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July 30, 2009 Edition 29

Fateh needs more than superficial unity
Lamis Andoni

Fateh, the movement that has led the Palestinian struggle for decades, is at a dangerous crossroads. At stake is not only its unity but more significantly its mere survival.

Articles in this edition
Breathing new life into Fateh - an interview with Sufyan Abu Zaida
The end of illusions - Oraib Al-Rantawi
A diaspora left out in the cold - Ghada Karmi
Fateh needs more than superficial unity - Lamis Andoni
It faces tough choices. In order to keep itself relevant on a regional and international level it would need to project itself as a "moderate" force committed to a non-existing peace process, thus risking the further demise of popular legitimacy. To salvage its legitimacy and unity it would need to disengage from the Palestinian Authority's compliance to American and Israeli terms that aim at turning the movement into a malleable political tool and an enforcer of Israeli security.

But more so than ever in its history, Fateh is facing a real rival that has popular legitimacy and backing by key regional powers. Iran and Syria are seeking to further boost their negotiating credentials by supporting the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and are ready to accelerate the demise of both Fateh and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Qatar openly aids and promotes Hamas as the alternative movement, again to enhance its role as a regional power broker to be reckoned with.

Egypt, Jordan and other so called "moderate" countries, the supposed backers of Fateh, are junior partners of Washington in its plans to turn the movement into a huge security apparatus and ensure the Palestinian people's submission. More significantly, they could easily switch sides if the US and Israel decide that Hamas is ready to accept the terms of engagement in the "peace process" or that it could be a more effective enforcer of Israeli security.

But the fundamental struggle for Fateh at this historic juncture is to restore its identity, unity and the core of its soul. Its merger into the Palestinian Authority after the signing of the Oslo accords distorted its identity and function. The one-time backbone of the Palestine Liberation Organization and embodiment of Palestinian national rights, Fateh has been reduced to a ruling party largely, but not solely, dependent on proving itself as a "peace partner" in a process that has so far consolidated Israeli occupation and expansionism.

Under the leadership of the late Yasser Arafat Fateh did not lose its soul: it walked a tightrope, balancing between its contradictory roles as the main pillar of a Palestinian Authority bound by agreements to contain resistance to the occupation and the role of a defiant movement that had not abandoned its main goal of leading Palestinians into freedom. Arafat himself personified that soul of Fateh and in broader terms the spirit of the Palestinian struggle. He became the master of compromise, earning the wrath of many disillusioned Palestinians. But when it came to the ultimate test he refused to sign away Palestinian rights, defying American and Israeli pressures at Camp David in the summer of 2000.

Arafat ultimately paid the price for his defiance, but his act revived Fateh and the Palestinian spirit of resistance, leading to the eruption of the second intifada less than two months after the failed Camp David talks.

But on the eve of the Fateh Congress, to be convened for the first time since 1989 next Tuesday in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem , the movement is struggling not only for its soul but for its mere survival. Years of exile, especially after the PLO lost its sanctuary in Lebanon in 1982, a failed "peace process", the loss of Arafat, the ruthless Israeli clampdown on Fateh after the second intifada, combined with unprecedented divisions and a brewing power struggle, have eaten up the fabric of the movement's unity.

The absence of Arafat as a unifying leader could prove fatal. It is not clear if Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the first and second intifadas, could inspire and lead the movement into recovery from his Israeli jail cell. Arafat himself had contributed to the slow but steady weakening of Fateh. His authoritarian style, failure to encourage new generations to assume leadership and even his decision to endorse the militarization of the second intifada dealt constant blows to the body of the movement.

But it was mainly the path pursed by the Palestinian leadership after his death that led the movement to lose its compass. President Mahmoud Abbas, the architect of the Oslo agreement, is a staunch believer that accommodation of the "peace process" and especially of the American terms will lead to the end of the occupation.

Abbas the president may be restricted by obligations to the agreements and conditions to secure the flow of international and Arab funding to the Palestinian territories. But Abbas as leader of Fateh failed to nurture the movement and instead marginalized and curbed dissent within Fateh, further weakening its spirit.

His keen public interest in appeasing American administrations in the name of widening the gap between Washington and Israel helped portray Fateh as collaborationist and an arm of Israeli occupation. Rampant corruption, which actually predated Abbas, further eroded Fateh's popularity, leading to the surprise Hamas victory in the 2006 elections.

The elections ended Fateh's exclusive leadership of the Palestinian struggle. Fateh, however, did not seize the opportunity to restructure itself and revise its position. Instead Fateh leaders inside the Palestinian Authority further maligned the movement by posing as guarantors of the Hamas-led government's compliance with Israeli and international conditions.

The elections, and later on the Gaza war prompted by the Israeli rejection of Hamas, encouraged regional and international powers to look for the Islamic resistance movement as a substitute for both Fateh and the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Ironically, it is the threat of what the mainstream Palestinian group correctly views as a regional agenda to end the movement or help it kill itself that has restored some sense of urgency and unity among the fighting Fateh tribes on the eve of its crucial congress. The explosive accusations by Farouk Qaddumi, an original co-founder of Fateh and consistent opponent of the Oslo process, that Abbas and former security chief Mohammad Dahlan were implicated with Israel in the death of Arafat, were seen by many in Fateh to unwittingly serve a regional agenda to finish off the movement.

Fear of extinction may unite Fateh's congress, but a superficial unity will not save the movement from its contradictions unless it succeeds in charting a clear path and direction--and shedding its growing collaborationist image.- Published 30/7/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Lamis Andoni is a veteran journalist and analyst.

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