By: Sean Savage
The ongoing wave of Palestinian terrorism that has plagued Israel since last fall has also brought to the fore the Palestinians’ frustration with their own leadership. While Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has been blamed for inciting violence against Israelis, many Palestinians have become dismayed at the PA’s corruption and inability to attain statehood.
As such, Israeli leaders are increasingly concerned that internal Palestinian dissatisfaction could bring about the PA’s collapse, resulting in a dangerous political and security vacuum in the West Bank that could lead to even more terrorism and violence.
“We must prevent the Palestinian Authority from collapsing if possible, but at the same time, we must prepare in case it happens,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said in a closed-door meeting with top ministers and security officials.
According to a Jan. 4 report by Haaretz, Israel’s diplomatic-security cabinet held two meetings over the course of 10 days on the possibility of a PA collapse, in light of “the freeze in the diplomatic process, the ongoing wave of terror attacks, the economic crisis in the West Bank, and the political crisis within the Palestinian leadership.”
The U.S. has also raised questions about the viability of the PA. In December, Secretary of State John Kerry said that “there are valid questions as to how long the PA will survive if the current situation continues.”
“There are some 30,000 Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank, and Israel’s security officials acknowledge their key role in preventing the situation from spiraling out of control, including by the way during the turmoil of three wars with Gaza,” said Kerry.
Abbas countered the concerns, saying that “no one should dream that [the PA] will collapse.”
“The Palestinian Authority exists and it is here,” Abbas added. “It will be followed by a Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority is one of our achievements and we won’t give it up.”
The collapse of the PA “would mean chaos,” said Mideast expert Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.
“The PA handles a great deal of the day-to-day governance issues that Israel is very happy not to fulfill,” Schanzer told JNS.org. “The PA also plays a significant role in minimizing the dangers of Hamas in the West Bank. A full PA collapse would be calamitous from Israel’s perspective.”
Schanzer, however, also downplayed fears that a PA collapse is actually imminent.
“Nothing tangible has led to this discussion, from what I can discern,” Schanzer said. “There was a warning issued by the Prime Minister’s Office and some unnamed sources spoke to the media, too. But from what I can tell, the discussion of a PA collapse is one without much basis at this time.”
Established by the Oslo Accords peace treaty in 1993 as an interim Palestinian government, the PA—which has been dominated by the Fatah political party and its parent organization, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), throughout its existence—has languished in political and economic limbo for the last several years under Abbas. American-brokered peace talks with Israel conducted in 2013-14 crashed, and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terrorist group continues to grow its popularity among Palestinians.
Under Abbas, the PA has not held formal elections since 2006 and only maintains control in the West Bank after being ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007. Abbas has had a tenuous relationship with Israel, maintaining close security ties with the Jewish state out of a shared fear of Hamas, but also seeing Israel take punitive measures such as cutting off tax transfers to the PA in response to Abbas’s unilateral moves for international recognition of a Palestinian state. During the current wave of terror, Israel has accused Abbas of stoking the violence through his false claims of Israel’s attempt to change the status quo on the Temple Mount holy site.
“The PA lacks legitimacy among most Palestinians. A majority of Palestinians, when polled, believe that the PA is irredeemably corrupt and that it continues to fail to deliver basic services,” Schanzer said.
“It also neither makes peace nor war, which alienates both sides of the Palestinian political spectrum,” he added.
Compounding the problems for the PA is a dire economic situation. Azmi Abdul-Rahman, the official in charge of the PA’s financial policies, recently said that the PA’s economy has suffered huge losses since the onset of the current terror wave.
According to Abdul-Rahman, the Palestinian economy has lost roughly $1.3 billion, with the hardest-hit areas being Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, and eastern Jerusalem, Ma’an News Agency reported. Abdul-Rahman blamed decreased tourism, new Israeli security checkpoints, and the cost of medical care for wounded Palestinians as contributing to the losses.
“The economy has undoubtedly been the biggest strain on the PA,” Schanzer told JNS.org. “Since the exit of [former PA prime minister] Salam Fayyad, the PA has lacked the transparency and credibility that made it attractive for donor funds. [Current PA Prime Minister] Rami Hamdallah fails to uphold Fayyad’s standards, and the perception that the PA is irredeemably corrupt continues to grow.”
Perhaps most troublesome for the PA is the lack of a clear successor to Abbas, who has been the subject of many rumors over the past year regarding health issues or an impending resignation.
“The PA itself can survive without Abbas, but the Palestinian political elite is in crisis because Abbas has purged the system of all challengers,” said Schanzer.
For Israel, then, a PA collapse would at the very least mean a significant degree of uncertainty.
“When Abbas is no longer able to govern, there will be a huge vacuum,” Schanzer said.