The convening of Fatah s Sixth General Conference in Bethlehem is a significant development. Indeed, the Fatah movement, which has long led the modern Palestinian political movement and was responsible for transforming the Palestinian problem from a humanitarian issue into a political cause and an issue of self-determination, was in danger of collapse until the conference.
The movement faced three major problems: legitimacy, unity within the movement and lack of leadership.
Fatah s ruling Central Committee, whose members had last been elected in the general conference 20 years ago, was no longer in a position to lead. Almost half its numbers were either dead or incapacitated. The youngest member was almost 70.
Meanwhile, the chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Fatah founder Yasser Arafat, did not show enough leadership and lost the two main battles in his time in charge: the parliamentary elections in 2006 and the direct military confrontation over control of Gaza in 2007, both to Fatah s main rival, Hamas.
Abbas recently realized that reforming and renewing the legitimacy of the Fatah leadership would be the cornerstone of his role as leader of the Palestinian people. He can neither reform and improve the Palestine Liberation Organization nor stand up to the growing strength of Hamas without strengthening and unifying Fatah. For that reason, and as a result of encouragement and pressure from his friends and allies inside and outside of Palestine, he made the convening of this conference his main challenge in the last year or so. And although the conference, at time of writing, is not yet over, one can already say that it has achieved most of its objectives.
The convening of the conference and the success in conducting elections for a new leadership are the main achievements that have already been attained. Fatah will end up with a new leadership that has the necessary legitimacy and can secure broad unity within the movement. It is inevitable that at least half, but most probably more, of the members of the new Central Committee will be newcomers and that should ensure enough diversity, both in terms of age and in terms of political orientation.
The main beneficiary would seem to be Abbas. He has so far been leading under the shadow of Arafat. However, because of the success of this conference, Abbas will leave Bethlehem as his own man. By convening the conference, Abbas has to a very large extent asserted his leadership. This is especially so since he managed to win all the political battles at the conference.
The first was the dispute with many of the Fatah members and leaders in the diaspora, led by Farouk Qaddoumi, over the location of the conference. He then overcame the challenge posed by Hamas decision to prevent Gaza delegates from attending by finding a mechanism through which they could nevertheless vote.
Finally, and probably most importantly, Abbas seems to have succeeded in achieving consensus over a political platform. That platform saw delegates agree to pursue negotiations as the strategic option to achieve the legitimate Palestinian aspirations for independence and freedom in a sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, as well as the right of return of Palestinian refugees. The right of resistance is reserved as a legitimate option in case the peace process fails.
This formulation gives Abbas enough room for maneuver to continue with the peace process and also enables him to maintain the support of the hardliners in Fatah who have argued that the failure of the peace process should make Fatah go back to its original role as a resistance movement.
On a broader perspective, the success of the conference in rescuing Fateh from possible collapse will put the movement as well as the secular sector of Palestinian society in general on a stronger footing – first vis-à-vis Hamas and second regarding the increasing attempts by Israel to consolidate its occupation over the West Bank and Gaza and especially in East Jerusalem.
It will also create a more conducive atmosphere for any attempts by the US administration to rekindle a political process.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.