Nasser Abu Bakr with Joe Dyke in Jerusalem
Last updated: 28 October, 2016

Under pressure, Abbas plans first Fatah congress since 2009

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah party aims to hold its first congress since 2009 by the end of this year, an official said, in what some analysts have called a bid by the 81-year-old to stave off rivals.

The plan to hold the congress of the mainstream party he heads comes as Arab states have reportedly been pressuring Abbas to bring longtime rival Mohammed Dahlan back from exile in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

While Abbas’s advisers insist the congress is being organised simply because it is overdue, some analysts see it as an opportunity for him to reshuffle key positions and sideline Dahlan allies.

A member of the Fatah central committee said on condition of anonymity that the congress would take place “before the end of the year,” hopefully in November.

It will be Fatah’s seventh since its formation and the first since 2009.

The congress is to include elections for Fatah’s 23-member central committee, in which Abbas serves as president, and its 132-member revolutionary council.

The so-called Arab Quartet — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE — has been pushing for Abbas to resolve issues with rivals in Fatah with a view towards a wider reconciliation between Palestinian factions.

Besides splits within the party, Abbas’s secular Fatah and the Islamist movement Hamas have been at loggerheads since the latter seized Gaza in a near civil war in 2007.

In a recent poll, 65 percent of Palestinians were pessimistic about the potential for reconciliation, with just 31 percent optimistic.

Another source of concern has been Saudi Arabia not providing any financial contributions to the Palestinian budget since April, according to the Palestinian finance ministry’s website.

The oil-rich Gulf state normally provides around $20 million a month, and there have been suggestions the money has been withheld over frustration with the deadlock.

– Succession talk –

Abbas, known to be a heavy smoker, was hospitalised earlier this month for a heart test, though he has since returned to his normal duties.

“Everyone is thinking about post-Abbas succession. Everyone has their preferred candidates,” said Hugh Lovatt, Israel and Palestine coordinator for the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.

“Abbas has been consolidating his position — excluding his potential rivals. There is no clear person in his camp who could succeed him.”

The Arab Quartet has reportedly been seeking to encourage Abbas to bring Dahlan back.

Dahlan, Fatah’s former strongman in Gaza, was expelled from the party in 2011 and now lives in exile in the UAE.

“It is no secret Dahlan is the preferred candidate of the Arab Quartet,” Lovatt said.

Dahlan has previously called for Abbas to step aside and on Sunday gave an interview with BBC Arabic in which he again criticised him.

Hundreds of his supporters in his native Gaza recently marched calling for his return — with some burning pictures of Abbas.

Officials insist the timing of the congress is unrelated to succession rumours.

Husam Zomlot, strategic affairs advisor to Abbas, said it was merely because Fatah must hold a congress every five years, though the previous one was 2009.

“There is so much analysis about the timing. The timing is (because) the congress of Fatah is due,” he told AFP.

But Jehad Harb from the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research said it was a way for Abbas to stave off what he sees as “interference” from Arab states.

“Dahlan is trying to use the Quartet to return to Fatah, while Abu Mazen (Abbas) wants to exclude Dahlan under the cover of the decisions of Fatah.”

At least three positions on Fatah’s executive committee are thought to be up for grabs, with Dahlan expected to be formally removed and two others having died. Rumours of others being expelled abound.

Meanwhile, wider Palestinian politics has stalled. Abbas’s term as Palestinian president officially ended in 2009 but there has been no election since.

Diana Buttu, a former Abbas spokeswoman and now a fierce critic, said that moves to alienate challengers had created uncertainty over a succession, in contrast to the smooth transition when veteran leader Yasser Arafat died in 2004.

“With Abu Mazen (Abbas) we don’t know who will follow him, and we don’t even know how. They will be chosen,” she said.