At Fatah congress, Rajoub — and Abbas — walk away with big wins
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Analysis

At Fatah congress, Rajoub — and Abbas — walk away with big wins

In pulling off conference without a hitch and sidelining rival Dahlan, PA president has good reason to be pleased... for now

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, center, casts his vote at the Muqataa, the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the city of Ramallah the West Bank, December 3, 2016. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, center, casts his vote at the Muqataa, the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the city of Ramallah the West Bank, December 3, 2016. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

The Palestinian news agencies on Sunday published the first results in the Fatah Central Committee elections for key positions in the political party.

Coming in first place was Marwan Barghouti, held in Israeli prison for murder after orchestrating deadly terror attacks during the Second Intifada, followed by Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association (PFA). For months, Rajoub has been seen as the most popular personality in Fatah, after Bargouhti, of course, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Next on the list are Mahmud Eshtawi, Hussein Eshtawi and Muhammed Al-Alul — all of whom are allies of Rajoub.

And that is likely to be the most significant outcome of these elections within the framework of the seventh Fatah Congress – Rajoub’s camp is strengthening and he is the leading candidate for the position of general-secretary of the top decision-making Central Committee, which positions him as number two in the party and a possible successor to Abbas.

Rajoub’s biggest opponent in these elections, Tawfik Tirawi, was also chosen for the Central Committee, but few of his supporters made it on the list. Only Yasser Arafat’s nephew Nasser al-Kidwa — also considered a possible successor — made the cut, according to reports.

Palestinian Football Association (PFA) head and member of the Fatah Central Committee, Jibril Rajoub, answers AFP journalists' questions on November 28, 2016 in Ramallah, on the eve of the Fatah party's first congress since 2009. (AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI)
Palestinian Football Association (PFA) head and member of the Fatah Central Committee, Jibril Rajoub, answers journalists’ questions on November 28, 2016 in Ramallah. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Rajoub can’t celebrate, however. The Central Committee, which chooses the general-secretary, will be supplemented by another four members appointed by Abbas, and in light of the enormous power the Palestinian leader wields, they are expected to receive the approval of the Fatah leadership. And then, it seems, Abbas will try to appoint top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to the position of secretary-general.

Nonetheless, even before the results for the Fatah leadership elections came in, and even before the Saturday vote, one victor could be identified: Abbas himself, the leader of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Although Abbas’s status on the Palestinian street is more troubled than ever, and although surveys in the West Bank attest to a decline in his support, in the battle for Fatah and its leadership, Abbas can declare a big victory. The PA president managed to make the general congress happen, in the shadow of a possible split within Fatah, and despite the stubborn efforts by his opponents, led by former Gaza strongman Mohammad Dahlan, to prevent the event from taking place.

Mohammad Dahlan in 2006 (Michal Fattal/Flash90)
Mohammad Dahlan in 2006 (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Abbas did this while all the moderate Arab states, and especially Egypt, turned their backs on him and threw their support behind reconciliation with Dahlan, who lives in exile in Dubai. Despite these obstacles, Abbas emerges from this conference as an unassailable leader of Fatah, while his rival Dahlan and dozens of Dahlan’s cronies find themselves out of the party ranks, without any signs of a return in the near future.

Some 1,400 members of Fatah — from all over the world — who were accompanied by 65 international delegations from 28 different countries, and 350 members of Fatah in the Gaza Strip, took part in the congress with the knowledge and understanding that, above all, they were attending as a display of faith in Abbas. They welcomed a national economic plan – with no new components – that he wanted to pass, they lined up behind his every decision and statement, and they were forced to listen to him address conference attendees for more than three hours.

They even adopted his idea of bestowing “honorary membership” in the Central Committee — the senior leadership body of the party which saw some of its most bitter battles centered on its membership — to three Fatah veterans. It was an unprecedented decision, and it is still unclear if it will afford the three the right to vote or not, depending on whom you ask.

And still, it is hard to say how this victory for Abbas in Fatah will affect his standing in the general Palestinian public. On the street, it must be said, the Fatah leadership is seen as an anachronistic body with almost no youth representation or new faces. Even Dahlan’s temporary setback does not rule out a possible split in the party or the loss of Fatah legitimacy, especially in the Gaza Strip. In other words, in the long term, it is not clear how much this victory will impact Abbas, especially when the power struggles within Fatah persist.

Rajoub vs. Tirawi

At the convention, two central camps emerged: Rajoub’s camp and that of his long-time rival Tawfik Tirawi.

Fatah Central Committee member Tawfik Tirawi during an interview in which he compared Hamas to the Islamic State jihadist group. (screen capture: YouTube/Gal Berger)
Fatah Central Committee member Tawfik Tirawi during an interview in which he compared Hamas to the Islamic State jihadist group. (screen capture: YouTube/Gal Berger)

The rivalry between the two is hardly surprising. The bad blood began to flow between them sometime in the 1990s when Yasser Arafat appointed Rajoub as head of preventative security in the West Bank and Tarawi as the head of general intelligence.

In practice, both of them had the same role and they competed to be close to Arafat. That rivalry led to sometime violent confrontations and even during the Second Intifada, it was one of the reasons for the increase in terror attacks against Israel.

At the Fatah Congress, although there were no violent clashes between the two men. Everyone in the room in Ramallah knew that, behind the scenes, battle lines, or hit lists, were being drawn up. Both want to be appointed the secretary-general of the Central Committee, effectively the Fatah number two, and thus a possible successor to the president.

There are those who say that the division between the camps revolves around Abbas’s biggest opponent – Dahlan. While Rajoub took a very confrontational line against Dahlan due to old grievances between them, Tirawi and al-Kidwa haven’t forcefully condemned him.

PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat speaks at the Haaretz and New Israel Fund conference in the Roosevelt Hotel, NYC, on December 13, 2015. (Photo by Amir Levy/Flash90)
PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat speaks at the Haaretz and New Israel Fund conference in the Roosevelt Hotel, NYC, on December 13, 2015. (Amir Levy/Flash90)

Between these two camps there is also a sort of “mini-camp” — that of Marwan Barghouti’s supporters, who apparently didn’t succeed in these elections. His confidants, such as Qadura Fares, were left out of the Central Committee.

Meanwhile, Abbas has the option to appoint those four additional members to the Central Committee with no connection to the outcome of the election. He needs the approval of the Central Committee members and the legislative Revolutionary Council, but considering his position in the party he is expected to gain sweeping support for any candidate he puts forward.

Abbas wants to see Tayeb Abdel Rahim, currently secretary-general of the Palestinian Authority, appointed to the Central Committee and it seems that after the vote and the results, he will push for the appointment of his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh and the commander of the general intelligence Majid Faraj, who helped him prepare the convention.

But perhaps the biggest news emerging from the seventh congress of Fatah is that in ended without any major news. Fatah remains the same Fatah.

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