Page last updated at 12:49 GMT, Wednesday, 12 August 2009 13:49 UK

Fatah: A new beginning?

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

The party founded by the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat four decades ago is struggling to revive its fortunes. But has its latest congress really made it a more united and credible force?

PA President Mahmoud Abbas in front of Yasser Arafat poster at Fatah conference
Fatah is widely criticised as corrupt and ineffective

It was the first Fatah congress on Palestinian soil - and that in itself ensured that organising it would be a tall order.

The event brought together more than 2,000 delegates, not just from the West Bank but from the Palestinian diaspora.

Fatah needed Israel's permission for activists to come from Lebanon and Syria.

It tried and failed to get the agreement of Hamas - the rival movement which rules the Gaza Strip - to allow Fatah members from there to attend.

So it was a logistical challenge.

Moreover the congress laid bare many of the divisions within the movement:

  • Between radicals and moderates
  • Between "insiders" living on Palestinian soil and "outsiders", many of whom have spent decades in exile
  • Between the younger generation and an old guard widely seen as corrupt, nepotistic and disunited.

Retreat of the old guard

But in the end Mahmoud Abbas, the 74-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority, came away pleased.

Fatah congress delegates cast their votes

He was re-elected unopposed, by a show of hands, to the post of chairman of the Central Committee - Fatah's top decision-making body.

And he fulfilled his promise of rejuvenating the committee with new blood.

The old guard kept only four of the 18 elected seats. The rest went to younger men.

One of the best known of the "old Abus" who failed to get re-elected was Ahmed Qurei, known as Abu Alaa. Now in his early seventies, Abu Alaa was one of the architects of the Oslo accords of the 1990s.

Among those to get most votes was Marwan Barghouti, a popular 50-year-old Fatah leader currently in an Israeli jail.

There is continuing speculation about whether the Israeli government might let him out, to strengthen the Fatah pragmatists.

But the more hawkish elements in the cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seem certain to oppose this.

A partner for peace?

So how true is Mahmoud Abbas's description of the congress as a "new beginning"?

The key question for Israel and the United States is whether the congress has made Fatah a more credible party to the peace process.

In the US, the Obama administration is still struggling to come up with a plan which would re-launch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Some press reports have spoken of an announcement in "a few weeks".

The elements of such a plan would be:

  • Some sort of Israeli freeze, even if temporary, on the building of settlements
  • Preliminary moves by the Arab states towards normalisation of relations with Israel
  • An international conference which would give its blessing to the resumption of peace talks.

But, despite the efforts of US special envoy George Mitchell, the key parties have not yet signed up to the plan.

Hamas-Fatah rift

There is cautious hope among outsiders that the Fatah congress may mark the beginning of a generational change within the Palestinian leadership.

But many would have wished Mahmoud Abbas to go further.

In the interest of consensus he has renewed his commitment to a peaceful solution to the conflict - but reserved the right to resume armed struggle if the peace process fails.

The single biggest challenge for the Palestinians remains the rift between Fatah and Hamas.

So far, Egyptian-led efforts to reconcile the two rival factions have failed.

Even if Fatah continues the process of renewal, that by itself will not solve the problem.

As long as the Palestinian house remains divided, a breakthrough to Israeli-Palestinian peace will be impossible.

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