Abbas and Fatah keep on keeping on

Shortly after the year 2016 went live, I wrote about how one of the growing fears related to the Middle East was that the Palestinian Authority might fall apart. This is not because anybody has any great love for the Palestinian Authority–seriously, does anybody?–but because of the potential for chaos that could follow the PA’s collapse. And seeing as how the PA’s stability probably hangs on the continued existence of its 81 year old president, Mahmoud Abbas, it’s understandable why people, even in the Israeli government, are concerned.

The normal way a body like the PA would try to prepare for its aging leader’s inevitable passing would be by establishing some kind of succession plan, even if it’s only an informal one. And yet, Abbas’s dominant Fatah party just held its seventh congress, after not having held a conference for seven years, and…didn’t really shore anything up:

On Saturday, more than 1,300 Fatah delegates confirmed Abbas’ continued Fatah leadership role by acclamation and elected 18 members of the movement’s top decision-making Central Committee.

Top vote getters were Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian uprising leader jailed by Israel, and Jibril Rajoub, a former West Bank security chief. Both are seen as potential Abbas successors, and their strong showing could improve their eventual succession bids.

Barghouti is serving multiple life terms after being convicted in deadly attacks and has no imminent prospects of release, but remains by far the most popular Fatah leader. Party officials have mentioned the possibility of Barghouti joining forces from behind bars with another Fatah leader in filling the role of president.

While Abbas cemented his control over the movement, the re-election of party stalwarts and Abbas loyalists is bound to affirm Fatah’s public image as a stale, aging movement that has failed to deliver on Palestinian dreams of statehood and is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Palestinians.

Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser in Abbas’ self-ruled government, noted a lack of diversity in the Fatah leadership body, with only one woman among the 18 members and most of the remaining men in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.

When your party’s leader is past 80 and his most obvious successor is never getting out of the Israeli prison he’s in, that suggests your party is in for some challenging times. Fatah had a chance to name a “deputy” to Abbas, or otherwise to clarify the eventual succession, but didn’t. This may suggest a plan to make Barghouti Abbas’s eventual successor as the head of Fatah (Abbas’s other jobs, like PA president and PLO chair, could be inherited by other people), perhaps on the hope that Israel would be pressured to release him if he had some kind of formal leadership position. Good luck with that.

On the plus side, I guess, the congress did succeed at the thing it was really intended to do: it made sure that Mohamed Dahlan and his supporters continue to be locked out of Fatah leadership roles. There was a time when Dahlan might have been Abbas’s obvious successor. In 2007 Abbas named him the head of the Palestinian National Security Council, tasked with overseeing all Palestinian security forces but most especially with trying to control Hamas in Gaza. He utterly failed at this task, and in the brief 2007 Hamas-Fatah battle in Gaza, Dahlan’s Fatah forces were resoundingly beaten. With that new disgrace on his resume, Dahlan became an easy target for rivals within Fatah, who accused him of corruption, of collaborating with Israel, and even of murdering Yasser Arafat. So he’s not going to be succeeding Abbas anytime soon.

Still, Dahlan has supporters, many of whom announced plans to hold a parallel Fatah conference after they were all shut out of the actual Fatah conference. It’s not clear to me that they actually went through with this, I can’t find any information about it except the initial announcement. A number of international parties, especially Egypt and the UAE, have been lobbying hard for Fatah leadership to reconcile with Dahlan in order to avoid further splintering the party and thus the PA, but this congress made it pretty clear that’s not happening any time soon. And in that sense the congress was a success, from Abbas’s perspective. One of the reasons it’s taken Fatah seven years to hold a party congress is because of the fear that Dahlan’s supporters would cause too much trouble. They were barely able to cause any.

The two big external players in all this Fatah/PA drama are Hamas and Israel, obviously. When Dahlan was Fatah’s Man in Gaza, he was a strident Hamas opponent, but behind the scenes there have been rumors that Dahlan and senior Hamas leaders are reconciling with an eye toward forcing Dahlan back into Fatah leadership. At the same time, Abbas has been hinting for some time now that he might be open to reengaging with Hamas, maybe with the implicit goal of getting Hamas leadership to break things off with Dahlan. Abbas met with senior Hamas leaders in Qatar in late October, the first time he’d met with Hamas leaders in two years. And Hamas seems like it might be open to repairing relations with Fatah as well; in September, Hamas’s leader, Khaled Meshal, said publicly that his group’s 2007 takeover of Gaza was “a mistake,” a stunning admission coming from him. Representatives of Hamas participated in the Fatah congress, albeit on a very limited basis.

The closer Fatah gets to a reconciliation with Hamas the further it drifts from any shot at serious talks with Israel, at least in the short term, though the chances of those happening were virtually nil to begin with. The Israelis, which want the PA strong enough to keep what’s left of the West Bank under some kind of order but not strong enough to be a legitimate negotiating partner or threat, were keenly interested in how the Fatah conference played out, but they’re mostly trying to figure out the new normal now that Donald Trump is about to move into the White House. Immediately after the election there was so much elation on the part of hardline colonizers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that the prime minister had to issue a gag order to his ministers. That obviously didn’t apply to the cabinet’s mid-November decision to “formalize” (i.e., retroactively legalize) virtually every current West Bank settlement.

However, Trump’s appointment of James Mattis as his Defense Secretary-designate may change Israeli thinking a bit. Since retiring from military service, Mattis has been quite candid in saying that the settlements are bad for US policy, that they are an obstacle to peace, and that they will inevitably turn Israel into an apartheid state. We can argue about whether Israel is already an apartheid state, but the fact that the likely next US Defense Secretary has used the “a” word with respect to Israel is frankly remarkable, and it means you can add “Israel-Palestine” to the list of issues about which Trump’s views are unclear to say the least. For that reason, it’s likely that Netanyahu’s fondest wish for the Trump administration is just that it will leave him alone. He’s already downplaying the idea that the US might move its embassy to Jerusalem, thereby recognizing it as Israel’s capital–Trump has said he would do this, but right now it might cause more trouble for Netanyahu than it’s worth. Netanyahu is also maintaining that his support for a two-state solution is unchanged since Trump’s election. Sure, in this case “unchanged” means he didn’t actually support it before and doesn’t actually support it now, but nobody needs to know that’s what he really meant.

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