Experts see the seventh conference of the Fatah movement as a milestone at which it has completed its transformation into a ruling party. In other words, it was the last conference of Fatah the national liberation movement, and the first of “ruling Fatah.” However, this is linked to the scenarios of what comes after the conference, and knowing whether or not the interest groups have succeeded in completing the radical coup against Fatah as a liberation movement and where this path will lead to.
It is difficult to analyze the implications of the shifts in the identity and role of Fatah on the general situation in Palestine, without taking into account three influential factors:
First: The scenarios and dynamics of the evolution of the struggle against the occupation in the coming period, and the changes it may impose on the strategies of Palestinian national action including Fatah’s own strategy.
Second: The stances of interest groups within Fatah regarding the key issues Fatah influences, since it is the party dominating the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the observer United Nation (UN) “state” as well as the stance on the conflict with Israel, and their bilateral relations. It also dominates the structure and role of the PA, the goals and forms of struggle, the position on internal reconciliation, and the structure and role of the PLO.
Third: The stances of national and Islamic factions, civil and popular organizations regarding the above. In addition to their ability to formulate a clear vision regarding the restoration of national unity and the reactivation of Palestinian representative bodies.
In the same measure that the convening of the seventh general conference of Fatah was a victory for President Abbas, It was also a victory for the supporters of the president’s choices and interest groups linked to him. For this reason, the outcomes of the conference cemented the president’s hold over power levers in Fatah and the PA.
The president appeared as someone above all differences and conflicts, emerging stronger even as differences deepened in an unprecedented paradox where differences become the source of “legitimacy.” This is indicative of the decadence of politics in Palestine as the political structure of the national movement and national action disintegrate. In this situation, President ‘Abbas won a great victory at the level of the legitimacy of his leadership of the movement, building in the process a point of polarization, where his foes became the foes of interest groups in the civilian and security institutions of the PA. This allowed him to deal a strong blow to his opponents, whether in the movement of former Executive Committee member Muhammad Dahlan, his own critics, or the holdovers of the ‘Arafat era.
The president was also able to secure support for his political program at the expense of the political program that had been prepared in the conference documents. He was able to secure a majority elected members, loyal to him, in the Executive Committee and the Revolutionary Council. As a result, the president is now in a better position in his power struggle over the ruling bodies of the PA and the PLO, thus further tightening his grip on the decision making process at all levels.
The above does not mean however, that one can absolutely judge Fatah to have left the national liberation role. Indeed, the popular bases that support Fatah continue to engage in resistance positions imposed by the nature of the conflict itself. In addition, members within the leadership believe national liberation remains the dominant feature of the current phase, despite the decline they suffered and the fact they helped elect Palestinian prisoner Marwan Barghouthi with the highest number of votes. However, we can say that the Fatah movement is at a crossroads in terms of its strategic choices, identity, and role as a national liberation movement as opposed to a ruling party, or whether it will keep one foot here and one foot there, not to mention its ability to reunite its ranks and avert division and internal cracks.
In this regard, Dr. Ibrahim Abrash, professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza and member of Fatah’s Advisory Council, summarized in an article entitled “The Last Conference of Revolutionary Fatah Movement and the First of State and Power Fatah Party,” (Sama News Agency, 1/12/2016), the strategic implications of the shift in Fatah’s role and identity with the following points:
– Fatah’s transformation into a party of power and state will alter the nature of the conflict with the enemy, and will head off any return to national liberation even if all efforts for a political settlement fail or Israel annexes part or the whole of the West Bank (WB).
– The transformation will raise problems regarding its relationship and leadership of the PLO, although other factions of the latter are not in a better state than Fatah and are not far from power and “state.” Things will be more complicated for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ), with respect to their demands for the reconstruction and reactivation of the PLO. Because if the choice of the largest PLO faction is to merge with the “state” and abandon resistance, then would the PLO be reactivated on that basis?
– The transformation of Fatah into a party of power and state, especially if it manages to drag along the rest of factions, will create a vacuum in the national liberation arena, which will prompt others to try to fill it from within Fatah and without.
In the final tally, the conference failed to constitute an occasion to galvanize the movement and present answers to the challenges related to its identity, role, and strategies of its national action based on reviewing past experiences, especially since the Oslo Accords. Instead, the conference became an electoral event at the expense of discussions related to reinvigorating the movement, and concluded by maintaining the status quo.
In this, the president won but Fatah emerged weaker. It now faces a number of scenarios, the evolution of each depends not just on how the old-new leadership behaves but also on the actions of those excluded from the conference. The latter could include the supporters of Muhammad Dahlan or hundreds of others who were excluded from membership of the conference that they believe they had deserved and hundreds of members who lost in the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council elections.
All this was in line with expectations and precursors. This is something that must be read in the context that dictated the holding of the conference and the arrangements preceding and accompanying it, despite the fact that it was two years behind schedule since the sixth conference in Bethlehem in 2009. When analyzing this context, the first stark issue to emerge is the failure to factor in the evolution of the conflict with the occupation and the major shifts in Israel towards racism and fascism in the preparation of strategies for political and resistance action at the Fatah conference. Instead, there was focus on internal differences and the need to rearrange the balances of power to preserve the status quo, including the survival of the PA, its role, and its current function.
The context that influenced the membership and outcome of the conference the most was the increasing internal clash with Dahlan’s wing, and concerns regarding the plan of the Arab Quartet (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) to impose internal Palestinian “reconciliations” beginning with the rehabilitation of Dahlan, then the settlement of Abbas’s succession before his departure. This meant the conference was used as a means to settle the internal conflict with a knockout blow by uprooting the Dahlan’s wing and removing its “Fatah credentials,” while shoring up the president’s legitimacy and rallying the movement around him, electing new leadership frameworks to serve this outcome and preempt external interferences to impose a successor to the president.
This will make it easier to use other means to uproot the Dahlan’s wing from political life, especially if presidential and legislative elections are held, and “corruption” investigations and court verdicts are initiated against possible rivals, especially also after the president managed to obtain absolute powers from the constitutional court allowing him to remove immunity from elected deputies.
It is possible to observe some indicators that had expedited the convening of the conference on November 29th and the criteria that dictated the selection of the delegates and their number. First, the growing concern after Egypt launched an “unofficial” process to directly engage with various Palestinian sectors and factions in Gaza Strip (GS), circumventing the PA and other factions by holding a series of conferences and seminars in Ain al-Sokhna under the supervision of a think tank.
These Egyptian steps came after attempts to hold a broad based conference in Cairo by Dahlan supporters, but the PA, its security and media arms moved quickly to thwart them. In parallel, there were protests in GS condoned by Hamas including marches that burned the portrait of Mahmud ‘Abbas in October (Site of Amad News, 6/10/2016). Other demonstrations in the WB, and were seen as a direct challenge to the PA, and an attempt was made to convene a Fatah consultative meeting at Al-Am‘ary refugee camp in Ramallah but the security services intervened to stop it followed by dismissals of Fatah officials involved (Roayah News Network, 23/10/2006).
The Dahlan’s “wing” failed to organize a strong movement able to preclude the holding of the seventh conference, thus it showed Dahlan’s limited ability to influence the game in the ranks of Fatah and the PA. However, despite this, there were serious concerns regarding the existence of latent resentment against the president and the Central Committee in the ranks of Fatah members.
– Indeed, in GS, there has been broad resentment over the neglect shown to reviving the movement in GS, and failure to address GS’s issues including failure to give permanent contracts to thousands of civil servants as part of the “2005 layoffs” as well as the failure of the efforts for reconciliation with Hamas.
– In the Fatah sectors of WB, there have been criticisms regarding Fatah’s failure to lead the government directly, and the way the proliferation of weapons in refugee camps was handled. They criticized as well the institutional arrangements regarding the succession issue, in case of the president’s absence from the political landscape, and they blame Fatah for the government’s handling of teacher strikes and protests against the social security law and social unrest in general.
– In Fatah sectors abroad, there is resentment over the neglect of diaspora communities, and the exclusion of historic military and political cadres from influencing political life in the interior or assuming government and diplomatic posts. These sectors also criticize the performance of the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council and their weakening role in favor of the president’s powers, in addition to demands for the assessment of the failures to address the negotiations issue, the Oslo Accords, and the reconciliation all amid the decline of the PLO.
This means that those disadvantaged by the status quo were increasing in numbers amid the erosion of the legitimacy of the institutions of Fatah, PA, and the PLO. Many of these figures were excluded from the seventh conference, whose membership was tailored to shape desired outcomes, namely rearranging power balance to shore up the legitimacy of the president and his policies.
In this regard, Mu‘in al-Taher, leader of the Students Brigade in Lebanon before 1982, in an article entitled “Fatah’s Conference the End of an Era and the Start of Another,” wrote that the conference comprised 1,400 members chosen on the basis of their representation and posts. They underwent several pre-qualification rounds, governed by balances, the president’s satisfaction, and background checks based on the criteria of loyalty, while opposition and dissent were rooted out under the pretext of eliminating some of Dahlan’s group. There was a stark absence of veterans and great marginalization of Diaspora figures, and the conference was veritably a conference of the PA and its cadres (Site of al-Arabi al-Jadid, 30/11/2016).
Majed Kayyali, former prominent Fatah official, in an article entitled “What Remains of Fatah After Its Seventh Conference?” (Site of Aljazeera.net, 4/12/2016), overviewed several observations regarding membership of the conference and concluded that Fatah now “elects its voters”!
One of the key observations he made was that the size of Fatah representation from WB and GS, in the sixth and seventh conferences was much larger than the representation of the diaspora from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Arab and world states (128 members out of 1,400), contrary to the case in previous conferences.
He also noted that the representation of Fatah in the seventh conference was very weak, with 438 members out of 1,400 attending representing the movement in the interior and the diaspora, while the number of staff was much bigger.
The number of elected members was also much smaller compared to the number of those appointed by the Fatah leadership, not exceeding 546 out of 1,400 members (The Central Committee, the Revolutionary Council, and the sectorial representatives from the interior and the diaspora).
In other words, around 850 were appointees, while bearing in mind that a large number of sectorial representatives were also appointees, guaranteeing the re-election of the dominant political class in Fatah.
Kayyali added, the conference was dominated by PLO, PA, and Fatah civilian and security staff, bearing in mind they were all appointed to the posts by the same leadership. This means that the movement has become fully under control [by the same players], becoming a bona fide ruling party and ending its dual nature of resistance and negotiations, liberation and government, which had previously characterized Fatah after the emergence of the PA in the era of Yasir ‘Arafat.
He noted that the share of the main refugee host countries (Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) in the conference was 3–4% (45 members only). It reflects the low status given to the refugee communities by Fatah, the decline of the role of the diaspora, and the decline in the importance of the refugee issue in the list of priorities in favor of statehood in WB and GS, despite the importance of the role of these communities in the emergence of Fatah and Palestinian national action.
The membership of the conference comprising a majority of PA staff cemented the “principle of loyalty as the criterion” of Fatah credentials, allowing the president to achieve what he wanted within the first half hour of the conference, when he secured renewed allegiance by applause as leader of the movement. This was considered a unanimous vote in disregard of electoral processes. The president had not even resigned to allow his reelection, and the door was not opened to others to run even in form against him. The pledge of allegiance was renewed even before the president presented his vision. The president thus settled the legitimacy of his remaining in his post for years to come from the first moment, ending speculations about his succession. The participation of around 60 delegations from 28 Arab and foreign countries at the conference provided support for its legitimacy and outcomes.
Interestingly, there was Palestinian cover too for the renewal of allegiance to the president and his policies, especially by the party that is subjected to systematic mistrust by the president himself in terms of the legitimacy of its leadership of the PA or its government of GS after the 2006 election. Indeed, one of the most prominent attendees of the opening of the conference was the Hamas delegation, which accepted an invitation to attend the opening session. MP Sheikh Ahmad al-Haj of Hamas delivered a keynote speech on behalf of Hamas politburo chief Khalid Mish‘al, addressing ‘Abbas as president of the PLO Executive Committee, president of the PA, and president of Fatah. Mish‘al affirmed Hamas’s readiness to undertake whatever is needed for the sake of national partnership with Fatah and other factions and figures (Palestinian Press Agency (Safa), 29/11/2016).
Hamas’s participation in the conference was due to its awareness of the strategic relationship with Fatah led by President ‘Abbas. For the fulfillment of the reconciliation and the reintegration into the legitimate Palestinian institutions (PA and PLO) are not possible except through dialogue and agreement with Fatah, which remains in control of these institutions. As for the relationship with Dahlan’s wing, it’s a tactical one, due to the de facto weight it has in GS, and for the possibility of being a window to the return of relations with Egypt.
In reality, the way to Hamas’s participation in the Fatah conference was paved by Hamas–Fatah agreements concluded during the president’s visits to Turkey and Qatar, especially when he met with Mish‘al and former Hamas PM Isma‘il Haniyyah in Doha on 27/10/2016. Among the goals of Abbas’s meetings was to guarantee the movement of the seventh conference members out of GS and obtain assurances that no protests by the president’s opponents will be staged in GS. This the president was able to secure despite the negative climate that surrounded reconciliation talks due to the president’s intransigence. The president even backtracked from previous agreements, such as by rejecting the resumption of the work of the Legislative Council, agreeing on criteria to resolve the issue of civil servants appointed in 2007, and insisting that the national unity government abide by the “commitments of the PLO.”
Despite differences over these issues, Amin Maqboul, former secretary of Fatah Revolutionary Council, said there had been assurances to conference members to freely enter and leave GS and elsewhere (Sawa News Agency, 8/11/2016). Hamas also barred a series of protests Dahlan supporters were planning to stage in parallel with the conference (Site of Amad News, 28/11/2016).
The conference became a ceremony to renew allegiance broadcasted live by the media especially state television over two days. The president delivered a three hour speech without having distributed the conference agenda and documents to the members, including the political program, national development program, and committee reports that were circulated after the speech. These documents were presented and discussed in only one day, followed by accepting nominations on December 3rd. 65 candidates vied for 18 seats in the Central Committee, and 436 vied for 80 seats in the Revolutionary Council.
Despite some deliberations calling for a change in the adopted policies, the vision presented before the conference was that of the president’s speech rather than the political program. The latter included positions that had a higher ceiling regarding a number of issues, such as negotiations, forms of struggle, the relationship with the occupation, and the role of the PA. In the speech as well, there was no distance discerned between the achievements of Fatah and those of the PA, with talk about building hospitals, the number of embassies owned by the PA (see text of the speech in al-Ayyam newspaper, 1/12/2016), while the speech contained no critical assessment of the failures and the previous path.
In the conference’s political program, the president only shared what was in line with his policy of maintaining the status quo. This can be observed in two main issues:
1. Affirming the president’s commitment to the peace process and the negotiations. This is while the political program included binding criteria for the resumption of negotiations, affirming that there can be no return to bilateral negotiations under US dominance that had continued under the mantle of the Oslo Accords. It included holding an international peace conference that would include both parties, Arab states, European representatives, and representatives from the BRICS bloc to reinforce Palestinian rights and push for speedy negotiations that would produce a peace agreement that fulfills Palestinian goals. After that negotiations would continue with international auspices in rejection of US monopoly of sponsorship. All these criteria were ignored by the president.
2. The president stressed the commitment to popular resistance, rejecting other forms legal under international law for people under occupation. In his above mentioned article, Abrash notes that although President ‘Abbas admitted the failure of the peace process under the agreements signed, he clang to it and the wager on international legitimacy and foreign factors as the bases of Palestinian statehood. President ‘Abbas was clearer and less equivocal in rejecting armed resistance, warning that it could lead to chaos similar to the so called Arab Spring. In doing so, he failed to differentiate between terrorism by extremist groups fighting in the Arab countries, and the right of the Palestinians to fight occupation as sanctioned by international law.The president even attacked peaceful resistance, ridiculing its proponents and linking it indirectly to lawlessness.
By contrast, the political program reaffirmed the right of the Palestinian people to exercise armed resistance against the occupation as a firm right affirmed by all laws and international law. However, it said, the choice of the form, location, and timing of resistance depends on self and popular abilities, internal and external conditions, balance of power, the preservation of the homeland, the ability of the people to rise up and be steadfast, and sustain resistance.
The president’s vision was an extension of the policy in place without any considerable renewal. There wasn’t even mention of the resolutions of the PLO Central Council issued in March 2015, which called for reconsidering the relationship with the occupation state, ending security coordination, and reviewing the agreements signed. It was clear that those voting to renew allegiance to the president of the movement by applause, before he even presented his program and vision, would not later object to this program. There wasn’t a single reference made to armed resistance, even as a theoretical legal right, in the speeches of the conference members!
The conference was then not an occasion to renew the strategy in place. The new Central Committee also included 12 old members out of 18, to be joined by 4 additional appointed members. It is expected that some disgruntled over the weak representation of GS, Jerusalem, and some diaspora regions will be appeased through calculated appointments to the Revolutionary Council.
Nevertheless, the president dealt a strong blow to the Dahlan’s wing, paving the way for further measures to banish some of Dahlan’s group from political life, by preparing “corruption cases” designed for this purpose and submitting them to court. Many opponents of his policies especially figures from the ‘Arafat era were also marginalized. Only the president himself remains from the generation of founders, while honorary membership to the Central Committee was granted to his three founding colleagues Salim al-Za‘nun, Faruq al-Qaddumi, and Muhammad Ghunaim.
However, Fatah, now dubbed the “party of power” or the “party of staffers” of the status quo, has emerged weaker and less able to face major challenges that await it at the level of its internal cohesion, and at the level of the conflict with the occupation. This is amid the rush by Netanyahu’s right wing government to deepen the occupation and settlement building, and eliminate any chance for Palestinian statehood along the borders of 1967 with its capital Jerusalem. In addition, Israel is working hard to exploit regional shifts to further marginalize the Palestinian issue, and is wagering on the administration of Donald Trump to expand settlement building and press the approach to resolving the conflict based on annexing vast swathes of Area C.
Several factors influence the possible scenarios with regard to Fatah’s internal dynamics. There are now three entities, the conduct of each determines the odds of success for strengthening internal ranks in Fatah or otherwise expanding internal differences
First bloc: Fatah and its elected commissions, especially the Central Committee. It is not clear whether these bodies will adopt an inclusive approach, in terms of reaching out to dozens of leaders and cadres disciplined against the backdrop of links to “splinter” wings, and others disgruntled over being excluded from the conference. Although the president enhanced his status as a “maestro” able to control internal conflicts over positions of power and influence, including the posts of vice president and secretary of Fatah, this does not invalidate the possibility that internal polarization would continue over these posts and the distribution of responsibilities and tasks within the Central Committee. This could weaken the cohesion and performance of this committee, but without leading to the kind of crisis that would threaten its unity in the near future, as long as the issue of succession remains on hold for the time being.
Second bloc: Hundreds of second and third generation Fatah members who are no longer in the leadership bodies or even the advisory bodies of the movement. Most of these members prefer to remain in Fatah and await future arrangements to redistribute posts in the PA and Fatah’s membership in the National Council, the Central Council, and the Executive Committee if the president successfully convenes the National Council. The old cadres in this bloc could constitute positive pressure pushing in the direction of maintaining Fatah as a national liberation movement against pressure from the interest groups linked to the status quo.
Third bloc: Dahlan’s wing, which calls itself the “democratic reformist current,” backed by Arab states. This bloc is ready to take action on the basis of rejecting the legitimacy of the seventh conference and its outcomes. True, this current received a strong blow from the conference, but it was not fatal. Today it has two options: continue to operate under Fatah’s banner as a splinter faction after being excluded from the movement, which would create a state of conflict over legitimacy and succession, despite the difficulty of achieving success against the outcomes of the confederation and the legitimacy of the president. Or option two, operate under a new political framework, which would end any chance to attract a significant number of Fatah affiliates and influence Palestinian political life, as long as the new framework does not propose a different program from Fatah and its president’s.
Moreover, this wing depends on foreign support motivated by fears over what happens after the president is gone. However, the formation of a new political framework would weaken this support, because it would mean that Dahlan is officially outside Fatah, which provides the necessary path to the presidency of the PLO and the PA.
This wing has another choice, which has been urged by some of its figures, namely preparing immediately electoral lists that can compete with official Fatah lists in any coming election, whether presidential or legislative or local elections. This scenario worries the president, who is facing it by taking “preemptive measures” against Fatah rivals to keep them out of the competition.
It is hard to estimate which is the most likely scenario at present, especially since that Dahlan’s wing, which has abandoned the idea to hold a rival seventh conference, is still considering holding a consultative meeting to discuss its next move. But what is clear is that the ability of this wing to resist the president and Fatah, after the conference and based on the same political program, will reduce the ability to attract more supporters. Especially so when the draft document prepared for discussion at this consultative meeting under the title “National and Political Vision .. the Reformist Democratic Movement,” which the author was able to read, does not propose new visions to “correct the path of the conflict” or “rearrange Palestinian priorities” as the text claims; rather, its political ceiling in many points is lower than that of the conference political program and the vision of the president himself.
Although the document calls for a “Palestinian national salvation conference for candid discussion, reconciliation, and agreement” with the participation of all factions, civil groups, trade union, independents, and national competencies, “under Arab auspices with binding results,” it is doubtful the vision it includes can be the basis of a national conference in which these parties would agree to participate.
1. The Conflict dynamics imposed by the Israeli rightwing’s rush to deepen occupation and settlement building, and bet on unprecedented support from Trump, keep the door open to impose changes on policies of Fatah and the Palestinian leadership in general. A new path of political and direct confrontation with occupation forces and settlers may be imposed, with the need to secure the requirements of this possible shift in Palestinian strategy led by restoring national unity in PA and PLO.
2. For this reason, the change scenario in Fatah’s policy in the direction of restoring the national liberation framework still holds. It would increase the role supported by some Fatah activists within the new Central Committee and Revolutionary Council, and hundreds of cadres at home and in the diaspora, who have a critical vision of the previous path and the requirements of overcoming the current crisis.
3. The likelihood of pressing this scenario must not depend on the reaction of the occupation and the evolution of the conflict on the ground.
It requires initiative from Islamic and national factions, and Fatah pro-resistance leaders, to call for concerted national efforts to correct the strategic path through a comprehensive national dialogue before convening the National Council.
The dialogue would focus on the foundations and requirements of restoring national unity within the PLO framework, on the basis of a consensual political program, the formation of a new leadership, and agreeing on the bases of national partnership with the participation of all sides with no exclusions.
It would also see the reunification of civil and security institutions of the PA on the basis of redefining the relationship with the occupation and a gradual exit from the Oslo Accords and their annexes.
Reviewing the PA role and function and correcting its links to the PLO in order to turn it into an entity that serves citizens. This should culminate with elections.
4. The above requires the Central Committee of Fatah to rise up to the level of responsibilities demanded by the continued Fatah domination of national institutions. Thus, prioritizing the requirements of the struggle against occupation over power conflict in PA that the occupation is working to perpetuate as a proxy collaborative entity.
5. This requires a working program to reinvigorate Fatah as a national liberation movement, correcting the path of the struggle against occupation, ending the affinity between Fatah and the PA, and reviving the role of national institutions to secure a smooth succession after the president’s departure. A policy of opening to all members of the movement to ensure its unity and pluralism must be pursued, to head off attempts to meddle in its internal affairs and to reinforce its role in preserving independent Palestinian decision-making.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Kahlil Shahinfor authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.