For beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his aging coterie of loyalists, this was showtime.
Over the past six days, their Fatah political movement convened its long-overdue party congress, hoping to halt its slide in popularity at home and abroad by assuring people that the octogenarian Abbas and the old guard can lead the Palestinians toward a better future.
Abbas emerged Sunday night in firm control of his party, which nominally rules the Palestinian villages and towns of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He nimbly sidelined rivals and blocked renegades who supported an exiled challenger.
Abbas and his allies took 16 of 18 seats up for vote on the Fatah Central Committee. Abbas will appoint three more of its 21 members.
The delegates in their leather jackets and gray suits waved checkered scarfs and sang revolutionary songs for the Palestine TV cameras, but the success of Abbas means a continuation of the status quo.
In a two-hour speech to the delegates Wednesday, Abbas said the way to achieve Palestinian aspirations is by international diplomacy, not armed struggle.
Although he praised Palestinian prisoners jailed for attacking or killing Israelis, he called for an “intifada of brains.”
Whether this will be enough to satisfy the younger generations who have grown tired of Abbas and the stalemate of almost 50 years of Israeli military occupation is unclear.
Months of sporadic, directionless, suicidal violence by Palestinian youths, who attacked Israeli soldiers and civilians with kitchen knives and family cars, did nothing to advance Palestinian national aspirations.
The average age of the outgoing Fatah central committee is almost 70. Several members are into their 80s. Two have died in office. A frequent complaint is that there is no space for new blood in Palestinian political life, and no elections.
Israel’s military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, warned last week that “2017 won’t be a stable year for the Palestinian Authority.”
The Fatah party congress, which ended Sunday, was the closest thing to democracy that Palestinians have seen in recent years – and it wasn’t especially democratic.
The 1,400 delegates voted unanimously to re-elect the 81-year-old Abbas as leader of the party, guaranteeing he will rule until he dies or resigns or decides to hold long-overdue elections.
In October, complaining of fatigue, Abbas was hospitalized for cardiovascular surgery. There was speculation that Fatah might soon name a deputy who could serve as successor or an interim president, if Abbas dies or falls ill. It didn’t happen at the congress.
His re-election to head Fatah was no surprise. Delegates were hand-picked. Party members who support his archrival, the upstart Mohammed Dahlan, were purged from the lists.
Dahlan, 53, a former chief of security in Gaza and protege of Yasser Arafat, now lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates after being kicked out of Fatah in 2011. He was accused of corruption and defamation, charges he denies. With backing from patrons in the Gulf, Dahlan has been plotting his comeback. In an interview with The Washington Post late last year, Dahlan branded Abbas “a failure.”
Abbas has been under pressure by the Arab Quartet of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to allow Dahlan back into the West Bank.
Abbas told them to mind their own business.
Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said the conference marked a “victory of the Fatah movement over the conspiracy,” by which he meant Dahlan and his supporters, according to the Jerusalem Post.
The conference was originally scheduled to be held in Bethlehem but was moved to the walled government compound in Ramallah. The media was mostly kept at arm’s length and Palestinian security forces fanned out, setting up road blocks to check vehicles and stopping ousted Fatah members from staging a news conference at the Qalandia refugee camp.
“A weak Fatah is a weak Palestinian movement,” said Jihad Tomali, a leader in the Al Amari refugee camp in Bethlehem, who was ousted by Abbas for his support of Dahlan.
Tomali said that the divisions between Hamas and Fatah, and Fatah and Dahlan, were hurting the Palestinian cause.
“Abbas has no authority to fire me,” he said. “We are not working in a company owned by Abbas. We are in a revolutionary movement.”
Democratic institutions in the West Bank are moribund. The Palestinian National Council, which is supposed to convene every two years, has not sat in two decades. The Palestinian Legislative Council, which serves as the parliament, has not been in session since 2006, when Hamas won elections.
Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, after it threw Fatah out of the coastal enclave. The Islamists have fought three disastrous wars with Israel since then. Fatah and Hamas are forever vowing to reconcile, but never quite manage to do so.
Abbas and Fatah dominate the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is granted sole power to negotiate peace with the Israelis, as well the Palestinian Authority, which runs the security apparatus and municipal affairs for the 40 percent of the West Bank not under complete Israel military control.
For Abbas, questions of legitimacy loom, both among Palestinians and Israelis. Abbas’s four-year elected term as president ended in 2009. His fiercest critics have begun to deride him as a king or a dictator.
At a conference in Washington on Friday, Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said Abbas “has no real legitimacy to be the Palestinian leader. He keeps postponing the elections again and again.”
Led by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Israeli leaders have decried Abbas as a weakling, an inciter, a rejectionist. Lieberman said Abbas “isn’t a partner” for a final status peace agreement.
Abbas and the Palestinian leadership face daunting challenges. The peace process with Israel has collapsed. The military occupation of the West Bank marks its 50th anniversary next year. Israeli leaders are hoping President Trump gives them a free hand to construct Jewish settlements on land that the Palestinians want for a future state.
Two-thirds of population in the West Bank tell pollsters that Abbas should resign. In student body elections at West Bank universities, the Islamist militant group Hamas has beat the more moderate Fatah faction.
Supporters of Abbas say that surveys and student elections don’t reflect reality.
“The president’s legitimacy is uncontested by the Palestinian people,” said Husam Zomlot, a strategic adviser to Abbas. “If he were to run on behalf of Fatah tomorrow, Abbas would win by a landslide.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · William Booth