BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Fatah has elected a rejuvenated leadership that will likely bring the mainstream Palestinian movement more in line with President Barack Obama's vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, according to unofficial results released Tuesday.
But a reluctant Israel and militant Islamic Hamas stranglehold on the Gaza Strip pose formidable obstacles on the road toward a peace accord.
The voting for Fatah's two main decision making bodies, the Central Committee and the larger Revolutionary Council, was the highlight of the first convention held in two decades by the movement founded by the late Yasser Arafat. The meeting was scheduled for three days but has stretched into its eighth because of acrimonious wrangling.
Official results have not yet been released, but the vote appeared to present a new Fatah leadership that removed some of the old-time exiled revolutionaries who urged armed struggle in favour of pragmatic, younger grass-roots activists who grew up in the West Bank and Gaza and support negotiating a peace treaty with Israel.
The fresh faces on the Fatah leadership bodies are not newcomers to the scene. Instead, most are local grass-roots activists who have long clamoured for a voice in Palestinian policy making.
Their ascendancy gives a boost to President Obama's hoped-for Mideast breakthrough, giving the mainstream, secular Fatah more credibility among Palestinians who threw their traditional Fatah leaders out of power in 2006 elections, charging them with corruption, nepotism and inefficiency - especially their failure to win independence despite decades of armed struggle and years of peace talks.
Lurking in the background are Israel and Hamas, sworn enemies of each other and suspicious of Fatah.
Hamas overran the Gaza Strip in 2007, seizing power there after 18 months of frustration over Fatah's refusal to relinquish control despite the Hamas sweep of the 2006 elections. Reconciliation talks sponsored by Egypt have failed to heal the Fatah-Hamas rift, and it is assumed there can be no peace accord until the West Bank and Gaza are reunited under a single government.
Israel has been watching the Fatah convention with skepticism. Officials have denounced its endorsement of the principle of armed struggle, though the delegates voted to favour measures like boycotts and demonstrations to resist Israeli occupation.
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes a hard line toward the Palestinians. Obama wrung from Netanyahu a reluctant endorsement of creation of a Palestinian state, but for decades he has backed Israeli control over the West Bank for security reasons.
Obama's administration is said to be within weeks of presenting a new Mideast peace plan, and a reinvigorated Palestinian leadership would be a significant boost.
In all, 14 of the Central Committee's 18 elected seats went to new members.
The final results, along with the results of the vote for the 80 elected seats of Fatah's 120-seat Revolutionary Council were expected Wednesday. Abbas remains Fatah's chairman.
Though the younger leaders endorse creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel, they do not offer far-reaching concessions.
Most prominent among the newly elected leaders is Marwan Barghouti, 50, a diminutive, charismatic homegrown leader who was the West Bank Fatah commander when he was arrested by Israeli forces in 2001. Convicted of involvement in several fatal Palestinian attacks, Barghouti is serving five consecutive life terms in an Israeli prison.
Before the eruption of a Palestinian uprising in 2000, Barghouti met regularly with Israeli peace activists and expressed readiness for mutual compromise. After the violence erupted, however, he adopted an increasingly tougher line toward Israel, mirroring other disillusioned Palestinian moderates.
In recent statements, Barghouti has rejected resumption of peace talks with Israel unless it first halts all construction in its West Bank settlements and pledges to free all prisoners and agrees to withdraw from all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem - items Israel believes should be the heart of negotiations.
"This election is setting a new future for the movement, a new democratic era," said Mohammed Dahlan, 47, a former Gaza security chief who was one of the winners, according to the unofficial results.
Also elected was Jibril Rajoub, 56, a former aide to the late Yasser Arafat who led several crackdowns against Hamas.
A prominent election loser was Ahmed Qureia, 72, who served as Palestinian prime minister and most recently as chief negotiator for talks with Israel. Though he clashed repeatedly with Arafat, Qureia was identified with the Fatah old guard.
One old-timer who won a seat was Salim Zanoun, 78, who lives in Jordan. He was a close colleague of Arafat.
While some Palestinians welcomed the new leadership, others doubted Fatah's ability to change.
"The old generation or the new, they're all the same," said Abu Qusei Asaf, 35, a Bethlehem bookstore owner.