Fatah seventh conference: What was missing from Abbas’ speech?

In his speech at Fatah’s seventh congress, President Mahmoud Abbas did not tackle the failure of the consensus government and the disruption of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

al-monitor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) attends the Fatah congress in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Nov. 29, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.
Marian Houk

Marian Houk

@Marianhouk

Topics covered

yasser arafat, palestinian legislative council, palestinian authority, plc, mohammed dahlan, mahmoud abbas, fatah central committee, fatah-hamas split

Dec 19, 2016

RAMALLAH, West Bank — After casting his ballot in Fatah’s recent elections, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Dec. 3 it had been a peak democratic experience. “This is a democratic festival by all accounts, the world could see that these meetings were correct and transparent and democratic.”

There was no hint of irony in Abbas’ words. However, Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist who has lived in Ramallah for over a decade, quoted a non-Fatah PLO activist as saying, “Abbas’ nondemocratic methods give his principled position as a statesman a bad name.”

Jehad Harb, a Ramallah-based researcher in governance and policy issues, told Al-Monitor that Abbas’ goals had been to exclude dismissed Fatah Central Committee member Mohammed Dahlan and his group, ensure a post-Abbas succession with the retention of Abbas’ political platform and comply with Fatah’s internal regulations that require convening a Fatah general congress at least twice a decade.

Recent polling, conducted in the week after the Fatah congress, by Khalil Shikaki’s Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, indicates that the re-elected Fatah leadership now “faces a tough challenge winning the trust and confidence of the public.”

Shikaki has been polling Palestinian opinion every quarter for almost 15 years, and he relies on face-to-face discussions that last 30-45 minutes. This time, he polled 1,270 Palestinians in their homes throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. According to Shikaki, “The idea of a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution is the top priority for about half of the Palestinian public.”

“If you looked at how Palestinian media covered the Fatah convention, you would probably be surprised,” Shikaki told a press conference in Ramallah Dec. 13, which Al-Monitor attended. “The coverage was very rosy.”

This indicates the public must have received its information from other sources, Shikaki said, smiling. "It was surprising to find so much rejection of the leadership and pessimism.” And it is also surprising, Shikaki said, that support for Fatah has meanwhile gone up. “The only interpretation I can give you is that people don’t like the leadership, but the idea of Fatah remains attractive.”

Jibril Rajoub, who won the second-highest number of votes for Fatah’s Central Committee (after Marwan Barghouti, who is jailed in Israel), suggested in his first interview since the Fatah elections Dec. 10 that “a lot of time” had been spent on the Palestinian “division” and other domestic and diplomatic issues during the Fatah seventh congress — apparently during closed sessions. "There is a lot of pressure on this issue [ending the division] from the Palestinian street, and both sides are attentive to that.”

But in his keynote speech at the seventh congress, Abbas did not discuss the failures of the national consensus government that he swore into office on June 2, 2014, which has since been reorganized several times. Meanwhile, Abbas has not asserted control in Gaza, despite invitations from Hamas, and Ramallah has not taken charge of the crossings, nor did it find a solution to questions about retention and payment of employees hired by Hamas since 2007.

Abbas mentioned reconciliation with Hamas in his speech at the congress, but his unrevised view is that Hamas, alone, is responsible for the “division.”

Abbas also did not mention in his speech the continued suspension of work of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), despite the continuing expenses. The PLC stopped working in mid-2007 after Israel arrested Hamas members of parliament, which eliminated Hamas’ majority and thus made decision-making contingent on an unattainable agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Since then, Abbas has issued presidential decrees whenever needed. A revived PLC could, hypothetically, repeal some or all of his decrees.

But a functioning PLC would, among other benefits, remove the ostensible concern over succession. There are procedures in place for succession regarding all of Abbas’ presidential positions (as head of Fatah, as president of the State of Palestine by virtue of being chairman of the PLO’s Executive Committee and as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) set up under the Oslo Accord). Most concerns seemed to focus on the PA, whose 2003 amended Basic Law, Article 37, states that the PLC’s speaker will serve as interim president of the PA for 60 days, during which time special elections would be held — just as what happened in 2004 when Yasser Arafat died. PLC speaker Rawhi Fattouh was sworn in as interim president by the PLC. Fattouh was just elected as a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, despite his past involvement in a smuggling scandal, for which his driver was punished; Fattouh maintained he knew nothing about it.

Harb told Al-Monitor there’s a general feeling that the legitimacy of the PLC has by now expired. But, Harb noted, “If any Hamas member takes part in the Palestinian government, the United States and European Union will stop paying. And there is a second reason: Hamas doesn’t want to recognize the political platform of the PLO.” So there is concern about how Israel would respond and about whether new elections would be called on time.

“Fatah and Hamas are ready to pay the price of division, but not the price of unity,” Harb said.

A young woman from Gaza who prefers to be identified only as Najla told Al-Monitor, “I think, and feel, that Abbas is disconnected, and he doesn’t realize what’s really happening nor how he is perceived. It was finally good that he was mild toward Hamas — even positive, talking about reconciliation. But one would hope he will go to Gaza and be there for his people, if he really cares — not just insist that he is sending the same amount of money.”

Najla added, “Abbas said he will tell people who killed Arafat. He was supposed to say it very long ago in any case, not when he wants to play the game of who is more patriotic — him or Dahlan!”

An unseemly series of accusations at periodic intervals, made by the most senior Fatah officials, has never been explained. A long-awaited report on Arafat’s death was not presented at Fatah’s seventh congress.

In 2009, the most senior surviving founding member of Fatah, Farouq Qaddoumi, told the press that he had received from Arafat a summary of a 2004 meeting in which, according to Qaddoumi, “Abbas and Dahlan, along with [Ariel] Sharon, US Undersecretary of State William Burns and others jointly plotted the assassination of Arafat.”

A Fatah commission of inquiry said it believes Dahlan had a hand in Arafat’s death, following Dahlan’s expulsion from Fatah in 2011. Abbas himself raised the matter weeks before Fatah’s congress, saying he knew who killed Arafat. Harb told Jonathan Cook in mid-November that “Abbas’ comment that the killer’s identity would surprise us implied that he was referring to someone other than Israel.”

In March 2014, ahead of the anticipated Fatah congress that year (it was postponed due to Israel’s military operation in Gaza), Abbas accused Dahlan “of involvement in six murders” and “questioned his role in the death of former leader Yasser Arafat.”

Now Dahlan is out. Meanwhile, the Fatah seventh congress consented to Abbas’ proposal to give Qaddoumi a permanent but nonvoting seat on Fatah’s Central Committee, along with two others.

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