Abbas: Palestinians Must Stick With Peace Talks
Abbas spoke at the opening of a convention that marks an attempt by the movement founded by the late Yasser Arafat to rise from division, defeat and failure and to lead the Palestinians to statehood.
Israel and the international community are closely watching the conference to see how far Fatah is willing to go in rejecting violence and committing to diplomacy in the movement's quest for an independent Palestinian state.
Hundreds of delegates are being asked to adopt Abbas' pragmatic political vision and elect new party leaders, though Abbas' job as head of the party is not up for a vote. Abbas hopes a show of Fatah unity will strengthen his hand in dealing with his Islamist rivals from Hamas and with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
"Having the conference at all is a miracle, and having it in the homeland is another miracle," Abbas said in his opening speech. The last party congress was held in 1989 in Tunisia.
"But the outcome of the convention is more important than these two miracles," he said.
Yet the three-day gathering opened in disarray, with some 400 Gaza delegates unable to attend because of an increasingly acrimonious standoff between Abbas and Hamas. The Islamic militants, who wrested control of Gaza from Abbas in 2007, prevented Fatah delegates from leaving the territory for the conference.
Fatah's internal wrangling, including a bitter generational conflict, seems just as corrosive. Only about one-fourth of the more than 2,200 delegates were elected by the rank-and-file. The rest were picked by Abbas and a small committee, in what could turn out to be an obstacle to sweeping leadership change.
In a lengthy speech, Abbas described Fatah's history from its founding as a guerrilla group in 1965 to the champion of a peace deal with Israel in the 1990s.
Abbas acknowledged many setbacks in peace talks since 1993, complaining that frequent changes in Israeli leadership often moved talks back to the starting point. Netanyahu has reluctantly endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state, but with many limitations, sliding back from positions accepted by his predecessors.
"It is the right of people to say ... these negotiations are in vain," Abbas said. "But still, there is a glimpse of hope and we have to continue this way, for the interest of the people."
Abbas said the Palestinians have a right to resist Israeli occupation, but said such resistance is best embodied by the weekly marches and protests in Bilin and Naalin, two West Bank villages that have lost hundreds of acres to Israel's separation barriers.
He said Fatah rejected terrorism when Arafat first unilaterally declared Palestinian independence in 1988. "We are not terrorists, and we reject a description of our legitimate struggle as terrorism," he said. "This will be our firm and lasting position."
The conference included some of the trappings of armed resistance, including a banner depicting a boy with a Kalashnikov rifle, and the proposed political program did not rule out the use of arms.
But Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, said he was not overly concerned by what was said at the conference.
"We shouldn't ignore it, but neither should we make too much of it. The test will come after the conference. We will see what the leadership will bring to the negotiating table -- that's what matters," Barak said.
In the 1989 Fatah program, the call to "armed struggle" against Israel still played a central role. In the new draft program it is marginalized in favor of negotiations and street protests.
In his speech, Abbas assailed Hamas, saying the Islamic movement's leaders have been enjoying lives of ease while Gazans suffer. Israel and Egypt have blockaded Gaza since Hamas seized control in 2007.
Abbas said Hamas' intransigence -- the group rejects an international demand to recognize Israel -- has blocked reconstruction of the territory. Gaza was hit hard by a three-week Israeli military offensive against the Islamists in the winter.
Still, Abbas said he was ready to resume Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks that were launched in the spring but have produced no results. The Palestinian split is seen as a key obstacle to statehood.
Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri responded harshly, saying that "Abbas acted like a clown in his speech and mixed up many facts."
Hamas blocked Gaza's Fatah delegates from attending the conference, insisting that Abbas first release some 900 Hamas detainees in the West Bank. The latest standoff and verbal sparring deepened the distrust between the two sides and made a unity deal even more unlikely.
In his speech, Abbas laid out what he said were Fatah's achievements, including setting up the Palestinian Authority in the early 1990s, as part of an interim deal with Israel, and enabling tens of thousands of Palestinians to return from exile.
He said his government had improved security and quality of life in the West Bank in recent years.
Abbas said that for the first time, the United States defines the establishment of a Palestinian state as a national U.S. interest and a key to Mideast stability.
Fatah's popularity has dwindled in recent years, largely because of the failure of peace talks, but compounded by the stain of corruption. In 2006, Fatah was defeated by Hamas in parliamentary elections.