For nearly five years Mahmoud Abbas had moved timidly in the shadow of his charismatic predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat. His demeanor matched his somber dark suits, his rambling speeches lulled audiences to sleep, and his indecision led the Palestinians’ preeminent political movement to defeat and disarray.
Over the last week, however, a more forceful Abbas stepped forward. After cajoling the aging leaders of his Fatah movement to hold its first convention in two decades and put their jobs on the line, he fended off an assault by younger activists on his own record.
A telling moment came when Hussam Khader, a firebrand critic of corruption in the movement, rose to demand a detailed accounting of Fatah’s finances over the years. Abbas, who was not in the convention hall, was summoned and ordered the delegate to drop the subject. When he persisted, Abbas’ presidential security guards pushed him back into his seat.
By Tuesday, the 74-year-old Palestinian Authority president had what he wanted: a renewal of his mandate as Fatah chairman and an elected leadership body that embraces fresh, younger faces but poses no immediate threat to his dominance. And despite chaotic proceedings that degenerated at times into fistfights, he managed to keep the movement intact.
These achievements do not necessarily make it easier for Abbas to negotiate peace with Israel or heal the rift between his secular West Bank-based administration and the Islamic movement Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip. But they offer some reassurance for an Obama administration that is pushing to revive Middle East peace talks and needs a strong Palestinian partner who champions nonviolence and compromise with the Jewish state.
“Abbas got his way from A to Z,” said Mouin Rabbani, an independent Palestinian analyst based in Jordan. “He can now go to Obama and say: ‘I’m the legitimate, unchallenged leader in the West Bank. I’m a responsible partner you can count on.’ The message of this convention was very much aimed at the outside world.”
Nonetheless, Abbas faces longer-term risks. Fatah’s new Central Committee, with 14 newcomers among its 18 elected members, is not expected to rubber-stamp Abbas’ decisions, as the old one often did. It includes several members who might, against Abbas’ wishes, press for a return to confrontation with Israel if any U.S.-brokered peace talks were to drag on without signs of progress.
Addressing more than 2,000 delegates in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Saturday, Abbas called the convention “a new beginning” for Fatah.
“In our history we have had many launches and setbacks,” he said. “Sometimes we have reached the edge of the abyss, but we have always returned stronger.”
The gathering marked Abbas’ own comeback from two humiliating defeats.
Fatah appointed him chairman after Arafat’s death in 2004, and he won election the following year as president of the Palestinian Authority to govern civil affairs in the West Bank and Gaza. But by the 2006 parliamentary elections, voters were fed up with evidence that many of Abbas’ cronies had enriched themselves in office.
Hamas scored an electoral upset, in part because Abbas’ movement splintered and put up several candidates for each seat in parliament. Hamas also capitalized on Arafat’s and Abbas’ repeated failures to achieve permanent peace with Israel, a goal it rejects.
Fatah’s monopoly on power in the Palestinian territories was over, replaced by a tense power-sharing arrangement that came to a bloody end the following year. As Abbas and other Fatah leaders watched in frustration from the West Bank, Hamas’ paramilitary forces routed their own from Gaza, splitting the Palestinian homeland into rival camps.
With Fatah in disarray, many questioned whether Abbas could last. He was widely viewed as a captive of Arafat’s “old guard” -- Fatah bureaucrats in their 60s, 70s and 80s who lived in exile, out of touch with younger leaders who had spent their entire lives in the West Bank and Gaza resisting Israeli occupation.
At that point Abbas began working to shore up his own power, often at Fatah’s expense.
Using his control of the movement’s funds, he outmaneuvered Fatah rivals in a style reminiscent of the wily Arafat. He turned to a Texas-trained economist from outside the movement, Salam Fayyad, to lead a new West Bank-based government made up mostly of non-Fatah technocrats. Fayyad built an independent security force trained with U.S. funding and, leveraging Western aid, nurtured an economic revival in the West Bank.
“Abbas realized how serious the challenges were and how fragmented and discredited his movement had become,” said Khalil Shikaki, a politically independent Palestinian pollster. “He gave Fayyad the power he needed to restore his own credibility and control of the West Bank.”
Sidelined from government and blocked from advancing in Fatah, a “young guard” of activists in their 40s and 50s began agitating for sweeping leadership change. Abbas used the convention to defuse that pressure. By insisting that the gathering be held in Palestinian territory rather than in an Arab country, he favored these middle-aged contenders.
Members of this generation won half the elected Central Committee seats. They include Marwan Barghouti, 50, a leader of the most recent Palestinian uprising who is serving consecutive life terms in an Israeli prison but remains an influential symbol of resistance, and two of Arafat’s former security chiefs, Jibril Rajoub, 56, and Mohammed Dahlan, 47.
Three old-guard members vying for reelection were apparently defeated, including Ahmed Korei, 72, a veteran peace negotiator who was once Arafat’s prime minister.
Even while building alliances with the young guard, Abbas moved to minimize challenges to his leadership. Instead of vying with other candidates for the Central Committee, he engineered an Arafat-style vote to reelect him, by show of hands, to the post of committee chairman.
It was a measure of Abbas’ success in rejuvenating the ranks that many of his critics -- including Khader -- who failed to win a leadership post left mostly satisfied.
“This is a historic turning point,” Khader said. “It has brought Fatah from an era of failures to an era of promise.”