How did a Biden victory help the PA renew security ties with Israel?

PALESTINIAN AFFAIRS: Recent moves by the Palestinian Authority could ease the Palestinians’ economic crisis, but they also send a signal to the Biden administration that Ramallah still exists.

PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY public servants wait to receive their salaries via an ATM outside a bank, in Tubas, earlier this month. (photo credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS)
PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY public servants wait to receive their salaries via an ATM outside a bank, in Tubas, earlier this month.
It was hard this week to find one Palestinian who was surprised by the Palestinian Authority’s recent decision to renew security and civil relations with Israel – five months after PA President Mahmoud Abbas made his dramatic announcement to walk away from all agreements and understandings with Israel and the US administration.
Like many Palestinians, Abbas has learned that a divorce from Israel is not as easy as he expected. He has also learned that the divorce can be very expensive and harmful for the Palestinians.
The PA’s subsequent decision to accept from Israel the tax revenues – known as “maqasa” – also did not come as a surprise to many Palestinians. Under the terms of the Oslo Accords, Israel collects tax revenues on behalf of the PA. In the past two years, however, Israel has been deducting a sum equal to what the PA pays monthly to families of Palestinian security prisoners and those who were killed while carrying out terrorist attacks against Israel.
When Abbas announced last May his decision to renounce all agreements and understandings with Israel and the US in protest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to apply Israeli sovereignty to large portions of the West Bank, Palestinians were unaware that the move would boomerang, causing them damage almost in all fields.
“President Abbas wanted to punish Israel but ended up punishing his own people,” said Samer Abdeen, a businessman from Ramallah. “In the beginning, the people did not understand that Abbas’s decision would directly affect them. By refusing to accept our tax revenues from Israel, President Abbas was actually punishing tens of thousands of civil servants, who since June received only half of their salaries.”
In the past few months, the PA leadership has come under heavy pressure from its civil servants and several international parties, including the United Nations and European Union, to accept the tax revenues to prevent a severe economic crisis.
“Many Palestinians initially welcomed Abbas’s decision to cut all ties with Israel,” noted Hussam Abu Safiyeh, a political analyst from Nablus. “The people thought that the decision applied mainly to security coordination with Israel, which is seen as a form of collaboration with the enemy. But many people quickly realized that the suspension of relations with Israel was tantamount to scoring an own goal.”
The rise in the number of coronavirus infections in the West Bank in the past four months forced the PA leadership to take a series of measures to curb the spread of the disease. These measures, which included lockdowns and curfews in several Palestinian cities and villages, further exacerbated the economic crisis, especially in the private sector.
Abbas was now facing increased pressure not only from his public employees who were not receiving full salaries, but also from shopkeepers, restaurant owners and many small businesses hit hard by the coronavirus restrictions.
The suspension of civil coordination between the PA and Israel also had a negative impact on Palestinians in other fields, particularly medical treatment in Israel. Thousands of Palestinian patients who sought medical treatment in Israel were unable to obtain permission to enter Israel, because the Palestinian General Authority for Civil Affairs, headed by Hussein al-Sheikh, was instructed to halt all contact with its Israeli counterparts in the Defense Ministry’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories.
“This was another example how Abbas’s decision to cut all ties with Israel has backfired,” remarked a veteran journalist from Ramallah who previously worked for the PA Ministry of Information. “Many people did not know that suspending relations with Israel would mean that they could no longer obtain a permit to enter Israel for medical treatment or other purposes. Those who initially applauded President Abbas’s decision to sever all relations were later complaining that it was a very bad and uncalculated move.”
Similarly, the same Palestinians who praised Abbas for suspending security coordination with Israel later complained about the absence of law enforcement and security in their communities. As a result of the decision, PA security forces stopped operating in Area B of the West Bank, which, under the terms of the Oslo Accords, is administered by both the PA and Israel. This area includes some 440 Palestinian villages, where the Palestinian security forces are permitted to operate.
In West Bank villages such as Eizariya and Abu Dis, located east of Jerusalem, Palestinians saw how the absence of PA policemen led to a surge in criminal activity. The PA security forces cannot enter or leave villages in Area B without coordinating their movement with the Israeli authorities.
Shortly after Abbas’s decision to halt security coordination with Israel, police stations in several Palestinian villages in Area B were closed down, leading to scenes of anarchy and lawlessness in many communities.
“We thought that the suspension of the security coordination would hurt Israel,” said Jamal Alawi, a member of Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction in Eizariya. “But it turned out that this was a bad move for the Palestinian population because of the rise in crime in our villages. When you pull out the police forces from Palestinian villages, the only ones who suffer are the Palestinians.
“Israel does not care if there’s anarchy and violence inside our villages. Israel does not care if there are no policemen to direct the traffic inside a Palestinian town. Israel only cares about its security. That’s why the Palestinians were the only ones to pay a price for the suspension of the security coordination.”
The upsurge in crime and scenes of lawlessness and chaos in dozens of Palestinian villages was a bad sign for Abbas and the PA leadership. The PA security forces’ absence from the villages meant that others could step in to fill the vacuum. In this instance, the “others” could have been Hamas or other Palestinian factions opposed to Abbas and his PA leadership in Ramallah.
One thing Abbas will not stand for is open challenge to his rule in the West Bank. In the past decade, he and his security forces have worked hard to prevent Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from extending their control from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. On direct instructions from Abbas, the PA security forces have arrested hundreds of Hamas and PIJ members and supporters since 2007, when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip.
SOME PALESTINIANS argue that Abbas’s decision to renounce all agreements and understandings with Israel and the US was intended to put pressure on Netanyahu and the administration of President Donald Trump not to carry out the plan to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank. So was Abbas’s decision to renew “reconciliation” talks with Hamas, they said.
In July, two months after his decision to cut all relations with Israel and the US, Abbas tasked Jibril Rajoub, secretary-general of the Fatah Central Committee, with the goal of achieving “national unity” with Hamas. Rajoub’s initial efforts to patch up differences between Fatah and Hamas seemed successful.
After several meetings with Hamas leaders in Turkey, Egypt and Qatar, Rajoub announced that the two sides had reached agreement to end their dispute, work together to topple Israeli and American “conspiracies” against the Palestinians, and hold long-overdue presidential and parliamentary elections.
The mounting pressure from home and the result of the US presidential election, however, led Abbas to rethink his strategy. He finally made his move on November 17, when Sheikh announced that “the relationship with Israel will return to how it was,” following “official written and oral letters we received” confirming Israel’s commitment to past agreements.
The victory of Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the presidential election provided Abbas with a golden opportunity to climb down from the tree. His nemesis, Trump, has been defeated, and won’t be around, at least for the next four years. Abbas, according to one of his aides, boasted that he was right to remain “patient and steadfast in the face of the most hostile US administration.”
“President Abbas decided that this was the right moment to make an important move and renew our relations with Israel,” said the aide. “With Trump on his way out and the annexation plan no longer on the table, President Abbas felt confident enough to announce the decision to restore our ties with Israel and accept the tax funds.”
Abbas, who has announced his readiness to work with a Biden administration, was also seeking to send a message to the president-elect that, contrary to the claims of Netanyahu and the Trump administration, the Palestinians are flexible and willing to make concessions so as to pave the way for the resumption of the peace process with Israel.
“The ball is now in the court of the new US administration,” said Abdel Karim Juma’ah, a former official with the PA Foreign Ministry. “It’s true that Abbas’s decision to renew relations with Israel came as a result of internal pressure due to the economic crisis and security instability. But there’s no ignoring the fact that Abbas is also looking forward to working with a more friendly US administration. Abbas is telling the Americans that he prefers to work with Israel and the US rather than make peace with Hamas. He is now expecting some kind of a reward for his gestures.”