West Bank – Reformists kept up pressure for leadership change in the dominant Palestinian party Fatah on Thursday, and Saudi Arabia said no Palestinian state could emerge unless such internal divisions were healed.
Fatah's first congress in 20 years got off to a rocky start this week, with charges by reformists that a well-entrenched but aging and politically discredited old guard had stacked the convention with loyalists to safeguard the status quo.
Internal feuding and the risk of an open split in the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in addition to the deep rift between Fatah and Islamist rival Hamas, provoked a warning from Saudi King Abdullah in unusually blunt language.
Even if the whole world agreed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with all the needed support and backing, it will not be established as long as the Palestinian house is divided, Abdullah wrote in an open letter to Abbas.
I'll be honest, brothers. The criminal enemy (Israel) could not over long years of continued aggression have inflicted as much damage to the Palestinian cause as did the Palestinians themselves in a matter of a few months, he said. The letter was published in the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat.
If a Middle East peace agreement can be negotiated to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel, it would be signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is recognized by Israel and the UN, dominated by Fatah, and headed by Abbas.
Unity within Fatah is crucial to a successful peace process.
Western backers of Abbas hope this congress can restore credibility to Fatah ahead of an election expected in early 2010, the year that may see a new United States-led push for a comprehensive peace deal with Israel.
ROOM AT THE TOP?
Discredited by years of slow-moving peace talks and the taint of corruption under the late Yasser Arafat, humbled at the polls by Hamas in 2006, Fatah is in need of an overhaul and a re-launch, say younger-generation reformists.
On Thursday, there were signs of some room at the top for new blood, as aging members of Fatah's Central Committee announced they would not be seeking re-election.
Only eight of 16 incumbents of the ruling Central Committee were re-standing. But critics said the old guard could still cling to power with the vote of a congress packed at the last minute with 700 of their supporters. The youngest is over 70.
I know my chances are slim but I want to run for the Central Committee, said Husam Khader, 47. He accused some committee members of vote-buying by bringing in their relatives and employees as members of the congress.
Some delegates reported a heated discussion, with participants shouting at each other and cursing.
An official from the Ministry of Finance alleged that some had used state money for their own families and spoke of nepotism in the top levels of the movement by officials who had appointed sons, daughters and friends as delegates.
This is part of democracy, as long as we do not get into a fist fight, said one participant.
The Central Committee was last chosen in Tunis in 1989. It normally numbers 21, 18 of whom are elected and three appointed. Five, including Arafat, have died in the intervening years.
Nomination of a new lineup was to begin on Thursday evening and end on Friday. A vote was due by Saturday.
There was no challenge to Abbas's leadership. The most popular figure next to the 74-year-old president is Marwan Barghouti, who is in an Israeli prison.
I expect the young generation will occupy between 20 to 30 percent of the Central Committee seats, said reformist Jamal Shoubaki. This is a small percentage but it is a good start.
Reinforcing Fatah's democratic credentials is crucial to restoring Palestinian support for the Western-backed movement and displacing Islamist Hamas, which refuses to renounce armed struggle and accept Israel's right to exist.
Fatah was humbled by Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian election, in a shock vote that upset Western hopes for the peace process. Hamas fighters in 2007 routed Fatah in the Gaza Strip, and Fatah now governs in the West Bank only.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel was watching the Bethlehem congress carefully but not interfering.
My suggestion is not to be too impressed by what will be said at the Fatah convention as part of the internal dialogue, he told Knesset members on Tuesday.
The real test will come after the convention when a leadership is formed there and a proper amount of legitimacy, and then we will see what this leadership is willing to bring to the negotiating table.
(Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Erika Solomon and Joseph Nasr; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Jon Boyle)