Many in Washington and some European capitals are hoping that the Fatah faction,

which controls the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, is headed toward

moderation and reforms as it holds its sixth general assembly in Bethlehem this week.

But on the eve of the conference, which is being held for the first time in two

decades, there are growing indications that Fatah is actually headed in the opposite

direction.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing signs of the growing radicalization of Fatah can

be seen in calls by top representatives for a "strategic alliance" with Iran's dictatorial

and fundamental regime.

In January 2006, Fatah lost the parliamentary election in the West Bank and Gaza

Strip to Hamas largely because of its leaders' involvement in financial and moral

corruption. Since then, not a single Fatah official has been held responsible for the

humiliating defeat. Nor has Fatah drawn the conclusions from its expulsion from the

Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007.

Hopes that the conference would pave the way for the emergence of a new and

younger leadership have faded as old guard officials of Fatah appear determined to

hold on to their positions regardless of the price.

Fatah is therefore unlikely to emerge stronger and younger from its sixth general

assembly. By adopting a hard-line approach toward the conflict and blocking reforms,

Fatah is sending a message both to the Palestinians and the world that it's still not

ready for any form of compromise or reforms. As such, Fatah remains part of the

problem, and not part of the solution.

During the three-day conference, about 2,200 delegates would be required to vote for

new members of Fatah's two most important decision-making bodies: the Central

Committee [21 seats] and the Revolutionary Council [120 seats].

The Central Committee has long been dominated by old timers and former cronies of

Yasser Arafat who over the past four decades have stubbornly resisted attempts to

inject fresh blood into the committee.

The Revolutionary Council, on the other hand, consists of representatives of both the

old guard and the new guard. But this council has never been taken seriously and its

decisions are regarded by the Fatah leadership as nothing but mere recommendations.

Days before the conference was opened in Bethlehem, Fatah members were surprised

to discover that Mahmoud Abbas and his old guard colleagues had selected more

than half of the delegates who were invited to the meeting.

In protest, young guard representatives decided to drop their candidacy for the

prestigious Central Committee after realizing that their chances of beating the old

guard members were slim, if not impossible. This means that the committee will

continue to be controlled by former Arafat cronies, some of whom are even publicly

opposed to the Oslo Accords with Israel.

To further strengthen the old guard camp, Abbas sought and received permission

from Israel to allow Mohammed Ghnaim, a hard-line Fatah leader, to move from

Tunisia to the West Bank. Ghnaim is one of a handful of senior Fatah leaders who

remain strongly opposed to the Oslo Accords, insisting that the "armed struggle"

against Israel is the only way to "liberate Palestine."

Ghnaim is now being touted as Abbas's successor as head of Fatah and the

Palestinian Authority as to ensure the continuity of the old guard hegemony over the

affairs of the Palestinians in the West Bank.

Many Fatah operatives, including some of Abbas's closest allies in Ramallah, have

made it known that they would oppose any move to abandon the "armed struggle"

option during the Bethlehem assembly.

Their statements came in response to reports according to which the Fatah

conference is set to endorse a more moderate and pragmatic approach toward the

conflict with Israel.

Moreover, a majority of Fatah members appear to be vehemently opposed to the idea

of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. A draft plan of Fatah's political platform that

was leaked to some Arab media outlets last week clearly states that Fatah will remain

strongly opposed to Israel's demand that the Palestinians recognize the state as a

homeland for the Jewish people.

In other signs of continued intransigence, the political platform opposes any

concessions regarding the "right of return" of Palestinians to their original homes

inside Israel.

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