Seventh Fatah Conference Underscores Profound Disconnect Between Abbas and his People

On November 29th, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Fatah, held its seventh congress. The congress had been presented by some as an opportunity to shake up the entrenched and out of touch leadership of the party and renew the Palestinian national struggle.

Such a shakeup is desperately needed. Palestinians in the occupied territories have been denied a democratic voice since the 2006 legislative elections and Fatah party chairman Mahmoud Abbas has overstayed his term as PA president by eight years. Abbas has faced mounting criticism over his continued pursuit of a failed negotiations strategy and increasingly autocratic style of governance. However, on the first day of the congress, delegates unanimously reappointed Abbas as chairman of Fatah for another five-year term.  

Abbas’s reappointment is yet another example of the blatant and self-destructive lack of self-criticism that has plagued Palestinian leadership for decades. Throughout the Oslo Process, the Palestinian Authority has willingly adhered to conditions set by the occupying Israeli government and enthusiastically engaged in security cooperation with the Israeli military. Such compliance has facilitated the suppression of Palestinian resistance and the spread of Israeli settlements, thereby weakening and fracturing the Palestinian national movement and sustaining the occupation.

Instead of addressing these failed policies and crafting new strategies, Abbas and his ilk have been content to maintain and consolidate their power. This has taken the form of mass arrests, party purges, cutting funding to rivals, arresting individuals for social media comments and cracking down on journalists. Recently, municipal elections, which were hailed as a small but significant opportunity for democratic expression, were postponed by PA-appointed judges. The legal questions raised by the court were merely a pretext to avoid likely electoral defeat for Fatah.

Even Abbas’s unanimous reappointment was a power play. A rising challenge to Abbas had come from Emirates and Saudi-backed former Fatah security official Mohammad Dahlan. Dahlan, who had been expelled from the party in 2011, has made a comeback recently and aims to take leadership of the party. After the purge of Dahlan’s supporters from the party, the Fatah vote was an attempt to secure legitimacy for Abbas’s continued leadership. On Monday, Abbas sought to further discredit his rival by revoking his parliamentary immunity. A court subsequently sentenced him in abstenia to three years in prison for corruption.

However, this constant obsession over consolidating power rather than fighting the occupation has alienated the Palestinian people. A recent poll found that 64% of Palestinians across the occupied territories wanted Abbas to resign. 48% also were not convinced by his Fatah congress maneuver, stating that that it would not consolidate his legitimacy as president of the PA or head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. There was a general lack of faith in the PA as well. 76% believe that it is corrupt and only 36% said they felt they could criticize the PA without fear of repercussion.

Perhaps most importantly for Mahmoud Abbas, 65% of respondents said they no longer believed the two-state solution is valid and 62% called for abandoning the Oslo Accords. As Abbas has pinned his entire political career on a negotiated two-state solution, this resounding lack of faith in his plan should ring far more alarm bells than a potential challenge from another corrupt rival.

Under the current status quo, Mahmoud Abbas and the PA rely on Western funding and Israeli backing for their positions of power rather than the support of the Palestinian people. Donald Trump’s victory and an emboldened Israeli rightwing will start to shake this support. Given the lack of faith by his people, Abbas’s efforts to consolidate power will likely come to nothing.

It is well past time for a serious reevaluation of the direction of the Palestinian political leadership. It is probably too late for Abbas to regain legitimacy as a national leader among the Palestinian people. Heading into the unknown of a Trump presidency, urgent changes must be made to restore the direction of the Palestinian national movement.

Photo: Mahmoud Abbas via Kremlin.ru

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