Israel and the PA: When no choice is the only choice

Like so many other Arab states and political entities, the PA can also be considered a failing enterprise. Case in point: Nizar Banat's assassination.

 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech remotely to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2021. (photo credit: JOHN ANGELILLO/POOL/REUTERS)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech remotely to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2021.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has a once-in-a-year moment of self-gratifying glory: his speech to the UN General Assembly. This is the time when the old Palestinian leader vents out all the old hatreds toward Israel and usually gets at least as much, if not more, applause than say the Israeli prime minister does, whether Benjamin Netanyahu or Naftali Bennett. 

The spectacle makes him very happy. Here is his opportunity to combine Palestinian propaganda, which is basically a lesson in self-victimization with settling scores with the old Israeli nemesis, but then he speaks and goes, and nothing of any substance happens afterward. The yearly show of pride this time is no exception. 

On October 29, Abbas issued a threat to Israel according to which, without any meaningful progress in negotiations between Israel and the PA, he will present a case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, an institution which has time and again shown its bias against Israel. 

“To ensure our initiative is not open-ended, we must state that Israel, the occupying power, has one year to withdraw from the Palestinian territory it occupied in 1967, including east Jerusalem,” he said. “And we are ready to work throughout this year on the delineation of borders and solving all final status issues under the auspices of the international Quartet and in accordance with UN resolutions.”

The speech hardly aroused any interest in Israel, and very little in the Palestinian-controlled territories themselves, the Arab Middle East, and, in fact, the rest of the world. So what happened this year?

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN Headquarters in New York [File] (credit: REUTERS)Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN Headquarters in New York [File] (credit: REUTERS)

Here is the main answer: Like so many other Arab states and political entities, the PA can also be considered a failing enterprise. Abbas himself is nearing the end of his career through his poor health. He personally did good to his family, as was and is the case with so many other Arab rulers.

According to Muhammad Rashid, Yasser Arafat’s “money man,’’ the Abbas family net worth is $100 million, and this is a conservative estimate. But while taking care of the family fortune, Abbas did not do the same with regard to his PA. This is a governing body which is constantly on the brink of bankruptcy, whose only chance to evade it is through generous international handouts, including Israeli direct and indirect assistance. In fact, the PA is the largest recipient in the world of foreign aid per capita. Abbas did not prepare any successor. His administration, not just him personally, is riddled with chronic and institutional corruption, and the state of human rights there is appalling. You will never know it if you read the reports of B’Tselem or listen to the Democratic Squad, as well as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in Congress. 

The truth however is that the torture dungeons in Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron and other towns have witnessed atrocities. Recently, the case of Nizar Banat, a resident of Dura [in the Hebron region, the city of the old Jewish Adorayyim] and strong critic of Abbas, became a well-known international story. 

Banat was murdered, and according to many reports, which cannot be verified by me, under the direct orders of Abbas. This time, the murder aroused street protest in various Judea and Samaria /West Bank cities, but hardly any voice was raised in Washington by the Biden administration which raised hell and rightly so about the horrific murder of the Saudi journalist Khashougi by the Saudi regime led by the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. 

The Banat assassination happened at a time when there were multiple signs, that the actual authority of the PA is in steep decline. Something is happening in the Palestinian population of the PA-controlled territories. This is, in fact, a very significant development, and one which is in line with what happens in neighboring countries. This is the reality that the lack of legitimacy of the ruling regime leads to the reemergence of localism and tribalism. Many will say that this is an old phenomenon that has always been there, and I personally adhere to this opinion, but what is happening now simply is so dramatic and obvious, that it should be considered as something new. The streets of many cities, mainly Hebron, Nablus, Jenin, and others, have turned into areas under the control of clannish well-armed militias, who march there, exhibit proudly their weapons, and on occasions, are engaged in fighting and killing each other. Old tensions and conflicts are resurfacing, and the PA seems powerless or unwilling to intervene. We get here a picture of what can and most likely will happen the day after. After Abbas that is, when there is no successor in sight who can be the next legitimate leader. 

Abbas is the last of the historic group of leaders who were Arafat colleagues, and his initial legitimacy mostly derived from this fact. The decline of his legitimacy has so much to do with the failings of the regime he created as described [just superficially] above. 

Here is however the secret of Abbas’s survivability. This is his weakness. He is the devil that we all know. We mean, the Israelis, the Arab countries, The US, the EEC. What will be after he is anyone’s guess or more accurately fears. So all the actors cited here to support his regime, though no one really has any illusions about what type of a regime it is. And that includes Israel. Defense Minister Gantz met Abbas recently and reassured him that the Jordanians and Egyptians support him, the EEC, according to reports intends to invest a few billion dollars in the PA in order to prop it up, and the Biden administration wants to reopen the American Consulate in east Jerusalem as a show of its support. Why they all do that is very clear-the fear of Hamas is here, and Abbas himself recognized it when canceled indefinitely the elections to the PA out of fear of a Hamas victory. The latest public opinion poll gives the Abbas administration only 19 % support. Hamas came, by far, on top. 

Let us be realistic here. Nothing that Hamas has done in Gaza in the last 15 years can lead reasonable people to believe that they will act differently if, God forbid, are in control of the PA. So, here is the catch – the PA is not the better alternative, it is the least bad one. There is still no ineffective cooperation between the security apparatus of the PA and Israel, and we should acknowledge the advantages we have from this state of affairs. But then the question remains: if all that was described until now is correct, and after Abbas, and it can happen any day, the chaos will reign supreme miles away from Israel’s population centers, What can Israel do?. First, what it cannot and should not do-a a unilateral act of annexation. Meir Ben-Shabbat, the national security advisor of Netanyahu, admitted what we all knew-Israel did not intend to annex when Netanyahu talked about that because then there would not have been the Abraham Accords. Something else Israel should not do: intervene militarily in internal Palestinian fighting when it will erupt after Abbas, only to prevent it from spilling over to Israel itself and that can be done. So what could and should be done?

I return here to an idea which I developed in recent years and one which has gained momentum exactly because of the Abraham Accords. It is to have Egypt and Jordan as part of the solution. 

Egypt with regard to Gaza, and Jordan with regard to the Palestinian-controlled areas West of the river. Instead of pumping billions to the PA, give it to the Egyptians and Jordanians who need them, but do it on condition that it would be strictly monitored and enforced mainly by the US, and that the money will be mostly invested in the territories. These territories will continue to enjoy self-rule, but one which will be watched by Egypt in the South and Jordan in the east, and assisted by Israel, with the overall American observation. Israel will have to make concessions, such as lifting gradually but relatively quickly what has left of the siege on Gaza, but also in Judea and Samaria/West Bank, including in Area C. Egypt and Jordan’s interest in joining a scheme of this kind is the fact that this may be their only chance to enjoy a significant amount of foreign aid, which they both are in desperate need of. When I refer to international foreign aid, including from the still oil-rich countries of the Gulf, I refer to tens of billions of US dollars over a period of three to five years. The interest of the Palestinians themselves is their own welfare and security, but judging by past experience, not much is to be expected here. Imagine, however, that instead of the monthly Qatari subsidy to Hamas in Gaza, they will be promised a few billion with the inevitable caveat that there will be no more rockets fired on Israel during this time. They are not expected, of course, to renounce their basic ideology, but they can be tempted by the benefits of a temporary ceasefire or Hudna [a temporary ceasefire for a period of a few years], which will have to be strictly and effectively enforced.

Are there any chances for all this? To be honest, very little, but then what are the choices confronting Israel? What are the other solutions which were in place until now and proved to be working? So, my dear readers, at least there is something on offer here. It may very well be a fantasy, something which belongs to the political la-la land, but even a forlorn hope is something when the current situation is what it is.

The author is a Middle East expert and adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina.