RAMALLAH (AFP) — Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party will hold its first congress since 2009 on Tuesday as the 81-year-old leader seeks to close ranks and fend off a key rival.
While Abbas’s advisers insist the congress is being held because it is overdue, some analysts see it as an opportunity for him to sideline allies of his exiled longtime rival Mohammad Dahlan.
Talk of who will eventually succeed Abbas as Palestinian Authority president has intensified, with the aging leader not having publicly designated a successor.
A recent hospitalization for a heart test has only added to such talk, but Abbas has maintained that he has no intention of stepping down anytime soon.
Arab nations have reportedly been pressuring Abbas to allow Dahlan to return in hopes that it will help lead to a smooth transition.
The congress will last up to five days in the West Bank city of Ramallah and is expected to play a key role in determining the future of the secular Fatah party and the Palestinian Authority which it controls.
It will include elections for Fatah’s 23-member central committee — in which Abbas serves as president — and its 132-member revolutionary council, considered to be Fatah’s parliament.
The 1,400 Fatah officials invited to attend the congress are to vote for 18 members of the central committee and 80 seats on the revolutionary council, while the rest are to be nominated.
Observers see the reduced number of officials who are eligible to vote – down from more than 2,000 in 2009 – as part of a move to exclude Dahlan supporters.
Now in exile in the United Arab Emirates, Dahlan was expelled from Fatah in 2011 and has faced a series of legal cases since.
Abbas’s term as Palestinian Authority president officially ended in 2009 but there has been no election since due to an ongoing dispute between his party and its main rival, the Islamist movement Hamas.
The Palestinian parliament has not met since 2007.
Fatah — which controls large portions of the West Bank — and Hamas have been at loggerheads since the latter seized the Gaza Strip in fierce fighting in 2007.
Dahlan fell from grace in June 2007 after the humiliating rout of his forces by Hamas in week-long street battles that saw Hamas expel Fatah from the coastal enclave.
The Gaza-born politician was expelled from Fatah in 2011 over allegations of financial corruption and murder.
The Palestinian high court upheld a presidential decree lifting Dahlan’s parliamentary immunity in 2015, sparking condemnation from civil society activists.
That “cannot be taken out of its context: one of political infighting within Fatah around the person of Dahlan,” political analyst Jihad Harb said of the lifting of his immunity.
Fatah has become increasingly intolerant of any dissent from the party line, Harb said.
The party is the main component of the Palestine Liberation Organization and led the movement to sign the 1993 Oslo Accords that gave birth to the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas and the Islamic Jihad — the two most powerful forces in Gaza — are not part of the PLO.
Recent opinion polls have suggested most Palestinians would like Abbas to step down.
Political analyst Abdel Majid Abu Sweilam says that, beyond staving off Abbas’s rivals, the congress also aims to reinforce Fatah’s hold on the institutions of the Palestinian Authority.
The congress will also address the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, stalled since early 2014.
It will be Fatah’s seventh congress since 1965 and the first since 2009.
The 2009 meeting saw younger officials enter the central committee including Marwan Barghouti, currently imprisoned, as well as Jibril Rajoub and Dahlan.
Polls have shown that Barghouti would win if an election for Palestinian president were held today, but he is serving a life sentence for murder in Israel over his role in orchestrating the killing of Israeli citizens and soldiers during the second Palestinian Intifada.
Rajoub, a former head of intelligence, now leads the Palestinian Football Association and has used this role to push for Palestinian statehood.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.