BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas proposed a compromise Thursday to end a dispute between his Fatah followers at their convention and allow the gathering to move toward its key goal: electing new leaders for the first time in 20 years.
However, some leaders expressed reservations about the proposal, and the outcome was uncertain.
The convention has been bogged down by a bitter dispute between Fatah delegates from the Fatah-controlled West Bank and those from Gaza, run by the rival Hamas group.
The dispute, which focused on procedures for electing new leaders, highlighted a rift within Fatah itself and the growing schism between the two Palestinian territories.
Abbas’ compromise would avert a possible Fatah split and set the stage for the elections. Nabil Amr, a convention spokesman, said the voting could start as early as Friday.
But another Fatah official, Nabil Shaath, said members of the group’s top decision-making body, the Central Committee, were opposed to Abbas’ proposal and were set to meet with him to try to iron out the differences.
Fatah hopes to emerge strengthened from the conference, its first since 1989. The party, which dominated Palestinian politics for decades, was trounced by the Islamic militant Hamas in 2006 parliament elections, partly because of its corruption-tainted image.
A year later, Hamas seized Gaza by force and politically split the Palestinian territories in two.
Abbas’ own leadership of Fatah was not in question at the convention.
But it brought into the open conflicts and rivalries between those of the “middle generation,” Fatah members who were kept out of power positions for two decades.
Suspicions were further raised by a last-minute addition of about 700 new West Bank delegates to bring the total to nearly 2,300, after most of the Fatah delegates from Gaza were blocked by militant Hamas from leaving the coastal strip to attend the convention, taking place in the West Bank.
Critics accused Fatah’s “old guard” of stacking the conference to manipulate the vote.
Only 210 of 650 Fatah delegates from Gaza reached the conference. They demanded that seats be set aside for them in two key Fatah ruling committees so they could hold their own election for those seats next month.
Abbas’s compromise expanded the Central Committee from 21 to 23 members and assured the Gazans of six seats. For those, three members would be elected by the convention in Bethlehem and the remaining three by Gazans at a later time, said an Abbas aide. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the details.
A central figure in the dispute was Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza strongman and one of the most polarizing figures in Fatah. The quota system would seem to assure him of a seat in the Central Committee, while an open election might not. Many in Fatah blame him for the loss of Gaza to Hamas.
Also, wrangling over jobs dwarfed discussion over Fatah’s political path.
In his opening speech, Abbas said the movement remains committed to negotiations with Israel, but keeps open the option of resisting occupation. Abbas singled out marches, strikes and stone-throwing protests as appropriate methods.
An Abbas aide, Nimr Hamad, said Thursday that Fatah’s revised political program was not meant to be up for a vote but would be debated later by the newly elected leaders.