JERUSALEM // Israelis have been keeping a close eye on Fatah's Sixth General Conference, now into its sixth day after having been extended indefinitely amid heated arguments. Yesterday, Fatah delegates elected Mahmoud Abbas, the sitting Fatah leader and head of both the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Authority, as chairman of the movement. This was always expected and turned into a mere formality since Mr Abbas ran unopposed.
It is the unexpected contentiousness of the conference that has set Palestinian tongues wagging. Before it started, the conference seemed set to be a comfortable endorsement of Mr Abbas and his policies. The surprising amount of acrimony and division in evidence at the conference between the so-called Old Guard and members of a younger generation of Fatah leaders have instead caught the attention of Palestinian observers.
That in turn ensured more scrutiny on the work of the 18 committees set up to debate and find positions on various issues from the financial mechanisms of the party, the question of Gaza and Hamas and strategy vis-à-vis Israel. It is the last issue that has consumed Israeli observers. There is mostly consensus within Fatah that negotiations with Israel should continue, although resistance to occupation, including armed resistance, should remain an option. There have been differing opinions on which should take precedence, especially since negotiations have been ongoing for 15 years with little tangible movement toward statehood.
But no Fatah delegate has yet called for an end to negotiations à la Hamas and a return to resistance as the only option. Indeed, the position of Mr Abbas, as expressed in his opening speech on Tuesday, was that while resistance was a "legitimate" option for a people under occupation, negotiations are the "strategic choice". Yet in Israel this was derided by a significant number of politicians and columnists as step back for Fatah and even, in one case, a "declaration of war".
In Yedioth Ahronot, Israel's largest circulation daily, Shaul Rosenfeld, a lecturer in philosophy, saw in the Fatah conference's rejection to accede to Israeli demands to recognise Israel as a Jewish state evidence that there "are no moderate Palestinians". As a result, advised Mr Rosenfeld, Israelis "would do well to ask whether it is not better to reconcile ourselves already to the shattered peace dream, instead of yet again subjugating ourselves to its unattainable mirages".
In Haaretz, a liberal daily, Israel Harel, a former head of the Yeshua Council, the ruling body of Israeli settlers, detected an elaborate plot by the right-wing Israeli government. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said Mr Harel, had early realised that by allowing so many delegates, including many from abroad, to congregate for what is effectively a leadership contest, the inevitable outcome would be that Fatah leaders would "bare their teeth".
"Israel's real goal [in allowing the conference to go ahead] is to highlight that even the Palestinians' most moderate wing is characterised by inherent aggressiveness." Such views have not been confined to the op-ed pages of Israel's leading newspapers. Israeli politicians quickly chimed in as well. Yuli Edelstein, the Israeli minister of information and diaspora affairs, on Tuesday went so far as to call the opening speech of Mr Abbas a "declaration of war".
Mr Abbas's speech, which included the assertion that resistance remained a legitimate right of a people under occupation, was an attempt to "adapt" Fatah with Hamas, said Mr Edelstein. "Are these the moderate leaders the world wants us to hold negotiations with?" he asked. And from the opposition, Avi Dichter, a member of parliament from Israel's biggest party, Kadima, said the statements of Fatah leaders at the conference had "set the movement back 20 years".
Very few Israeli commentators detected what an editorial in Haaretz argued, that the "unequivocal message" of the conference was that Fatah's "strategic choice is still two states for two peoples". "It is only natural for Israel not to accept Fatah's platform, just as the Palestinian leadership objects to Likud's platform. But Fatah's approach to the peace process refutes the right-wing argument that 'there is no Palestinian peace partner'," argued the paper.
The focus on the conference by the Israeli right wing is perhaps not surprising. In right-wing and settler circles in Israel there is real fear that Israel-US relations are under serious strain because the US is beginning to see Israel's right-wing government and Israeli settlement policy as the bigger problem. Painting Fatah, which in the West is the acceptable face of Palestinian politics, as still wedded to armed resistance - or inherently aggressive, in the words of Mr Harel - can be seen as an attempt at diverting attention from the pressure on Israel's government and Israeli settlement policy.
"What really bothers me is the story of Sheikh Jarrah," said Danny Rubinstein, a veteran Israeli journalist, a close observer of Palestinian affairs and a fluid Arabic speaker. "This shameful act [the eviction of two families from houses in East Jerusalem] came at the same time as the conference and was like a knife in the back of those Palestinians who have been arguing for negotiations with Israel.
"You can't expect leaders of Fatah to be moderate in their language, when this is going on at the same time." email@example.com