BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – The congress of the leading Palestinian party, Fatah, votes on Sunday for a new executive body and assembly, in a test of its ability to renew itself and regain the lost trust of the Palestinian people.
The movement led by the late Yasser Arafat for 40 years is seeking to throw off a reputation for corruption and cronyism that led in 2006 to a stunning election loss to its Islamist rival Hamas, which opposes peace with Israel.
Hamas seized Gaza in a civil war a year later, splitting the Palestinian polity.
The congress of 2,355 delegates in Bethlehem — Fatah’s first in 20 years — began last Tuesday and was marked by reformists’ charges of vote-buying and nepotism by the “old guard.”
Ninety-six candidates, six of them women, are standing for election to the 21-member central committee and 617 party members including 50 women will vie for the 80 places open in a 128-seat Revolutionary Council, the body’s parliament.
Voting will last for 10 hours. Results from the complex ballot papers are expected to take about a day.
If stalled peace talks with Israel resume, Fatah’s leader, the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, will be Israel’s main interlocutor, a position Hamas is certain to continue challenging however successful this convention.
Holding Fatah’s first meeting on Palestinian soil in 44 years of existence is part of efforts to underpin his personal authority as the voice of all Palestinians.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak deplored Fatah’s anti-Israel rhetoric but stressed that “it must be understood there is no Middle East solution other than a comprehensive, broad settlement including us and the Palestinians.”
“I very much recommend that (Abbas), after the congress, prepare to enter such a settlement, and that President Obama lead the way to a comprehensive regional settlement.”
MESSAGE TO BETHLEHEM
Abbas, 74, won unanimous endorsement by a show of hands on Saturday, telling the congress it must mark a new beginning.
“We’ve had many launches and setbacks. Sometimes we have reached the edge of the abyss but we have always emerged stronger,” he said to applause.
All eyes were on the competition for leadership places by members of the younger generation of Fatah members, who say the top ranks of the movement are long overdue for an overhaul.
It would be a mark of genuine change, said one member of the “old guard,” if two-thirds of the seats on the Central Committee and Revolutionary Council went to younger members.
But expectations must not be too high, Fatah veteran and Central Committee candidate Sami Musallam said.
“The chance of new faces coming into the Central Committee, I believe, are pretty slim. However I expect new faces to be well represented in the Revolutionary Council.”
Reformist Sabry Saydam said: “The most important thing is to display the unity of Fatah, and that will be the sign that we are back to being the movement that served the Palestinian people in the past.”
Fatah cannot afford to perpetuate internal divisions on top of its fundamental schism with Hamas, which marks “one of the darkest chapters in the Palestinian struggle ever,” said Sabry Saydam, vice-president of the congress and an adviser to Abbas.
Fatah is dominant in the West Bank, separated from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip by Israeli land. Together the territories would form a future Palestine in a peace deal with Israel — except that they are now governed by two hostile rivals.
Hamas stopped 300 Fatah members leaving Gaza to attend the Bethlehem convention, creating a procedural headache. But on Friday a message to Bethlehem from 299 Gaza delegates said they would vote by phone or email if necessary to play their part in choosing the two main party executive bodies.