The Good, The Bad and The Ugly at The Fatah General Congress

Ibishblog postings today resume after slightly more than a week of well-earned downtime, and large quantities of Amontillado. During the past few days, most of my attention and TV appearances have been focused on the Sixth Fatah General Congress in Bethlehem. The Congress proved to be something of a Rorschach blot, with most observers seeing whatever it is they wish to see in the event. Die hard Fatah supporters declared the party reborn with a stunning display of political prowess and “democracy in action.” The Palestinian and Arab far-right and ultra-left viewed this Congress of “quislings and collaborators” as demonstrating that Fatah are nothing more than, well, quislings and collaborators. The Israeli right, led by Foreign Minister Lieberman, saw in the same Congress irrefutable evidence of the inherent “extremism” of Fatah, and declared the peace process (as always) “dead.” What remains of the Israeli peace camp, however, was largely impressed, seeing in it further proof that Israel has “a peace partner” in the PLO. Western observers were largely silent and, apparently, oblivious. All read their scripts most convincingly.

It’s not surprising, of course, that everybody finds what they’re looking for in such a large and overdetermined event. If you look hard enough, you can find whatever it is you need in any gathering this large and sustained. Nonetheless, we can certainly distinguish the good, the bad and the ugly coming out of the Congress, which has left almost everyone agreeing that Fatah in general and President Mahmoud Abbas in particular have been significantly strengthened by the Congress.

First, the good. Some observers doubted whether, after 20 years, Fatah was even capable of convening a conference at all, and indeed it was. Some questioned whether it could be held in Palestine, whether or not the Israelis would permit such a thing, and whether Fatah even needed an Arab government to organize the event for them in one of their capitals, as with all previous Fatah Congresses. In the end, the organization was able to pull it off, and in Palestine, which is a very significant development in Palestinian political history. Other than those two core facts, the biggest headlines coming out of the Congress were that the leadership at the most senior level, specifically President Abbas, was retained by acclamation with almost no significant opposition, and that the national strategy of seeking a negotiated agreement with Israel to end the occupation and the conflict was also virtually unchallenged. Therefore, while there was significant disunity on many issues, some dissension and squabbling, and definite and obvious divisions within the organization, on the two most crucial points — the identity of the leadership and the essence of the national strategy — there was virtually unanimous unity. All other divisions are relatively insignificant when there is virtual unanimity on the only things that really matter in the grand scheme of things.

Additional positive elements included the fact that the election of the most important committees in Fatah were actually contested with some significant figures failing to win important positions. Most notably Abu Alla’ did not get elected to the Central Committee in spite of his prominence and seniority. He immediately began to complain about irregularities and fraud, but it comes across very much as sour grapes in context, which is not to say that the process was perfectly clean, but rather that his objections appear to be based more on the outcome than on the process.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call the process either transparent or democratic, but it was a very large step in that direction. The biggest question mark seems to relate to who was qualified to vote, which is an issue that tends to bedevil political parties and was a marked feature of the hotly contested Democratic Party presidential primary campaign last year. Fatah should not be smug about transparency, accountability or democratic processes, as it continues to be sorely lacking in all three when compared with any standards to which a popular party should always aspire. However, the Fatah Congress stood in marked contrast to what goes on in much of the Arab world, and specifically in dramatic contrast to the decision-making and leadership processes of Hamas, which are entirely secret, murky and subterranean. For all of its flaws, the Fatah Congress was held in the open, in public and on television.

Moreover, some elements of the disunity and dissension at the Congress were actually healthy, and should be considered part of the good that came out of it. Public squabbling is what political parties do, or at least should do. Debate and disagreement are essential elements of a healthy political party and polity. Again, the contrast at this Congress in terms of tolerating dissent within the ranks stands in contrast to much of political activity in the rest of the Arab world, anything that tends to happen in and around Hamas, and even the way Fatah used to treat internal criticism during the Arafat era.

Which brings us to the ugly. Two elements stand out to me as particularly ugly in the Congress. The first has to do with the collective insanity regarding the death of the late Yasser Arafat. In the lead up to the Congress, Farouk Qaddumi attempted to sabotage the entire event by making bizarre and entirely unsubstantiated charges that Pres. Abbas, Mohammed Dahlan and other senior Fatah leaders had conspired with Israel to assassinate Arafat. Obviously, very few people believe this preposterous conspiracy theory, and it did little to damage the Congress in the event (Pres. Abbas was wise to extend a rhetorical olive branch to the wild-eyed accuser towards the end of the Congress and seize the moral high ground). However, the Congress did appoint a committee to look into what it deemed “the assassination of President Arafat.” It’s really extraordinary how people need to convince themselves that Arafat was murdered in order to make of him a martyr who died for the cause. Fortunately, there is nothing whatsoever mysterious about Arafat’s death: a sick old man, living in squalor, having endured decades of hardship and numerous serious injuries, slowly wasting away before our eyes on television, finally dies. When a sick old man who deteriorates in public finally dies, only the most paranoid worldview can turn this into a mysterious and highly suspicious event. Fatah was right to wave aside Qaddumi’s hysterical accusations, but it is extremely unfortunate that, as an organization, it continues to buy into the notion that Arafat could not simply die the normal death of a sick, old man, but had to have been murdered. It would have been infinitely healthier and more honest to simply tell themselves and the Palestinian people that, as any sensible person readily understands, Pres. Arafat passed away due to natural circumstances after a long and difficult life and a lengthy illness. There appears to be a political and collective need to dramatize this decisive moment in Palestinian political history by turning it into an assassination and a mystery when it was neither.

The second ugly element is the lack of accountability vis-à-vis corruption and incompetence. President Abbas acknowledged “mistakes” and vowed to correct them, but no mechanism really has been put in place for that. Of course, Palestinians can always insist that as long as they are stateless and without proper governance mechanisms of an independent country, policing corruption is very difficult. However, no one can doubt that Fatah got itself into the mess it has been in significantly by not tackling the problem of corruption in any systematic manner. Indeed, serious anticorruption measures and good, clean governance has required the Palestinian Authority to look beyond Fatah to nonmembers like Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has begun to put in place the building blocks of a tight ship. The fact that he’s not a party member and, perhaps also, his insistence on non-corrupt government has made him a very unpopular person in some Fatah circles, and it is disheartening that one of the first calls to come out of the organization after the Congress adjourned was for the replacement of the Prime Minister. It’s vital that a re-energized Fatah is not able to unseat the most competent, serious and effective administrator Palestinian society has yet had at the helm.

Which leaves us with the bad. In my view, the worst aspect of the Congress was the retention and even enhancement of influence and power by some individuals who have proven either incompetent or corrupt, or both. In particular, the prominence of Dahlan is troubling given his strong reputation for corrupt practices and his evident incompetence in his main area of responsibility, which was security in Gaza. At the Congress, he attempted to blame everyone else, especially Pres. Abbas, for the military loss of Gaza to Hamas. This is entirely unconvincing in my view. His fellow warlord, so to speak, Jibril Rajoub, also demonstrated political clout during the Congress. If Fatah is going to successfully reform itself, it can’t be led at the most senior levels by security chieftains, especially those with a reputation for brutality and/or corruption. Such individuals evidently have a significant constituency within the organization, and one could argue that therefore they have a right to prominence and influence. Be that as it may, it is entirely unfortunate that some dubious individuals emerged strengthened and rejuvenated by the Congress and were able to demonstrate more influence than they probably deserve.

One final note: several observers have noted that the Fatah General Congress can and should be seen as part of the run-up to the 2010 elections which thus far is the only thing that Fatah and Hamas have been able to agree on in their Cairo negotiations. I told an Arabic language TV station on Tuesday that while this is true, I don’t believe that Hamas will be willing to allow elections to go forward, given the freefall in their political fortunes in the aftermath of the Gaza war and, especially, the Obama re-engagement in the peace process. The Fatah Congress having been largely successful compounds the likelihood that Hamas will refuse to go forward with any elections unless there is a dramatic transformation of Palestinian public opinion. And, indeed, as the Congress drew to a close, on cue Hamas leaders announced that no elections could take place unless and until Palestinian reconciliation had first been achieved. This, of course, is simply a way of saying no, and I expect that position to continue for the foreseeable future as under the current circumstances defeat is virtually inevitable for Hamas.

On another Arabic language TV show yesterday, an old friend of mine asked me on the air whether or not, in that case, the PA might hold separate elections in the West Bank in 2010, even if Hamas refuses to allow them in Gaza. It’s an interesting idea, but I think it has at least as many pitfalls as positives. It would reify the division in Palestine and suggest that there are two legitimate governments and two legitimate authorities, “us over here and them over there,” so to speak. This is probably not in Fatah’s interests, and definitely not in the Palestinian national interest. What Palestinians need, and on schedule, in January 2010 as agreed, are elections that will clarify the Palestinian national direction following the 2005 presidential election that was decisively won by Pres. Abbas with 63% opercent of the vote and the 2006 parliamentary elections in which Hamas-backed candidates got 44% of the vote. Divided government and shared authority between two parties with not only incompatible but contradictory platforms on both the strategy for national liberation and on the nature of Palestinian society proved, inevitably, a practical impossibility. Since the divided government experiment collapsed in the summer of 2007 in violence, Palestinians have required another election to clarify legitimate political authority in their society. As it stands, the two parties have agreed to hold this election in 2010, and, in its own interests and the Palestinian national interest, Fatah should adamantly stick by that agenda. Hamas, as I say, is extremely unlikely to live up to its word and accept those elections. If they block the elections, Hamas should pay the full political price for that, as they are now paying the political price for other decisions that may have been useful to them as an ideological and power-oriented party, but were disastrous for the Palestinian people.