Image: Fatah conference in Bethlehem
Nasser Shiyoukhi  /  AP
A Palestinian security guard stands on the roof of the Church of the Nativity during the Fatah conference in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Monday.
updated 8/11/2009 2:02:30 PM ET 2009-08-11T18:02:30

The Palestinian Fatah movement elected a group of younger leaders to its top council on Tuesday, bolstering its credentials as the West's best hope for Mideast peace, according to preliminary voting results.

Fatah's first conference in two decades, while plagued by the movement's characteristic wrangling and intrigue, appeared to rejuvenate the pre-eminent Palestinian organization at a critical moment, weeks before President Barack Obama is to unveil a comprehensive plan to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The results indicate that pragmatic leaders who never left the Palestinian territories — and who often spent years in Israeli jails, worked with Israelis and speak Hebrew — won out over exiled hard-liners from places like Lebanon and Syria.

"This election is setting a new future for the movement, a new democratic era," said Mohammed Dahlan, 47, a former Gaza security chief who was one of the winners, according to the early results.

Also elected were Marwan Barghouti, a 50-year-old firebrand militant leader now jailed by Israel and seen as a likely future president, and Jibril Rajoub, 56, a former aide to the late Yasser Arafat who led several crackdowns against Hamas.

‘A coup against a leadership’
Rajoub said the outcome represented a break from the movement's previous leaders, many of whom are in their 70s.

"This is a coup against a leadership that had monopolized the movement for a long time without even presenting a report about its work," he said.

Some Israelis criticized the conference for failing to renounce violence, but Fatah's proposed platform seemed to bring the movement in line with Obama's anticipated peace plan. The 2,300 delegates endorsed the concept of a Palestinian state alongside Israel achieved through peaceful negotiations.

However, the delegates conditioned future talks on a complete halt to Israeli settlement construction on land earmarked for a future Palestinian state — a demand rejected by the current Israeli government — and said they reserve the right to take up arms against Israel if negotiations fail.

Perhaps the biggest hindrance to Palestinian statehood dreams is Hamas' control of the Gaza Strip, which together with the West Bank is supposed to comprise a future Palestine. Fatah delegates from Gaza, prevented by Hamas from leaving the territory to attend the conference, voted by phone.

All attempts to reconcile the two groups following Hamas' violent 2007 takeover of Gaza have failed. But Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, said Monday that the election could open a door to talks. "We wish for a new leadership in Fatah so we can continue the dialogue," he said during a visit to Egypt.

All told, 14 of the Central Committee's 18 elected seats went to new members, with the remaining four going to incumbents from the old guard. President Abbas, also a member, will appoint four others.

The final results, along with the results of the vote for the 80 elected seats of Fatah's 120-seat Revolutionary Council, which together with the Central Committee sets the movement's policies, were expected later Tuesday. Abbas remains the group's overall leader.

Fatah held its last conference in 1989 in Tunisia, some 1,500 miles away from the delegates' hoped-for homeland.

Reputation tainted by corruption
Since that time, Fatah's reputation has been tainted by rampant corruption, electoral and territorial losses to Hamas and its failure to deliver a Palestinian state despite decades of both fighting and negotiations.

While some Palestinians welcomed the new leadership, others doubted Fatah's ability to change.

"The old generation or the new, they're all the same," said Abu Qusei Asaf, 35, a Bethlehem bookstore owner. "The struggle for them is nothing, just papers on the table. They all fight over seats but don't help the people."

Fatah's fortunes have also been boosted by recent gains in the West Bank economy, thanks in part to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to remove roadblocks and loosen restrictions as part of his so-called "economic peace."

But many Palestinians see these gains as a poor substitute for progress toward independence.

Interviewed on Israel Radio, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said he hoped Fatah's new leaders could work toward a peace deal, which he said was "the only way we can get out of the situation we have been stuck in now for three generations."

More on: Fatah | Mahmoud Abbas

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

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