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The New Fatah

Al-Fatah, the Palestinians’ nominal ruling party, presented Israel with both a gift and a challenge on August 12 as it wrapped up its international party congress in Bethlehem. It had been 20 years since the last congress. Party leaders were touting this one, in the face of near-universal skepticism, as a transformative moment in Palestinian politics, a chance to burnish Fatah’s corrupt, fossilized image, restore its credibility on the Palestinian street and reassert its legitimacy as Israel’s negotiating partner. Defying all expectations, the event took convincing steps in the right direction.

The congress formally committed Fatah for the first time to Palestinian statehood alongside Israel, not instead of it, within the territories that Israel captured in 1967. Coexistence had been endorsed previously by two Fatah-dominated bodies, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, but not by the party itself.

Equally important, delegates elected a new generation of leaders who grew up in the territories, understand Israel and have a popular following. It’s possible — though far from certain — that Israel now faces a Palestinian leadership pragmatic enough to cut a sensible deal and authoritative enough to make it stick.

That’s the gift part. The challenge is for Israel to take the new leaders on and put them to the test.

It won’t be easy. Most Israelis see little cause to trust Palestinian leaders and enter another round of painful negotiating. Israel and Fatah concluded a peace accord 16 years ago in Oslo that was supposed to lead to coexistence. Instead it exploded in September 2000 into a three-year orgy of terrorism, the Second Intifada. Even after that nightmare, Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza, expecting the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority to govern on its own, only to see Fatah trounced by Hamas in an election and then driven from Gaza at gunpoint. It was no surprise when Israelis wearily voted last February for a Knesset defined by its mistrust of Palestinian intentions.

Given the history, Israelis inevitably had low expectations for the Bethlehem makeover session. As if to reinforce their fears, the congress voted to affirm the Palestinian right to “resistance,” meaning terrorism, and to reclaim homes in pre-1967 Israel. It demanded complete Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 cease-fire line and Palestinian control over all of Jerusalem. Critics were incensed. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s fiery foreign minister, told visiting American lawmakers that the congress had opened a “gap” with Israel “that cannot be bridged” and “buried any chance” of near-term peace. The American Jewish Committee called it “a slap in the face of those who seek peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians.”

Surprisingly, many Israelis took the opposite view. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, increasingly the Netanyahu government’s lead voice on foreign affairs, allowed that the congress’s “rhetoric” was “unacceptable to us” — but still insisted Israelis “need to realize that there is no solution for the Middle East but a settlement.” He called on re-elected Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas to return to negotiations (and on President Obama to “lead the process”).

What’s behind the optimistic reading — and what pessimists ignore — is Israel’s urgent interest in seeing Fatah rebuild its popularity. A strong Fatah means a Palestinian leadership that’s willing and able to negotiate peace. A weak Fatah means a strong Hamas, continuing war and ever-increasing Israeli isolation.

Fatah, to rebuild, must rally the crowds and wave the flag. It needs a platform that radiates toughness and promises “resistance” (though the same platform makes clear that violence is a last resort, if negotiations and protests utterly fail). It needs a platform that demands all of Jerusalem and all of the West Bank, just as the 2009 Likud platform “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river” and declares Jerusalem “the eternal, united capital of the State of Israel and only of Israel.” Platforms are where negotiations begin, not where they end.

Israel should welcome a new Fatah. It’s a challenge worth taking.

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