Elliott Abrams: Fatah Banishes Itself to the Sidelines

Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief, in his office in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on October 18. Elliott Abrams writes that Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are completely at odds with the Arab world’s most important governments, in part over Mahmoud Abbas’s banning of his rival Dahlan. reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

It is about one week before the Seventh General Congress of the Fatah party in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Fourteen hundred members will participate, but very few people outside Fatah care.

As Avi Issacharoff writes in an excellent article in The Times of Israel:

How does the Palestinian public regard this congress? With a great deal of indifference, and in some cases outright hostility. Fatah has not managed to improve its status or image in the public's eyes over the past several years.

The gathered apparatchiks will elect members of the movement's two most powerful bodies, the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council. But just reflect for a moment over those names, "Central Committee" and "Revolutionary Council."

The terms are relics of the movement's pro-Soviet past and of its birth during the Cold War. And Fatah has completely failed to make the change to becoming a modern political party.

The old Arafat machine remains a corrupt system dominated by a few aging figures, with Mahmoud Abbas, now 82—Palestinian Authority president, Palestine Liberation Organization chairman and Fatah chairman—at the top.

Moreover, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are completely at odds with the Arab world's most important governments, in part over Abbas's banning of his rival Mohammed Dahlan. As Issacharoff wrote:

A severe, unprecedented crisis has broken out between the Palestinian Authority and the moderate Arab world. Abbas is close to cutting off relations with the Sunni Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia first among them. Cairo stands behind Dahlan and encourages his various activities.

Saudi Arabia has suspended its financial aid to the PA [Palestinian Authority]. The United Arab Emirates is giving Dahlan official protection, and Jordan could not care less about what happens in Ramallah.

My own conversations during a recent trip to the Gulf suggested that the Issacharoff analysis is on the mark. Abbas, despite his age, has no plans to lay down the reins—ever. The party congress next week will lead to more bitterness as those pushed aside revolt against their new and diminished status.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the PA-PLO-Fatah system is increasingly repressive, destroying freedom of the press and using the PA security forces against perceived enemies. Popular support, which has been low for years, continues to decline.

As ABC News reported:

With the long-ruling Palestinian Fatah faction torn by rivalries, fierce shootouts between Palestinian security forces and Fatah-aligned gunmen have erupted in recent months, plunging the Balata [refugee] camp into unrest and lawlessness. The violence, much of it directed at a Fatah leadership seen as corrupt and out of touch, comes as the movement prepares to hold an overdue leadership conference at the end of the month and reflects a combustible power struggle.

During a recent conference in the Gulf, I listened to Americans, Europeans and Arabs discuss the major problems of the Arab world: Iran's growing power, the Russian role, the diminution of American strength and involvement under the Obama administration, the crisis in Syria…and not a word about the Palestinians. Correction: one word, from a BBC journalist who called the Palestinian issue a "core" issue for the region. Like Fatah's leaders, she is living in the past.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.