RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pushing for leadership elections in his Fatah movement and the PLO before the end of the year, as part of what senior officials say is largely an elaborate attempt to block the return of an exiled rival backed by several Arab states.
Abbas's decision to hold such elections is a response to growing Arab pressure to take back Mohammed Dahlan, a former top aide and millionaire businessman who in exile forged close ties with leaders of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region.
The 81-year-old Abbas has no plans to step down or designate a successor, despite a recent health scare in which doctors ordered an unscheduled heart exam prompted by complaints of fatigue. However, those elected to top posts in Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization — if the vote isn't delayed — could form a pool of potential successors, though none would likely challenge Abbas as long as he is in office.
Abbas has dedicated much of his energy to seemingly petty domestic power plays, including fighting off perceived rivals like Dahlan, at a time when other avenues of action appear blocked. Negotiations with Israel have effectively been frozen since hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009. Meanwhile, the Palestinian quest for statehood has been upstaged by bloody conflicts in the region, including in Syria and Iraq.
The Palestinian president was jolted into action several weeks ago, when the so-called Arab Quartet — pro-Western, majority- Sunni Muslim states Egypt, Jordan, Saudia Arabia and the UAE — presented a "road map" to Abbas for reviving frozen peace talks with Israel. Dahlan's return to a leadership position was listed as one of the first required steps.
Abbas was livid and countered that Arab leaders should stop meddling in internal Palestinian affairs — rare public criticism of Arab allies by a leader whose people depend on Arab financial and diplomatic support.
Although past attempts to hold leadership votes have collapsed, three senior officials, including two from Fatah and one from Abbas' inner circle, said the Palestinian leader is serious this time about calling internal elections, both to block Dahlan's return and meet growing reform demands in the movement. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the politically sensitive issue with the media.
Abbas' fierce opposition to Dahlan's return is both personal and political.
The two men, who had been close for years, fell out after Dahlan made thinly veiled corruption allegations against Abbas' two businessman sons, Yasser and Tarek, in 2010. A Palestinian court has since convicted Dahlan in absentia on corruption charges, and he would face arrest if he attempted to return to the West Bank without Abbas' blessing.
Fatah leadership elections are tentatively set for Nov. 29, to be followed a month later by a vote for the PLO's main decision-making body, the Executive Committee, senior Fatah officials said. The Executive Committee would be chosen by the Palestine National Council, or PNC, which includes dozens of members living outside the Palestinian territories.
Jibril Rajoub, a leading Fatah member, said the internal elections are being held to revive the flagging appeal of Fatah and the PLO, organizations seen as stale and ossified; Fatah leaders in their 50s, like Rajoub, are considered the "young generation."
"All local, regional and international factors are pushing us to renew the legitimacy of our political system, and that starts with holding Fatah convention followed by the PNC," Rajoub said.
He declined to speak about Dahlan, both a rival and an ally in the past.
In the 1990s, after the Palestinians won limited self-rule in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank in interim peace deals with Israel, the two men were in charge of a feared internal security service; Dahlan led in Gaza and Rajoub in autonomous enclaves of the West Bank.
There's still a real possibility these internal elections will not take place, in part because some senior members of Fatah fear losing their jobs. Also, convening the PNC is a complex undertaking and requires Israel's approval to allow exiled members to enter the Palestinian territories.
The last Fatah convention was held in 2008, and the next one should have taken place in 2013. Abbas repeatedly delayed the convention, both because Dahlan was still enjoying strong support and because the Palestinian leader had no strong interest in making changes.
Since then, many Dahlan followers have been purged from Fatah. The recent pressure by Arab states to take back Dahlan also gave Abbas apparent motive to act.
After internal Fatah elections, "there will be no way for Dahlan to come back to the leadership," said political analyst Jihad Harb.
Two weeks ago, Dahlan loyalists in Gaza protested Abbas' decision to convene a Fatah convention, and some of them burned photos of Abbas.
Dahlan urged Fatah in a statement to halt the convention, suggesting it was meant to exclude him. "Someone is using these meetings for one reason, to split the movement," he said.
Dahlan also accused Abbas of attempting to strengthen his grip on the leadership under the guise of internal reform.
Mahmoud Aloul, a senior Fatah member and Abbas loyalist, said the party is ready to move ahead with the convention.
"We have faced lots of interventions in our internal issues, but we clung to our independent decision," he said.