Fatah, West's Hope for Peace, Faces Critical Test

Fatah, the divided and demoralized movement of the late Yasser Arafat and the West's best hope for delivering a Mideast peace deal, is trying to stage a comeback.

On Tuesday, Fatah is supposed to open its first convention in 20
years, hoping to clean up its corruption-tainted image and
transform itself into a vibrant alternative to the Islamic
militants of Hamas.

The international community, including U.S. diplomats, is
watching anxiously, since Fatah is the only mainstream Palestinian
champion of compromise with Israel.

Yet there are signs that the movement, paralyzed by infighting
and generational power struggles, is incapable of reform. And
because of a bitter standoff with Hamas, it's not even certain the
three-day convention in the West Bank city of Bethlehem will open
on schedule.

Failure or cancellation could further weaken the already poor
standing of Fatah's leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,
and hurt the Obama administration's peace push.

"Any blow to Fatah at this convention will be a blow to the
international vision of solving the conflict," said Khaled Hroub,
a Palestinian analyst.

In the 20 years since the last convention, Mideast peace hopes
have seesawed wildly. Arafat launched an internationally acclaimed
peace effort with Israel in 1993, unleashed a violent uprising in
2000 and died in 2004. Hamas emerged as a major spoiler, seizing
control of the Gaza Strip, and this year a relatively moderate
Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was replaced by a hawk,
Benjamin Netanyahu.

Fatah seems wholly preoccupied with its internal pre-convention
maneuvers and little attention is being focused on the new party
program, a thorough rewrite of the document adopted 20 years ago.

The 1989 convention called for "armed action" against Israel.
The new one firmly commits the Palestinians to peace talks,
although it still mentions "armed struggle" as a theoretical
right, said its author, veteran Fatah leader Nabil Shaath.

He said the Fatah program is setting 20 rules for its peace
negotiators.

For example, it states that negotiations cannot be held as long
as Israel expands Jewish settlements. Abbas has said he will not
resume talks without such a freeze, and such a clause could
strengthen him should he come under international pressure to bend
on the issue.

Shaath would not elaborate further on the program, but the
Palestinians' chief demand has remained constant - a state in the
West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. "We are dedicated to the peace
process, we are dedicated to negotiations, provided we are not
taken for a ride," Shaath said.

One thing going for Fatah is a nascent economic recovery in the
West Bank, helped by a relaxation of Israeli security measures
under Netanyahu.

But on the larger issues, the Israeli leader has been less
forthcoming. He has said no to a settlement freeze, no to a
redivision of Jerusalem, and only a qualified yes to statehood.

It seems unlikely the convention - and adoption of a revised
program - will do much to sway Israeli public opinion. A majority
in Israel support an eventual peace deal, but are reluctant to give
up land now because of fears it will be used by the Palestinians to
launch attacks.

Still, Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher says Israelis should root
for Fatah as the only viable force for a peace settlement.

"All those Israelis who find fault with it have to ask
themselves what the alternatives are," he said. "They don't look
very good."

Abbas' job as party leader is not on the line, but support by
his party can help shore up his political legitimacy. His term as
president expired in January, and he has simply stayed on, saying
the rift with Hamas left him no other option.

Potential successors are not challenging Abbas now, but their
relative strengths will be measured when the more than 1,500
delegates from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the diaspora elect new
party committees.

Marwan Barghouti, who led the last Palestinian uprising, is
running for the 21-member Central Committee from the Israeli prison
where he is serving five life terms for his role in shooting
attacks. A strong win could help a future bid for the presidency,
once Abbas steps down.

A Barghouti rival for a committee seat, Mohammed Dahlan, has had
Western support but is a polarizing figure who lost influence after
Hamas seized his native Gaza Strip from Fatah rule in 2007.

In contrast to secretive and disciplined Hamas, Fatah is a
chaotic big-tent movement that draws activists ranging from
academics and entrepreneurs to scruffy militants.

The convention pits old against young, West Bankers against
Gazans, Palestinians from those territories against representatives
of the diaspora. Since its founding, it has been the
standard-bearer of the Palestinian cause, but once Arafat achieved
limited autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza, the Fatah leadership
came to be seen as using its power for self-enrichment.

While Hamas earned popular support with its network of clinics,
schools and welfare services, some Fatah leaders drove big cars and
built ostentatious villas.

Fatah activists say Hamas beat Fatah in the 2006 election
largely because of its clean-cut image rather than its refusal to
recognize Israel.

Nabil Amr, the Palestinian ambassador to Egypt, frankly
acknowledged Fatah's tarnished reputation during a recent campaign
stop in the northern West Bank town of Qalqiliya.

"Fatah is full of thieves, spies and corrupt people, enough to
destroy any country," said Amr, 61, who is seeking a committee
seat. "But Fatah survived because it is close to the people."

But in Gaza, Fatah is barely hanging on. In the past two years,
Hamas has systematically dismantled the party's organization there,
closing offices and arresting scores of activists.

Meanwhile, the two territories that would become the Palestinian
state are heavily at odds, especially since Hamas seized control of
Gaza.

New presidential and parliamentary elections won't be held
unless Fatah and Hamas reconcile, and months of talks have gone
nowhere. Now Hamas is saying it won't let Gaza's Fatah delegates
travel to the convention unless 900 of its followers are freed from
West Bank prisons.

Syria and Egypt are mediating, but its not clear if the
conference can proceed without the Gazans.


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