Protest against the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, 2012. Demotix/Eloïse Bollack. All rights reserved.
Nine months of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations have produced no progress on ending the conflict despite determined efforts by John Kerry. Even if negotiations were to be extended beyond the April deadline, sooner or later the parties will have to confront the widening gap between the positions of the two sides regarding most issues of the permanent agreement.
Palestinians are currently searching for ways to challenge the status quo when peace talks fail. This search reflects not only Palestinian pessimism and growing frustration with negotiations but also growing concerns about the viability of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its ability to enjoy legitimacy and deliver services in an environment that is becoming increasingly inhospitable due to repeated financial crises, loss of electoral legitimacy, and inability to end Fatah-Hamas split and reunify the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
While most Palestinians view the PA as a national achievement, many are debating the extent to which it is currently fulfilling its two main roles: as a vehicle for statehood and as a tool for institution building.
To address its predicament, the Palestinian leadership is considering two routes: waging a diplomatic warfare against Israel through international bodies, such as the International Criminal Court, and dissolving the PA. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has already embarked on the first route, the international strategy. Early in April Mahmoud Abbas, PLO Chairman and president of the PA, signed applications to join 15 international treaties including the Four Geneva Conventions. Two weeks later, in a meeting with Israeli parliamentarians in his office in Ramallah, Abbas threatened to embark on the second route: dissolving the PA and handing over the keys to Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Abbas’ threat is not new. He and many Palestinians think that such a threat can influence Israeli thinking in a manner that would enhance the chances for the two-state solution. Palestinians believe that Israel values the continued existence of the PA, as it releases the occupying power from the responsibility to care for those living under its occupation and it shields Israel against the demographic threat, embedded in the current one-state reality, to its Jewish character.
The logic here is that Israelis worry more about the threat of a one-state solution, implied by the dissolution of the PA, than the threat involved in conceding a two-state solution. Some Palestinian supporters of PA dissolution have come to this conclusion, believing that the two-state solution was no longer viable and that the Palestinians need an alternative framework, like the one-state solution, to organize their relations with Israel. For those, the continued existence of the PA represents a major impediment, preventing a shift from a two-state to a one-state framework.
Still, Israelis are likely to view Abbas’ threat to dissolve the PA as a bluff. Yet, even if Abbas’ threat is indeed not serious, the PLO international route is likely to trigger Israeli and US pressure and financial sanctions that will inevitably bring about the collapse of the PA. In such a situation Israel would be forced to choose between two options: the consolidation of a one-state reality, which would then force it to become an apartheid state, or grant Palestinians full citizenship.
Israel might delude itself thinking that it has other alternatives. For example, it might consider maintaining a modified version of the current status quo, despite PA collapse or dissolution, by allowing Palestinians and donor countries to continue to manage service delivery. It might alternatively consider returning to its pre 1994 status in which it becomes directly responsible for the welfare of the Palestinian population under its occupation. It might even consider embarking on a process of limited disengagement in which it consolidates its settlement enterprise in few large settlements blocs while maintaining a military presence throughout the West Bank.
Regardless of the alternative it chooses, Palestinians are likely to complicate matters greatly for Israel in an effort to force it to end its occupation or face a Palestinian anti-apartheid struggle. Palestinian reaction to Israeli measures will have an impact on the ultimate solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the means adopted to achieve it. The two-state framework might suffer a significant blow leading to increased demands for other solutions such as the one-state solution.
Similarly, PA disappearance will make life difficult for Palestinians. Indeed, it will dramatically affect Palestinian society in the West Bank. It goes without saying that the worst domestic consequences are likely to be triggered by the combined effect of the anticipated collapse of law and order and the disappearance of more than 3 billion dollars of current PA public spending.
This development will deliver a severe blow to the private sector and will lead to the gradual collapse of the justice system as well as service delivery in most sectors from health and education to communication, water, and energy. Poverty rates, crime and lawlessness are likely to increase dramatically. Armed militias are likely to take the law into their own hands creating a greater potential for domestic and Palestinian-Israeli violence.
To be able to cope with the new reality, a Palestinian civil society task force has recommended in February 2014 that the PA act today to preempt the worst possible ramifications of PA collapse or dissolution.”* It proposed steps such as the creation by the PLO of a government in exile, the creation of independent and autonomous local institutions in the various sectors that could provide alternative regulatory agencies when the PA is no longer there. It has been proposed that these agencies should be made up of civil society groups, political parties and factions, private sector associations, labour unions, local government representatives and others. It is believed that the existence of such agencies can go a long way toward minimizing the expected damage.
* Last February, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah has issued a report on the “The Likelihood, Consequences and Policy Implications of PA Collapse or Dissolution.” The report summarized main findings of various Palestinian expert papers on the consequences of PA dissolution or collapse on various sectors of Palestinian political, economic, security and social life. The reports were produced in 2013 in a collaborative project between PSR, U.S./Middle East Project (USMEP), and the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF).