Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a speech to the Fatah Revolutionary Council on March 9. In a departure from normal procedure, Fatah did not release the speech immediately, but only at the end of the week. Its publication verified the short excerpt broadcast on Radio Palestine as well as reports received from Fatah sources. The portrait that emerges is of a Palestinian leader setting the stage for his meeting with President Obama on March 17, empowering himself by readying a successor, should he be forced to step down. The proposed heir is none other than Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, now serving numerous life sentences in an Israeli prison. While Abbas’ official website broadcast only the session’s opening ceremony, a banner in plain sight behind the podium proclaimed “Freedom Conference for Marwan Barghouti and All Prisoners.”
The sense of an intention in Abbas’ circle to pass the leadership to new hands is reinforced by the fact that just three days before the Fatah conference, Abbas met with the leadership of “Shabiba,” Fatah Youth, and stated that “the torch of leadership will be transmitted to you.”
Even before the release of the speech, Fatah sources reported that Abbas had devoted much of it to his own personal legacy and that of his generation, the founders of Fatah and of the PLO, pledging that as he had never betrayed the values of the movement in all the decades of his activism, he had no intention of betraying them now.
How Fatah Leaders Understood Abbas’ Speech
The day after the speech, Fahmi Zaarir, vice-chairman of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, stated on Radio Palestine on March 11 that Abbas had reported on “a framework plan to perpetuate a number of principles in a final agreement,” and that Abbas remains faithful to Fatah’s founding principles. Zaarir did not quote Abbas directly, but said, “Everyone knows what these principles are: Palestine’s borders from the Jordan River to the 1967 lines and no compromise regarding all of Jerusalem based on the ’67 lines.” Regarding refugees, “They themselves will agree based on UN decisions and the Arab Initiative.” Abbas spoke of the “right of return” of refugees – of all refugees – into the State of Israel itself. Even those who elect not to move to Israel would all receive compensation, Zaarir said. States which housed the refugees – Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria – would also be compensated for their hospitality. Zaarir emphasized that Abbas repeated emphatically that he would under no circumstances accept the “Jewish state” principle and that he would bring any agreement – if one was reached – to the entire Palestinian people, wherever they may be, for their approval.
Abbas spoke of the difficulties facing the Fatah movement, placing the blame on his rival Mohammad Dahlan. Zaarir added that Abbas prepared Fatah for the possibility of economic siege and asked that professional unions not strike, even in face of expected economic hardships in the Palestinian Authority.
On the eve of the Fatah Revolutionary Council’s official opening, Abbas reportedly revealed to the Fatah leadership that he would come to Obama with a decision “not to accept American pressure,” a position that won unanimous approval. Abbas said that he would agree to an extension of the peace negotiations only if its outcome is known in advance, and that he would have a clearer idea to that effect upon his return from Washington. He also turned down a demand from a large number of Fatah members to disband the Palestinian Authority.
The significance of these events so close to the meeting with Obama is equivalent to Abbas saying, “If you force me to accept something I cannot sell to the Palestinian public, I will vacate my place to the next generation.” Marwan Barghouti represents this next generation, identified with the Shabiba activists with whom he met on the eve of the Fatah gathering. His remarks signified the absolute elimination of Mohammad Dahlan from the running as prospective heir to the leadership.
Fatah Politics: A Background
In order to evaluate the significance of all this, one must understand what the Fatah Revolutionary Council is and why this was where Abbas chose to make the statements he did.
The Fatah Revolutionary Council ranks second in importance in the Fatah hierarchy, following the Central Committee, and represents the full cadre of Fatah activists. This cadre includes the Fatah leadership in the West Bank, which answers to the Central Committee. In other words, the new generation (to which Abbas would pass the torch) is mainly from the territories, as opposed to the founding generation members, who took control when they arrived from Tunis.
Sources in Fatah estimated that it is still premature to speak of Barghouti as Abbas’s definite successor and that the battle to succeed him is exceedingly complex and dangerous. Floating Barghouti’s candidacy may be a ploy that is meant solely to exert pressure on Obama.
This theory makes sense when one looks at Fatah’s current condition. Abbas’s advanced age, 78, has prompted a battle to succeed him that has exposed major fault lines within the movement. The candidate who seemed to be the most logical heir, Jibril Rajoub, has been locked in a battle with the Fatah leadership in Jenin, a battle that featured a knockout punch from Fatah’s Jenin ruler, Gamal Abu Roub, in front of an astonished audience of Fatah leaders in Ramallah. The message was clear: if Rajoub was to be appointed as Abbas’s heir, Jenin would leave Fatah. This ultimatum was the result of the simple fact that Rajoub represents Hebron. The message could just as well be reversed: the nomination of a northerner as heir could lead Hebron to break away. In light of this, Abbas’ floating of Barghouti’s candidacy was meant to neutralize tensions between the northern and southern West Bank.
Behind all this stands the growing challenge posed by Mohammad Dahlan to Abbas’s leadership. Dahlan, a Gazan, could not possibly be accepted as leader in the West Bank, but tangling with him would cast a glaring light on the movement’s Gaza-West Bank fissures. Fatah “refugees,” who found shelter in Ramallah following Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza, have found themselves forced to return to Gaza following a recent wave of violent attacks by Fatah leaders in Ramallah. The rupture between Gaza and the West Bank is thus not simply between Hamas and Fatah but within Fatah itself. Therefore, a break between Jenin and Hebron would be a natural progression from the break between the West Bank and Gaza, and it is doubtful whether Barghouti – were his candidacy to be accepted, and this, too, is doubtful – could heal the rupture.
The deepening breaches within Fatah cast a cloud over the preparations for the Seventh Annual Fatah Conference scheduled for this coming August. The Revolutionary Council discussed this issue at the Ramallah conference. Sources divulge that Abbas insisted that the August conference take place as scheduled in order to “get an infusion of new blood in the movement’s veins.” In other words, Abbas sees a major Fatah conference this summer as a tonic for the movement’s ailments.
The conference holds additional importance. Abbas is also looking to bring the results of negotiations with Israel to confirmation by legislative institutions, all of which stand on shaky footing. The Legislative Council – the Parliament – is past its expiration date and does not exist. Fatah’s institutional structures are likewise unstable, and a public referendum would be impossible, given the break with Gaza as well as Fatah’s loss of control within refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria. A wave of targeted killings of senior Fatah leaders is sweeping refugee camps in Lebanon.
Only the rehabilitation of Fatah institutions in the West Bank could deliver a legislative body to Abbas that could confirm or reject the results of the current negotiations with Israel.