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Analysis: Ahead of Fatah primaries, apprehension in Ramallah

Mohamed Dahlan et Mahmoud Abbas
There are many issues at stake in Fatah convention, including succession of Abbas

The sixth convention of the Palestinian Fatah faction in the summer of 2009 was the first time such event was held on Palestinian soil: the previous five ones took place in Kuwait, Syria and Tunisia. The 2,300 delegates flocked to Bethlehem from the Palestinian territories and the rest of the world. Mahmoud Abbas was unanimously voted as leader; after that the delegates voted for the executive commission, the body that would work with Abass for years.

The atmosphere ahead of the seventh Fatah convention set to be opened in Ramallah on Tuesday can be described as charged. The rivalry between Abbas and Mouhammad Dahlan – a former member of the Fatah executive council, eventually ousted by Abbas – ramps up the tension to fever pitch. This time around, only 1,400 delegates from the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and from abroad were invited to take part in the convention slated to take place at the Mukataa.

Dahlan and his supporetrs have been purged from the meeting. Their names do not appear on the list. They were effectively kicked out of the party by Abbas yet refuse to accept the decision as legal. The hall where the meetings will take place cannot host more than 1,500, so there's no room for any kind of tomfoolery.

"They stole our party," Dahlan loyalists are shouting now. They brand Abbas a dictator and say that he's managing the party as though it were a family business. It's a festival, not a convention, a Dahlan supporter charged, saying they will not acknowledge the results and adding that everyone taking part in the convention is contributing to the destruction of Fatah.

The roots of discord between Abbas and Dahlan go years back, in fact all the way to the previous convention in 2009, when Dahlan took to the stage and unleashed a personal attack on Abbas. He imputed that Abbas's weak policies are to blame for Gaza falling to Hamas. In doing so, he became a marked man. Dahlan may have been elected as one of the 10 most powerful party officials, yet Abbas, who realized this is a man who would not cease challenging him, decided he ought to get rid of Dahlan. When he finally he succeeded to drive him out of the party, making his flee to Abu Dhabi, he did not realize Dahlan would be a tough challenger even from the outside.

Arab states that regard Dahlan as a future partner tried, in vain, to make peace between him and Abbas ahead of the seventh convention. Abbas rejected all such initiatives, including from Egypt's al-Sisi. He continued to crack down on Dahlan supporters in the West Bank, purge them from Fatah and cut their salaries. "I suggest that whoever's pulling all sorts of strings from world capitals stop doing so, or we would be forced to cut those strings off," he recently said, hinting at Egypt. The response was swift: in recent weeks Cairo hosted three conventions of academics, businessmen and journalists from the Gaza Strip, who were predominantly supporters of Dahlan. All to piss off Ramallah's most important resident.

According to Palestinian sources, after the reconciliation efforts failed, there was pressure on Abbas to call the convention off, yet the only effect was that the convention became Abbas's supreme goal. While it is expected to include discussions on Fatah's political platform and a plan of action for the next few years, and other issues such as Arafat's still unresolved death, its main function is to clean house. To purge the party of Dahlan supporters once and for all. Abbas always wanted to leave the slate clean for his successor, to crush once and for all the dreams of a possible Dahlan comeback. "You need to choose whether you're with Fatah or with Dahlan, you can't have both," he unambiguously stated two years ago.

Last month he purged from Fatah one of the most powerful voices from the al-Am'ari Refugee Camp, Jihad Tomila, who organized a convention calling for Dahlan's return. The move sparked rioting in two other refugee camps, where Dahlan enjoys considerable popularity. Tomila, it has to be said, is locked in rivalry with Abbas's younger son Tarek. The fact that the list of the invitees to next week's convention includes the names of both of Abass's sons, while hundreds of the Dahlan-linked party activists are conspicuous in their absence has not escaped the attention of practically anyone.

During the last weeks Fatah officials have been busy with establishing alliances, making deals and preparing a hit list. You vote for me, I'll vote for you, and neither of us will vote for that other guy. This time, entering the executive commission is more than just upgrade in status: one of the body's 22 members will become the heir to the 81-year-old Abbas, who might not live to see the next convention.

The issue of the next in line is a tricky one as Abbas dons three hats at once: leader of Fatah, leader of the LPO and the president of the Palestinian Authority. Many demand that the roles be split between different individuals, no one is certain whether it will be between two or three, and some believe a "leadership committee" will be set up at least until the general election.

Next week's convention will not solve the problem of succeeding Abbas. It can pick a deputy Fatah leader, a role that remained unmanned since the assassination of Abu Jihad in the late 1980s, yet it doesn't have the remit to pick the head of the PLO or the head of the Palestinian Authority.

Many familiar names are bandied about for the executive commission, from which Abbas's successor is likely to come: Djibril Rajoub, Saib Erekat, Marwan Bargooti and others. It remains unclear whether Abbas would allow his security chiefs, including Majid Faraj, the highly rated head of intelligence, to vie for the top spot.

All this contributes to an atmosphere of apprehension. Each of the contenders has an entourage of loyalists, some more aggressive than others. The risk here is that this primary will only deepen the rifts within the party, which would open the door for Dahlan and others.

It's no accident that Abbas's security arrangements were boosted of late. He was scheduled to make a rare visit to the Gaza Strip to attend a wedding in Jenin, yet called it off, reportedly over inadequate security. The days before and especially after the convention are expected to be hotheaded, to say the least, and some fear of escalation into violence.

Gal Berger is Israel's public radio 'Kol Israel's' Palestinian affairs correspondent


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