Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fatah Elects New Leaders

Fatah Takes Risk By Bringing In New Generation Of Leaders
Times Online

After 20 years without internal elections Fatah, the main party of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, breathed some new life into its body yesterday, sending many of its "old guard" stalwarts packing and electing a new generation of leaders — including one serving a life sentence for killing Israelis.

The Fatah gathering in Bethlehem was the first time that the movement, founded by the late Yassir Arafat, has its held congress in the Palestinian territories. It was also the first time in two decades that the Western-backed Fatah, which has recognized Israel as a state, has held such a meeting. Arafat, who died in 2004, had always found ways of delaying and dodging any convention that might challenge his power.

The gathering was seen by many as a risky move by Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor as Fatah head and Palestinian president. His rule has proven highly unpopular, compared with the iconic leader he replaced — the party was trounced in the 2006 elections by the militant Islamist movement Hamas. Mr Abbas’s efforts to renew peace talks with Israel failed as Jewish settlements continued to grow and his faction lost a bitter war with Hamas in Gaza and was widely accused of being self-serving and corrupt in power.

The meeting in Bethlehem was a stormy one at times and was disrupted by Hamas’s refusal to grant Fatah officials from Gaza permission to leave, a tactic reminiscent of the Israeli army and which served to further entrench the de facto separation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

But yesterday’s vote showed that the party was willing to heed Mr Abbas’s admonition to reform before next year’s planned elections. He wants the party to win back the trust of a disillusioned population, tired of Fatah’s ineffectiveness yet suspicious of Hamas’s increasingly oppressive rule in Gaza.

After a congress that had to be extended from three to eight days, the delegates elected to the Central Committee included Marwan Barghouti, now serving a life sentence after an Israeli court found him guilty of planning terrorist attacks during the bloody days of the second Palestinian intifada.

Barghouti, 50, is seen as the kind of savvy street fighter who might be able to heal the rift between Fatah and Hamas, and is emblematic of the Fatah young turks – raised next to Israelis, speaking fluent Hebrew, willing to negotiate for a two-state solution but not afraid of resorting to armed resistance to Israel’s presence in the territories.

However, the other member of the younger generation to be elected, Mohammed Dahlan, is only likely to exacerbate tensions between Hamas and Fatah. He was the movement’s iron-fist enforcer in Gaza for years and was widely reviled by Hamas for cracking down on its members.

Mr Barghouti, who has remained politically active despite being behind bars, has been widely tipped as a possible successor to the 74-year-old Mr Abbas, who was re-elected as the party’s leader on Saturday.

But the voting delivered some stinging defeats to Fatah veterans such as Ahmed Qurei, a former Prime Minister who played a key role in the negotiation of the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s. He failed to rally support for his Central Committee candidacy.

The infusion of younger leaders into Fatah’s higher echelons comes at a time when the US Administration is pushing for a breakthrough in peace talks. Washington’s envoy is expected in the coming weeks to present the US blueprint for a regional effort to end the protracted conflict.