Early this month, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is also the chairman of Fatah, had to postpone the Eighth Fatah Conference, which was supposed to be held in Ramallah on March 21. It has now been rescheduled to the second half of May. The conference is slated to elect the movement’s leaders and the members of its institutions.

After Abbas succeeded early last month to undercut his associates in the PLO leadership and take over the organization’s pivotal posts by convening the PLO Central Council, he planned the Eighth Fatah Conference for later this year to further his objectives:

  • To politically destroy his bitter enemy, Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms for the murder of Israeli civilians.
  • To promote his associate General Majid Freij to the Fatah Central Committee.
  • To weaken the camp in Fatah that opposes the promotion of his associates Freij and Hussein al-Sheikh.

The opposition within Fatah, which includes Jibril Rajoub, Tawfiq Tirawi and Mahmoud al-Aloul, is working against those Abbas associates as part of the war of succession.

To promote the above objectives, Fatah set up a committee to prepare the conference and ensure its success. Abbas limited the number of delegates who could participate to 1,200. The directive bans representatives of the Fatah security prisoners in Israeli prisons from participating in the conference. The aim is to weaken Barghouti, who is considered their icon and whom they would very likely elect as their representative to the Fatah Central Committee.

Abbas and Hussein al-Sheikh pulled strings behind the scenes to establish criteria: Those participating in the conference will be representatives of the Palestinian security mechanisms, retired Fatah operatives, present and past Fatah ministers, and present and past members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

According to senior Fatah officials, the explanation given for barring the security prisoners’ representatives from the conference was that their participation would anger Israel and the United States, which oppose the monthly salaries to the security prisoners and their families, and demand that the practice be stopped because it encourages terror.

Abbas explained through his associates that having the security prisoners’ representatives take part in the Eighth Fatah Conference could undermine the reopening of the PLO offices in Washington and the transfer of the American consulate to eastern Jerusalem.

The decision angered the Fatah security prisoners, who threatened to come out openly against Abbas; some even threatened to split the movement. Abbas sent Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub to calm the furies, and Rajoub authorized security prisoner Karim Younes to try to work out understandings.

Younes is a member of the Fatah Central Committee serving a life term for the murder of Israeli soldier Avraham Bromberg in 1981.

Barghouti managed so far to temporarily block Abbas’s effort to destroy him politically, but the Fatah Conference will not be held until the second half of May. Although Abbas fears an explosion in the movement that he heads, he is determined to crush Barghouti, who is challenging his leadership.

Barghouti enjoys a considerable lead over the 86-year-old Abbas in Palestinian opinion surveys, and the Palestinian street sees him as the right candidate for the next P.A. chairman. Preventing his victory was one of the reasons that Abbas deferred elections in the territories a year ago.

Fatah sources claim Abbas torpedoed Barghouti’s release in the 2011 Shalit prisoner exchange deal and is now working with Israel and the United States to prevent his release as part of a new prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas. Neither Abbas nor Barghouti has said his last word in the affair.

Abbas is already prepared for the next stage. According to senior Fatah officials, as the Eighth Fatah Conference approaches, he is planning to freeze the membership of 150 Fatah activists who support Barghouti and thereby weaken him in the internal elections for the Fatah institutions.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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