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Are the Palestinian Authority’s days numbered?

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are increasingly riddled with contradictions. The Israeli government continuously criticizes the PA and its President Mahmoud Abbas for their dysfunctionality and weakness in the face of militancy and inciting against Israel. However, Israel is troubled - to say the least - by the prospect of the PA’s collapse.

The Israeli media quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet, as stating: “We must prevent the PA from collapsing if possible, but at the same time, we must prepare in case it happens.” He shares the view of most of the country’s security establishment and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Yet senior cabinet colleagues disagree that Israel is worse off without the PA. The more extreme-right elements in government see the potential demise of the Palestinian leadership as an opportunity to resume full Israeli control of the entire West Bank.

Netanyahu and his political allies may rue the day they did not invest in empowering the current Palestinian leadership, treating it merely as Israel’s security sub-contractors instead of equal peace partners.

Yossi Mekelberg

Three scenarios

There are three scenarios that might bring about the end of the PA. The first is through a voluntary decision by its own leadership to dismantle it. The aging Abbas, who will soon celebrate his 81st birthday, and his veteran colleagues are disillusioned with the prospect of a peace agreement with Israel, or even of a meaningful peace process.

They might reach the conclusion that only dismantling the PA, or the threat of it, might rekindle Israeli interest in a genuine peace process. The PA is also not oblivious to the negative view Palestinians hold of their leadership, and it might be a case of jumping before being pushed.

The second possible scenario is that the PA might crumble under domestic or external pressure, and consequently stop functioning altogether. If the number of stabbings or other violent attacks on Israelis increase, political, economic and military pressure might mount from the Israeli side, and maybe even from the United States. This could severely compromise the PA’s ability to provide services, and would further harm its credibility among its own people.

A third possible scenario is that a combination of the leadership’s lack of legitimacy, in conjunction with an inability to fulfil people’s aspirations, will lead to internal unrest, even violent uprising, that results in the breakup of the current order.

If any of these scenarios becomes a reality, both the Palestinians and Israelis will find themselves in unchartered and dangerous waters. It would mean the complete breakdown of law and order and potentially a power vacuum, which might suck in subversive elements from within Palestinian society, including those from the more militant-fundamentalist camp. One of the potential big winners of such a development might be Hamas, which might extend its influence from Gaza to the West Bank.

Security

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed grave concerns regarding the prospect of the PA’s collapse. He reminded Israelis that according to their own security officials, the role that 30,000 Palestinian security forces in the West Bank are playing is crucial to preventing the security situation from spiralling out of control.
Even when tensions rose during three wars with Gaza over the last seven years, the West Bank remained relatively calm, largely thanks to the Palestinian political leadership and its security forces.

Moreover, without a functioning PA, around 150,000 of its employees will not see their salaries paid, and those who rely on the PA’s services and benefits will be left wanting. This political and economic breakdown will only lead to anger, radicalization and deepening divisions within Palestinian society, of which Israel is likely to be on the receiving end.

After all, it is the occupying force, and seen by most Palestinians as bearing the lion’s share of responsibility for the current impasse in the peace process and the hardships they are enduring. Furthermore, as Israel is the occupying power, the international community is bound to hold it accountable for the situation, and responsible for the welfare of those who live under its rule in the West Bank.

Legitimacy

The question regarding the future of the PA highlights the complexity of its relations with Israel. It underlines the fact that the West Bank is gradually left without any source of legitimacy or power to ensure stability. The Israeli occupation never had any legitimacy, neither legally nor morally.

The PA’s legitimacy is in a freefall. It was established more than 20 years ago as an interim government on the road to self-determination and an end to Israel’s military presence, but failed to achieve either. To make things worse, neither presidential nor legislative elections have taken place for a decade, the administration is tainted by corruption allegations, and the economy is barely improving.

Much can be attributed to operating under uniquely difficult circumstances, which restricts the ability to function adequately. This is especially true of the occupation and the deep divisions with Hamas in Gaza. Nevertheless, much can be attributed to bad governance.

The malaise among ordinary Palestinians is spreading, and in a recent public opinion poll two thirds demanded Abbas’s resignation and rejected the two-state solution. There is also a clear majority in support of stabbing attacks against Israelis, and a return to an armed uprising.

These figures are very worrying. They indicate the PA’s weakness at a time when Israel needs it to be stronger than ever. Whatever the faults of the Palestinian leadership, Netanyahu and his political allies should reflect on the part they have played in undermining the PA every step of the way. They may rue the day they did not invest in empowering the current Palestinian leadership, treating it merely as Israel’s security sub-contractors instead of equal peace partners.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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