the status of the peace process with Israel. OVER THE past two decades, Fatah's credibility among Palestinians has suffered a major setback, largely due to a series of financial scandals involving its top leaders, especially after the signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel, and the establishment of the PA in the West Bank and Gaza. Fatah's failure to learn from its mistakes is the main reason why it hasn't been able to regain the confidence of a majority of Palestinians. In January 2006, Fatah lost to Hamas in the parliamentary elections, in a move that was seen as a vote of protest against its leaders' financial corruption and abuse of power. Since then, Fatah has done little, if anything, to reform itself and get rid of the icons of corruption among its top brass. A year later, Hamas managed to kick the Fatah people out of Gaza. As a result, Fatah has lost direct control over nearly 1.5 million residents - almost half of the Palestinians living in the Palestinian territories. The sixth conference comes at the peak of the power struggle with Hamas, and at a time when Fatah is continuing to witness tensions between rival trends from within its own ranks. As such, the conference, when and if it's held, is expected to witness heated exchanges between many of its members. The delegates will be required to elect new members for some of Fatah's important bodies, such as the Revolutionary Council and the Central Committee. They will also have to agree on a date for holding internal elections, a move that is widely expected to result in the removal of old timers, such as Abbas, Ahmed Qurei and Kaddoumi from the faction's leadership. But the conference will also be tasked with taking decisions regarding the peace process. Some Fatah representatives have talked about the possibility of dropping any reference to the armed struggle against Israel, drawing sharp protests from many of their more radical colleagues. Rafik Natsheh and Azzam al-Ahmed, representatives of Fatah's old guard, for instance, are strongly opposed to the removal of the armed-struggle option from Fatah's charter. They have argued that such a move - when the conflict with Israel has not yet been resolved - would cause Fatah huge damage on the "Palestinian street." On the other hand, Fatah leaders with close relations to Israel and the US have expressed fear that re-endorsing the armed struggle on the part of Fatah would sabotage their efforts to receive financial aid from the West. APART FROM political and security matters, the long-awaited conference will bring to the surface personal rivalries between many Fatah figures who are expected to exploit the forum to settle scores with their much-hated adversaries. A sign of the tensions that await the parley was provided last week by Kaddoumi, who dropped a "bombshell" when he held an impromptu press conference in Jordan to announce that he had evidence that Abbas and former security commander Mohammed Dahlan had helped Israel in the "assassination" of Yasser Arafat in 2004. Kaddoumi's credibility has always been questionable. He is one of the few Fatah leaders who refused to enter the West Bank and Gaza after the signing of the Oslo Accords, which he strongly opposed from the outset. Yet his sensational "revelation" - that Abbas and Dahlan were part of an Israeli conspiracy to poison Arafat - managed to add another explosive topic to the conference agenda: the death of Abbas's predecessor. Undoubtedly, Kaddoumi's contention caused a lot of damage to Fatah. Many Palestinians seem to buy the theory that some of Arafat's former cronies were indeed involved, directly or indirectly, in his sudden death. With Arafat's ghost hovering over the Bethlehem conference, the meeting is likely to turn into the best show in town.