For those who aren’t regular watchers of Palestinian politics, this week was just like any other. For those who are, however, all eyes have been on the Sixth Fatah General Congress taking place in Bethlehem. The conclave, the first gathering of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s political core since 1989, is being seen by many as a make-or-break moment – an opportunity for the faction to modernize its political positions and bring itself into the political mainstream.
But will it? Although the General Congress is still underway, all signs suggest that the results will leave much to be desired. At issue, as Israeli scholar Pinhas Inbari has outlined, is whether Fatah finally gives up on the muqawama – the “resistance” and armed struggle against the state of Israel that has defined its existence since the PLO was founded in 1964. And the “political program” now being debated by Fatah does no such thing, despite admittedly more dulcet tones about the need for political reconciliation with Israel.
Nor is it likely to. As David Schenker of the Washington Institute points out, recent times have seen a clear trend toward a more uncompromising, exclusionary worldview on the part of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Indeed, as PA president Mahmoud Abbas has – with Western assistance – tightened his once-tenuous grip on power, his political party increasingly has reverted to pre-Oslo type, renewing well-trodden rhetoric denying Israel’s existence and espousing maximalist territorial demands. Or, as Fatah Jerusalem Regional Committee member Kifah Radaydeh put it recently in a television interview, “our goal has never been peace. Peace is a means; the goal is Palestine.”
All of which raises serious problems for the Obama administration. Since this spring, the White House has made shoring up Abbas’ rickety government a major priority. It has channeled millions of dollars in humanitarian and military aid to prop up the Palestinian Authority against its powerful Islamist rival, Hamas. The strategy seems to be working; according to Israeli military assessments, Abbas’ rule is now more or less “stable” – a sea change from just a year ago. But with greater confidence in Ramallah has come a drift away from the political center. So the United States might soon find that its worries about a radical, anti-Israeli Islamist movement in the Palestinian Territories have been compounded by the revival of a radical, anti-Israeli nationalist one.