BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was named Saturday head of his Fatah movements at his party’s first conference in two decades, strengthening the hand of the Western-backed leader in his bid to revive peace talks with Israel.
But Abbas’ ability to speak, and negotiate, on behalf of Palestinians will depend on if he can revive his party’s flagging fortunes and heal a rift between Fatah and its rivals, the Islamic militant group Hamas.
“This convention must be a new beginning for the Fatah movement,” said Abbas to thunderous applause. “In our history we’ve had many launches and setbacks. Sometimes we have reached the edge of the abyss but we have always returned stronger,” he said.
Hundreds of delegates cheered and clapped as senior Fatah official Tayib Abdul Rahim announced on Saturday that Abbas was chosen to lead the party. There was no vote because no other candidate came forward to challenge Abbas’ five-year rule.
Technically Abbas can only lead the party for five years, until a new conference is announced, but this is the first time Fatah members have met in 20 years and it is not clear when they will convene again.
Abbas pledged to lead Palestinians to statehood but the challenges facing him are many. He wants to strengthen the party which dominated Palestinian politics for decades under the leadership of charismatic leader Yasser Arafat.
But under Abbas’ leadership, the party was trounced by Hamas in 2006 parliamentary elections, partly because of its corruption-tainted image. A year later, Hamas seized the Gaza Strip by force, politically splitting the Palestinian territories in two. The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority rules the West Bank only, and Abbas has not been able to foster reconciliation between his party and Hamas.
Without a rapprochment, Abbas’ claim to represent all Palestinians in peace negotiations with Israel is shaky as he cannot impose authority over all the territories he seeks for a state, and will not be able to ensure security on southern Israel’s border with Gaza.
Abbas has led a crackdown on Hamas militants in the West Bank, as a part of now-stalled negotiations with Israel. His hand will be strengthened if future talks bear tangible fruit for Palestinians.
The indications for from the Fatah conference are not promising, however, as the 2,000 Fatah members meeting for the first time since 1989 have tangled repeatedly over key issues.
Already the conference has been extended until Tuesday because the original three days alloted have not been enough work through the fractious members’ differences.
Only six of 18 committees have been able to present their reports so far. Younger party members have accused their elderly leaders of stacking votes to ensure the veterans’ remain in important positions.