Friday, August 14, 2009

Fatah Conference

Helena Cobban is right in portraying this week's Fatah conference as a victory for Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas. Let's be clear, however, that this is a figure who, ever since the January 2006 elections which gave Hamas a majority in parliament, has behaved as a strongman rather than a democratically elected leader. His term as president should have ended this past January, but he unilaterally extended it for a year, and will probably do so again this winter. Palestinian civil society is just as promising a ground for democracy as is Iranian, but no one will really support it as long as the conflict with Israel continues, and more than a few of those who cheered on every minor protest in Iran even before this summer nonetheless also cheer on Abbas for being more amenable to their own foreign policy preferences.

If Abbas is stronger, however, then it is in part because his movement is also stronger. Cobban notes an important change:
"To no-one’s surprise a large majority of the conference’s 2,241 attendees ended up being West Bankers. For a movement that was founded - around 50 years ago - in the Palestinian diaspora and was based on the urgent political demands of the exiled Palestinians, that fact alone marked a sea-change.

"The massive swing to West Bankers’ predominance in the movement was also evident in the first round of elections. Of the 19 people - all male - elected to the Central Committee (CC), one was from Gaza and two from the diaspora. The rest are all West Bankers."

This is a Fatah Central Committee more in touch with the concerns of ordinary West Bankers than before, made up of people with decades of experience under occupation. Corruption is still a deep problem in the party, but it may at last have taken steps towards increasing its legitimacy. There's also this:
"While the political program reflected Mr. Abbas's preference for Western-backed peace talks with Israel, nostalgia for Fatah's original role as leader of the armed struggle against Israel was evident. A huge poster of Arafat served as a backdrop to the conference, which revisited the party's charter but left intact a call to 'liquidate the Zionist entity.' The congress adopted a resolution that all of Jerusalem be returned to the Palestinians and asserted the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes left before the 1948 war over Israel's independence. In addition, a Fatah policy statement issued during the conference reserved the right to exercise 'resistance' in 'all its forms' if future peace negotiations were not successful."

I would have preferred "liquidate the Zionist entity" be quietly dropped, which could have been done without recognizing an Israel that doesn't recognize Palestinians' right to a state, but the rest of these demands represent a legitimate negotiating position, and I suspect the younger delegates mean them. Bringing them into the fold and reiterating the common list of Palestinian demands represents an important recentering of Fatah within the Palestinian national movement.



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