RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tightened his hold on the governing Fatah party and shut out a key rival, according to results Sunday of leadership elections in the movement that has dominated West Bank politics for decades.
The election comes as senior Fatah members are battling behind the scenes to succeed Abbas one day. The 81-year-old leader has given no sign that he plans to retire from the presidency or his top jobs in Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
On Saturday, more than 1,300 Fatah delegates confirmed Abbas' continued Fatah leadership role by acclamation and elected 18 members of the movement's top decision-making Central Committee.
Top vote getters were Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian uprising leader jailed by Israel, and Jibril Rajoub, a former West Bank security chief. Both are seen as potential Abbas successors, and their strong showing could improve their eventual succession bids.
Barghouti is serving multiple life terms after being convicted in deadly attacks and has no imminent prospects of release, but remains by far the most popular Fatah leader. Party officials have mentioned the possibility of Barghouti joining forces from behind bars with another Fatah leader in filling the role of president.
While Abbas cemented his control over the movement, the re-election of party stalwarts and Abbas loyalists is bound to affirm Fatah's public image as a stale, aging movement that has failed to deliver on Palestinian dreams of statehood and is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Palestinians.
Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser in Abbas' self-ruled government, noted a lack of diversity in the Fatah leadership body, with only one woman among the 18 members and most of the remaining men in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.
Fatah leaders "believe that they are entitled to these positions," she said. The re-election of party veterans "is saying to me that they don't have a vision for the future."
The elections took place during a Fatah conference that was also meant to block the return of Mohammed Dahlan, a former Abbas aide who fell out with his boss several years ago and went into exile.
Several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, have been pressing Abbas to allow Dahlan, a millionaire businessman, to reclaim a leadership position in the West Bank. In arranging the conference, Abbas effectively blocked Dahlan's return to the top ranks of Fatah.
During the conference, the delegates approved Abbas' long-standing political program of setting up a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel even though the strategy has hit a dead end. Gaps have been too wide between Abbas and Israeli hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu, in power since 2009, to allow for meaningful negotiations.
Rajoub told The Associated Press that the results signal continuity of Palestinian policies. Asked about the challenges ahead, including dealing with Donald Trump in the White House, he said: "We will be open to any efforts to revive the peace process according to the rules set by the international community."