The considerable focus on personal quarrels at the Fatah Conference stems from the fact that there is hardly any ideological disagreement, according to Middle East affairs expert Dr. Matti Steinberg. The author of "Omdim Legoralam: Hatoda'a Haleumit Hapalestinit, 1967-2007," ("Facing their Fate: Palestinian National Consciousness, 1967-2007"), a book about the Palestinian national movement, Steinberg was also a long-time adviser to the Shin Bet security service. He sees the convening in Bethlehem of the sixth Fatah Conference - the first one in 20 years and the first ever held on Palestinian territory - as a shining moment for the party.
Even though the conference was dedicated to Yasser Arafat and began on his birthday, and despite the personal longing for him, had Arafat still been alive, says Steinberg, Fatah would not have maintained an effective existence. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is preparing the movement for a fight over the soul of the Palestinian street, ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama presenting his outline for peace. Therefore, says Steinberg, the comments made at the conference were directed, above all, at Hamas; then at the international community, primarily the United States; and only after at Israel.
Abbas (Abu Mazen) spoke harsh words, saying "they want to get to paradise over our bodies." He was in fact referring to Hamas, not the Jewish settlers in Hebron, after Hamas refused to allow Fatah activists from Gaza to attend the conference - a move that deepened the rift between the two organizations. Steinberg says Hamas wanted to sabotage the conference to prevent Abu Mazen from receiving backing to enter negotiations. For the same reason, Abu Mazen was determined to hold the conference as scheduled and to present a large, united camp supporting a return to dialogue on the basis of the Arab peace initiative.
When noting "The need to build close ties based on their commitments in the peace process and their interest in creating stability and resolving the Palestinian problem," Fatah was referring to the United States. The press focused on the passage in the faction's platform which discussed the need to open a strategic dialogue with Iran, as well as with Japan, Indonesia and other countries. Steinberg is specifically interested in the new passage stressing the importance of establishing ties between Fatah and the two American political parties as well as the U.S. Congress.
The effort to enlist Fatah in courting Obama is generating criticism against Abu Mazen, to the effect that he is trying to turn the organization into an American-Israeli sidekick. Salvation came from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
"The refusal to recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people," says Steinberg, "gave Abu Mazen a bargaining chip - the possibility of presenting himself as someone who is not pulled along by Israel nor is a collaborator with it." The Palestinians assume Obama will not ask them to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, just as Jordan, Egypt and Syria were not required to do so. They can draw support from UN Security Council Resolution 1515 - which approved the road map, but ignored the Sharon government's 14 reservations, including the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Steinberg rejects the idea that because of the refugee issue, Fatah's refusal to recognize a Jewish state is different from Jordan's or Egypt's refusal, saying "The Palestinian declaration of independence 20 years ago recognized a division into a Jewish state and an Arab state." If Israel insists on such recognition being specified in the peace agreement, he adds, there will be no agreement and "then Israel will cease being, practically speaking, a Jewish state, or it will cease being a democratic state."
The Fatah conference gave this threat an official seal of approval. First Abu Mazen urged Israel to begin a serious peace process on the basis of the understandings reached with previous prime minister Ehud Olmert. Then he buried the idea of a state with temporary borders, which President Shimon Peres is trying to revive. Ultimately, he offered the Israelis two possible options: instead of two states for two peoples, create one democratic state; or make a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, whose capital is eastern Jerusalem.
Fatah is also preparing for the possibility that Obama's pleasant manners will not help the Palestinians achieve their goals. After ruling out a return to the armed struggle, Abu Mazen spoke of popular resistance. As Steinberg concludes, "In Bethlehem, Fatah tied its fate to progress in the political process and to its relationship with the United States. If the United States disappoints and the political stagnation continues, the fate of the American's security project in the West Bank will be like the fate of the PA's policemen in Gaza. If there is no Palestinian state in part of Palestine, Fatah will go back to demanding a Palestinian state in all of Palestine."