Winds of change blow softly as Palestinian party leaders meet

November 23, 2016 8:49 AM EST

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) attends the Fatah Central Committee meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 8, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman/File Photo


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By Luke Baker and Ali Sawafta

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian politics hasn't seen much change in the past 10 years -- President Mahmoud Abbas has been in power since 2004 and the last parliamentary elections were a decade ago.

But next week, Fatah, the dominant force in Palestinian politics for half a century, will hold its first party congress in seven years and is expected to shake up its central committee, foreshadowing longer-term political changes.

While Abbas, who is 81 and has received medical treatment in recent weeks, will remain in power at the top of Fatah and the umbrella movement, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the congress is likely to lead to the appointment of a clear number two in the party and a potential leader-in-waiting.

It would be one of the biggest developments since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, and while the outlook for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is highly uncertain as Donald Trump prepares to take over the U.S. presidency, it could lay the ground for a shift in approach from the Palestinians.

"This is very important, a crucial congress for Fatah to reorganize the movement and renew the legitimacy of the leadership," said Jibril Rajoub, a former security chief and central committee member who is running for re-election.

"The next period should be how we reorganize the whole political system," he told Reuters at his office in Ramallah, where party members and supplicants gathered in large numbers this week to put their views and seek his influence.

POTENTIAL THREAT

In the build-up to the meeting, much has been made of a potential threat to Abbas's authority from Mohammed Dahlan, a former senior figure in Fatah who now lives in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates.

Dahlan, 55, casts himself as someone to shake up the old order and bridge the differences between Fatah and the Islamist group Hamas, a rupture that has splintered Palestinian unity and blunted efforts towards peace with the Israelis.

But Dahlan has been ousted from Fatah and Abbas has limited the delegates attending the congress, cutting the number to around 1,300 from 2,500 at the last meeting in 2009, making it far harder for Dahlan loyalists to mount a challenge.

"Who is Dahlan? Dahlan is not existing, he is no one," said Rajoub. "He was fired from the movement. He is not a solution."

A foreign diplomat tracking the cut-and-thrust ahead of the congress underscored that view, saying he didn't see "any broad ability to unturf Abbas" and that Dahlan "doesn't represent a popular, significant movement in Fatah".

Instead, Palestinian officials and Fatah leaders say, the Ramallah gathering, which starts on Nov. 29 and will last for three or four days, will cement Abbas's position at the top while electing around half a dozen new names to the 21-member committee that sets the party's agenda.

"I hope to see an appropriate mix between those who are now in the leading bodies and the new generation, representatives of the new guard," said Nasser al-Qudwa, Arafat's nephew and a member of the central committee who was Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations for 14 years.

"There will be some changes from the last meeting."

NEW DIRECTION?

The most important decision will come in the days after the congress, when the new central committee meets to elect from among its members a deputy to Abbas in the party.

Palestinian officials repeatedly mention four names as being in the running for that post: Qudwa, Rajoub, Tawfiq Tirawi, a former head of intelligence, and Mahmoud al-Aloul, the former governor of Nablus, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Rajoub and Qudwa both dismiss out of hand any suggestion of a shortlist -- Tirawi and Aloul could not be reached for comment -- saying Fatah's rules don't work like that. But they confirmed a deputy would be chosen shortly after the congress.

There are then plans for the Palestine Liberation Organization's top legislative body, the national council, to meet for the first time in 20 years and potentially elect a new executive committee, which is also headed by Abbas.

If that happens in the coming weeks, Palestinian officials say, Abbas would again be reaffirmed. But critically, his deputy in Fatah may also be named as deputy head of the PLO executive committee, all but enshrining that person as leader-in-waiting.

"There are lots of hurdles to jump, but this is the way it is shaping up. Changes are coming," said a senior Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to divulge internal discussions.

HEALING DIVISIONS, RE-ENGAGEMENT

Abbas is much maligned inside and outside the party, despite retaining a large degree of influence. His leadership is seen as lacking the inspiration of Arafat, he has failed to secure the end of Israel's occupation or an independent Palestinian state, and the split with Hamas has worsened on his watch.

None of that will change after the congress. But if a clearly anointed successor emerges in the weeks and months ahead, diplomats and Palestinian officials say it may help mend internal divisions and encourage the world to re-engage.

Trump said this week he wanted to tackle the Middle East issue and believed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could take on the role of peace-broker in the region. It remains to be seen how serious a proposal that is and whether Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, would be an acceptable, independent interlocutor.

But among the Palestinians being talked about as potential successors to Abbas, at least one, Nasser al-Qudwa, shares common ground with Kushner -- he has lived in New York on and off for the past 30 years and retains a home in the city.

(Writing by Luke Baker, editing by Peter Millership)



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