The election of new blood to the Fatah movement’s top ranks has brought hope that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will gain ground against political rivals Hamas.
“Those Israelis who really want a peace process that will last should be happy with the congress. Those like Netanyahu who want everything and to give up nothing should be unhappy,” said Nabil Shaath, a veteran peace negotiator and one of the few members of the movement’s old guard re-elected to Fatah’s central committee.
Mr Abbas convened a broad leadership gathering for the first time in 20 years, avoiding splits, walk-outs or fiascos from a group known for fractiousness and self-defeating behaviour. He can now be seen as leader on his own merit, not merely the successor of founder Yasir Arafat.
This comes as Arabs and Israelis alike wait for Barack Obama to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Sipping lemonade in a café near the Terra Sancta School where the 2400 delegates met, Mr Shaath was in buoyant mood. He savoured not only his own victory but the sense that, with its new leaders, Fatah was finally regaining ground lost to the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement when it was trounced in the 2006 elections. “The media portrays the winners as young, but these are hardly babes in arms,” he explained. “They are very seasoned people who have been waiting for years.” The average age of the central committee has dropped from 63 to 55, he added.
The hope of Fatah — and of some Israelis — is that the new leaders like Marwan Barghouti will have more popular appeal than the old guard of former Arafat cronies who were associated with corruption and failed negotiations with Israel.
Mr Barghouti is serving five life sentences for the murder of four Israelis and a Greek monk, but some Israeli leaders say they had reasonable relations with him before the outbreak of the second intifada.
Avishai Braverman, Israeli minister for minority affairs, last week called for Mr Barghouti’s release.
Other winners from the Fatah congress were Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, former security chiefs in Gaza and the West Bank.
Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, welcomed the election results. “While they are not pussycats and have plenty of demands, my impression is that these people are more pragmatic because they know us. Many of them speak Hebrew. There is more of a chance an agreement can be made,” he said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was less sanguine, condemning Fatah’s “uncompromising” positions.
The congress set 14 conditions on peace talks with Israel, including a complete freeze on settlement construction and the release of all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
The Fatah gathering stressed its commitment to a negotiated peace while emphasising that the Palestinians have a “right to resist the occupation”.
Mr Shaath argued that there is no contradiction: “So long as Israel is an occupying power by military arms, the right of Palestinians to resist is universally accepted by international law and the charter of the UN. This is our right but we decided not to exercise it.“