A significant event

As I write, the Sixth Fateh General Conference is still ongoing, far beyond its originally scheduled date of adjournment. The composition of Fateh’s governing bodies, the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council, is not yet known, thereby denying us a key measure for gauging the temper and direction of the movement in the years ahead. In particular, if the older, "Tunis" generation of leaders continues to dominate the ruling institutions despite the challenge of a younger generation that grew up in Palestine, the movement may be hard put to make the necessary concessions for peace and enhance its appeal to a public that has come to view it as corrupt and inept.

Nevertheless, in the days since the congress convened in the middle of last week, we have learned a lot. For one, Mahmoud Abbas’ leadership is strong enough to convene this first congress in 20 years and to dominate it (despite a few populist and militant demands by prominent delegates) with a moderate political plan for negotiating a two-state solution. Second, holding the congress in Bethlehem sent a message that the West Bank, or at least parts of it, can function as an independent Palestinian homeland. Third, judging by the issue of which delegates from Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora were able to attend, even the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem is friendlier to Fateh than is Hamas in Gaza. Netanyahu permitted delegates to arrive from Syria, Lebanon and a host of other countries, whereas Hamas refused to allow hundreds of Fateh members from the Strip to attend.

But whatever the results of the internal Fateh elections in Bethlehem and with all due respect to this renewal by the Fateh leadership of the movement’s program and ruling bodies, Fateh still has to renew its mandate from the Palestinian public-at-large. One corollary of this congress is the conclusion that the cooperation of Hamas in Gaza in holding elections is not likely to be forthcoming in the near future, meaning that democratic and universal elections next January are virtually impossible.

By the same token, the fact that the congress was held is not likely to be particularly significant regarding prospects for a productive peace process with Israel, even if the US energetically enters the fray. Not only is Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu not attuned ideologically to the demands of a real two-state solution and his government incapable of sustaining such a process. Abbas himself, after describing several weeks ago the very generous proposals made by Ehud Olmert when the latter was prime minister and explaining that he rejected them because the gaps were "still wide", had the audacity, when addressing the Fateh delegates in Bethlehem, to criticize Netanyahu for rejecting the Olmert proposals.

Still, two positions staked out by Abbas and ratified by the Sixth Fateh General Conference do inspire at least a modicum of hope. For one, in adopting the "framework of the Arab Peace Initiative" for Palestinian-Israeli final status Abbas may conceivably have pointed to a softening of the traditional Fateh/PLO demand that Israel accept both the right of return of 1948 refugees and their actual return. The API, after all, does not mention "return" as such but rather an agreed solution based on UNGAR 194, which also does not mention a "right of return".

Secondly, in addressing the alternatives to a negotiated two-state solution Abbas mentioned either a single (bi-national) state or a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence within the 1967 borders. From the standpoint of virtually all Israeli Jews, the former alternative is a non-starter. But not so the latter: a Palestinian declaration of independence–an idea often discussed in the past–would almost certainly be recognized internationally. It would finalize the two-state principle and present Israel with the need to discuss final status issues on a state-to-state basis that would bind both Israelis and Palestinians to their commitments in ways that the current talks with the PLO and Palestinian Authority seemingly do not. Thus for Israelis who sincerely seek a solution, this is not a totally unwelcome Palestinian fallback position.