updated 8/4/2009 9:25:52 PM ET 2009-08-05T01:25:52

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday urged members of his aging and rivalry-ridden Fatah movement — meeting for the first time in two decades — to give peace talks with Israel a chance, despite many setbacks and few achievements.

Abbas hopes formal endorsement of his policies by Fatah will strengthen his hand against his Islamic militant Hamas rivals and Israel's hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Many of the nearly 2,000 delegates seemed ready to back Abbas, since his proposed political program is vague enough to get even hard-liners on board. "Armed struggle" against Israel, once a central Fatah tenet, was not formally dropped as an option, but emphasis shifted to negotiations and civil disobedience.

"There are no big differences within Fatah over the political platform," said Jamal Hwail, 38, who served seven years in an Israeli prison for membership in Fatah's violent offshoot, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

"The overwhelming majority of delegates is supporting the choice of peace and negotiations," he said.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Fatah's program mattered less than its actions.

Hundreds vying for leadership posts
"The test will be after the conference, when a leadership with proper legitimacy is chosen," Barak said Tuesday, "and then we will see what that leadership brings to the negotiating table."

In the smoke-filled convention hall in Bethlehem, the buzz was about leadership elections, to be held Thursday. Abbas' job as party chief is not up for a vote, but hundreds are vying for 140 seats in two leadership bodies.

Yet the voting may not produce the sweeping change seen as necessary for cleaning up Fatah's corruption-tainted image and making the party more competitive with the more disciplined Hamas. Only about one-fourth of the Fatah delegates were elected by the rank and file, while the rest were picked by Abbas and a small committee.

Some 400 Gaza delegates couldn't attend at all, barred from travel by the territory's Hamas rulers.

In disarray typical of Fatah, organizers were still struggling Tuesday to find a way to let the Gazans participate in the voting.

The absence of the Gaza delegates highlighted the deepening Palestinian split between Hamas, which seized Gaza in 2007, and the Western-backed Abbas. A Palestinian unity deal is seen as a prerequisite for any peace agreement with Israel.

Abbas on Tuesday blamed Hamas for Gaza's suffering. The territory of 1.4 million Palestinians has been under Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Hamas takeover.

He contrasted that with his achievements in the West Bank, noting that he has restored a sense of normalcy and obtained West Bank residency rights from Israel for tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Hamas mocked Abbas' claims.

Hamas: 'Futile negotiations'
"He opened a cinema and got some ID cards, but forgot about the occupation and the futile negotiations which continue without success for any of the Palestinian rights," said Ismail Radwan, a Hamas leader in Gaza.

In a long-winded convention speech largely devoid of emotion, 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.

He repeatedly invoked the late Yasser Arafat, the party founder, in an apparent attempt to draw legitimacy from his iconic predecessor.

Even after more than four years as president, the reserved Abbas rarely enjoys the adoration generated by Arafat, whose stubble-faced portrait hung from the walls of the convention hall.

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 suggested that this does not include taking up arms. Resistance is embodied by the weekly marches and stone-throwing protests in West Bank villages that have lost hundreds of acres to Israel's separation barrier, he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments