To Mahmoud Abbas’s credit, he has shown more interest in convening the General Conference, the supreme body of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah) than did his predecessor Yasir Arafat. In 2009, albeit almost five years after taking charge of the movement, Abbas together with his closest associate, Muhammad Dahlan, convened the General Conference for the first time since 1989. Together, they remade Fatah in their image. During this past week, after an interval of a mere seven years, Abbas convened its seventh General Conference. This time Dahlan was absent, which was very much the point of the exercise.
In years past, the Fatah General Conference served to negotiate consensus between the movement’s various factions and power centers on issues such as its strategic orientation, political program, and representation on its decision-making bodies. While Arafat as a rule emerged triumphant from such gatherings, he also ensured that the movement’s myriad constituencies were adequately represented, and thus co-opted, in key institutions such as its Central Committee and larger Revolutionary Council, and that the political program incorporated their divergent core principles. As a mainstream national liberation movement open to every Palestinian irrespective of ideological persuasion, social background or geographical location, Fatah counted among its ranks marxists and millionaires, guerrillas and bureaucrats, rural refugees and urban notables, and Muslims, Christians, and Jews drawn from virtually every Palestinian community on the planet.
The 1982 expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Beirut, and more particularly the renunciation of conflict with Israel and establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) pursuant to the 1993 Oslo Accords, began the transformation of Fatah into a party of government that is primarily concentrated in the occupied territories. This reality notwithstanding, the 2000-2004 al-Aqsa Intifada demonstrated that both the movement’s cadres and elements of the leadership retained a capacity to mobilize Fatah for its inaugural purpose.
With the ascension of Abbas, resistance came to a definitive end. By the time the sixth General Conference convened in 2009, Fatah had been neutered as a national liberation movement, its militants and power centres neutralized, exile constituencies cast aside, and its ambitions limited to administration in the occupied territories and international diplomacy. It did, to be fair, have some fight left in it, but this was directed at the rival Hamas movement which had seized power in the Gaza Strip and other Palestinian detractors.
To speak of the Palestinian schism these days is no longer to reference the split between Fatah and Hamas that neither seeks to resolve because both are sustained by it. Rather it refers primarily to the conflict that erupted within Fatah between erstwhile partners Abbas and Dahlan. As the latter became too ambitious and brash for the former’s paranoid taste, Abbas in 2011 engineered Dahlan’s downfall and subsequent expulsion from both the movement and the West Bank. Unlike with Hamas, political and policy differences between Abbas and Dahlan are to this day non-existent.
While many Dahlan loyalists who refused to renounce their patron were removed from their positions in the PA and PLO, purging them from Fatah has proven a more difficult task. A complicating factor is that Dahlan’s main base of support is in the Gaza Strip, while Abbas’s authority and for that matter field of vision is confined to the West Bank.
Not only has Dahlan managed to retain the allegiance of many associates despite the price this entails, he has also cultivated powerful Arab friends. A favourite of the royal court in Abu Dhabi, he has more recently built a robust relationship with Egyptian strongman Abd-al-Fattah Sisi. Indeed, Abbas’s initial enthusiasm for the Egyptian coup of 2013 that removed Hamas’s Arab champion Muhammad Mursi from power in Cairo has since waned considerably.
More recently, an “Arab Quartet” consisting of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, motivated in part by growing concerns about the increasingly erratic nature of Abbas’s leadership and the absence of succession planning by the eighty-one-year-old PA president, has sought to persuade Abbas to reconcile with Dahlan–a development they believe would strengthen Fatah vis-à-vis Hamas. Yet Abbas has as little inclination of burying the hatchet with Dahlan as he does with Hamas. It is against this background that the Fatah General Conference was convened from 29 November – 4 December 2016. The multiple existential crises confronting the Palestinian people and their national movement by contrast had nothing to do with either the motivation or timing of this event.
Rather than risk participation by Dahlan loyalists who remain Fatah members in good standing and the prospect some might get re-elected to the movement’s governing bodies, Abbas simply excluded them from the list of delegates permitted to join the proceedings in Ramallah’s presidential compound. During the six days of the conference, and contrary to expectations, Dahlan’s name was never mentioned and his issue treated as non-existent. And to counter the pressures of the Arab Quartet, pointed references were made to the “independence of Palestinian decision-making” while twenty-eight foreign delegations–including representatives of the United Nations and European Union’s parliament–were invited to address the conference.
The General Conference further bolstered Abbas by unanimously re-electing him to lead Fatah at the very outset of the conference–before he delivered the report on his and the movement’s performance since 2009 that was in any case not debated. The approach and public display of a superior legitimacy and mandate seems to have been effective, and complicated further Arab pressure on Abbas to the point where observers suggest a rival Fatah conference Dahlan scheduled for Cairo may be indefinitely postponed.
The other big winner was Jibril Rujoub. During the 1990s Dahlan’s West Bank counterpart in the security forces and fierce rival, and more recently head of the Palestinian Football Association, he garnered the second-highest (and some suggest the highest) number of votes to the Fatah Central Committee. This said, a deputy or succession mechanism has yet to be announced.
If the convention served Abbas well, the same cannot be said of Fatah. Of the 18 elected members of its new Central Committee only four hail from the Gaza Strip (of whom three reside in the West Bank), just one is based in exile, seventeen are over the age of fifty (with fourteen over sixty), there is only one woman and for the first time this body is exclusively Muslim in composition. The eighty-member Revolutionary Council is dominated by West Bankers to an even greater extent.
While Abbas can ameliorate these imbalances somewhat with his allotted quota of discretionary appointments, one activist concludes that, “The damage is done. Today the former national liberation movement Fatah became the party of West Bank government. It might as well have displayed a sign reading ‘Gazans and Others Not Welcome.’" Viewed politically rather than geographically, Fatah is today no longer the ideological supermarket of yesteryear, and more monolithic than at any time in its history. This cannot augur well for what has served as the spinal cord of the national movement for many decades. It may also provide Dahlan with a new opening to mobilise resentment and opposition against Abbas.
Nor has the Palestinian struggle for self-determination emerged strengthened from this conference. One is tempted to state that its final communiqué consisted of slogans rather than a programme fleshed out with mechanism to implement decisions new and old but – among any number of lapses – this document neglected to explicitly mention of the refugees’ right of return.
Rather than contribute to the revival of Fatah and the national movement, and thus the increasingly beleaguered Palestinian struggle for self-determination, the recently concluded General Conference has only intensified the aimless drift that characterises the Palestinian condition today.
[An earlier version of this article first appeared on the website of Al Jazeera English]