Thursday, July 23, 2009

Fatah's Big Meeting: No Recognition of Israel; No End to Armed Struggle and New Leaders, Too?

By Barry Rubin

On August 4, Fatah is scheduled to open its general assembly, the first since 1990 in Tunis, which I had the honor to attend as a journalist. Having followed Palestinian politics for 30 years and written three books on the subject, I’m always amazed by how few people recognize the importance o this topic.

For them, it was enough for, say, Yasir Arafat to make a remark to some Western diplomat or politician or journalist in English. The fact that there were 100 contrary statements made by him and others in Arabic was of no interest whatsoever.

Yet there can be no Israeli-Palestinian peace—which often seems as if it is the world’s most important issue—without a position being taken by the PLO, Fatah, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and let’s not forget Hamas conducive to such an outcome.

So the fact that PA “president” (incidentally a term which, typically, the Palestinian side agreed in the Oslo negotiations not to use but has nonetheless employed—one of many commitments broken) or the prime minister (a position which exists and a man who holds it only due to the pressure of Western donors) says something moderate in English seems to outweigh that statement being daily contradicted by everyone else, including these same two people, when speaking in Arabic.

The problem with Fatah, the PA and PLO’s ruling group, is it is far more concerned about preserving its radical image than developing a moderate one.

One recent gimmick is to deny that Fatah has recognized Israel’s right to exist, a statement made both by Rafik Natsheh, a Fatah Central Committee member, and Muhammad Dahlan, the PA’s national security advisor. The claim actually rests on a technicality: the PLO and PA, whose leaders were all from Fatah, signed agreements recognizing Israel but not Fatah itself.

Not only does Fatah not recognize Israel, they say, but isn’t asking anyone else to do so. In other words, willingness to accept Israel’s existence is not being required of Hamas as a condition for its joining the PA or allying again with Fatah.

What message does this send to Israelis? There’s no real partner for peace. What message should it send to Western observers? The same one.

And what about dropping armed struggle against Israel from Fatah’s Charter? Also, no. In Natsheh’s words:

"Let all the collaborators and those who are deluding themselves hear that this will never happen.” In other words, anyone who favors declaring that Fatah will seek a state through only peaceful means is a collaborator. And since Natsheh is head of Fatah’s internal disciplinary court, that’s a threat. Being judged a collaborator is punishable by death.

Will Israel let the delegates in? Will Hamas let the delegates out (of the Gaza Strip)?

Will the conference even be held? The Fatah leadership doesn’t like to have the members play a role in decisionmaking and already it has become clear that if Hamas doesn’t let Fatah people go to the meeting it would be cancelled.

I can’t wait to see who will be on the new Fatah Central Committee. And remember also that the retirement of Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the PA and PLO is probably coming within the next year or so. It is impossible to guess at this point who will replace him and be only the third leader that Fatah has known in its almost 45 years of existence and for the PA in its 16 years in power.

Sources for quotes:,7340,L-3750930,00.html

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to To see his blog,

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