Over the past three decades, the Palestinian Authority has posed a political and security challenge to the State of Israel. Currently, it seems that the PA, under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, finds itself in its most severe situation since the days of the Second Intifada and on a path of ongoing decline that may end in its collapse. Three reasons illustrate this well.
First, from a security point of view, the PA and its security apparatuses do not control parts of the territory under their responsibility. Meanwhile, local organizations, alongside known terrorist organizations, manage to expand their ranks and terrorist infrastructures for the purpose of launching terrorist attacks against the IDF and Israeli civilians in the West Bank and in Israel.
Second, the legitimacy of the PA under the leadership of Abbas is at a low point in Palestinian public opinion. His continued resistance to terrorism and support for security cooperation is seen as irrelevant, not serving or promoting the Palestinian interest, and therefore illegitimate.
A June 2023 Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll indicates that the majority of the Palestinian public believes that the PA is a burden on the Palestinian people (63% v. 33%), and is dissatisfied with Abu Mazen’s performance (80% v. 17%. Furthermore, a majority of the Palestinian public believes that the PA’s dissolution is in the interest of the Palestinian people (50% v. 46%) and that its survival is in Israel’s interest (63% v. 34%). In addition, the Palestinian public supports the establishment of groups such as Lion’s Den that are not under the control of the PA (71% v. 23%) and opposes the PA’s call for their disarmament (80% v. 16%).
These results illustrate that the Palestinian public spurns the PA and sees it as an Israeli instrument to perpetuate the occupation. In turn, it perceives the armed organizations and the armed struggle – and not the PA and the process of negotiations – as an instrument to continue the struggle against the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Third, while a political process is not on the horizon, the Palestinian public has radicalized its positions and moved away from concepts related to the two-state solution and a political process with Israel (and here, too, a mirror effect can be identified among the Israeli public).
The June PCPSR poll indicates that the majority of the Palestinian public opposes the two-state solution (70% v. 28%) and believes it is not achievable (71% v. 28%). Moreover, 52% of the Palestinian public believes that armed resistance is the preferred course of action to fulfill Palestinian national aspirations, compared to only 21% which asserts that action should be taken through political negotiations. The corollary is that the majority of the Palestinian public supports terrorist attacks inside Israel against civilians (57% v. 38%).
The narrative of armed resistance is also fed by indoctrination and socialization processes led by the PA within the educational curriculum, in the systematic incitement by Palestinian leaders through the media, in mosque sermons, and in payment to security prisoners and the families of terrorists who became “martyrs” and Palestinian national symbols.
Additionally, public criticism of the PA’s inability to protect its citizens from extremist Jewish rioters accelerates the process of its weakening.
The ongoing weakening of the PA and its limited ability to control the escalation on the ground, invite the question as to the degree of influence that a stronger PA could have.
To the security echelon as well as the mainstream of the political echelon under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, recently quoted as saying that Israel’s strategic interest needs a strong functioning PA – Israel has a clear interest in a PA that can govern effectively, meet the needs of the local population, work to eradicate terrorism, deepen security cooperation, and adhere to dialogue and the pursuit of a political settlement.
On the other hand, in the current Israeli right-wing government, there are elements that do not see a functioning and strong PA as a strategic need for Israel.
Hamas is a threat to the PA
Currently, as Hamas, backed by Hezbollah and Iran, challenges the PA and Israel, improves its terrorist capabilities, tightens its grip on the PA territories, and encourages using the Temple Mount as an explosive barrel that foments multi-arena escalation, the question of strengthening the PA becomes more complex and necessarily caught up in Israel’s policy toward Hamas.
That is, any Israeli move to strengthen the PA must begin with a significant weakening of Hamas because the idea that strengthening the PA will in turn lead to the weakening of Hamas, is no longer valid under the existing difficult circumstances. Yet weakening Hamas means damaging its military assets and infrastructure and undermining its dual strategy – keeping calm in the Gaza Strip while encouraging terror and building its terror capacities in the West Bank.
This means a military confrontation against Hamas in the form of extensive activity in the Gaza Strip and against the Hamas leadership abroad, which must be led to feel insecure and pursued.
In conclusion, a strong and functioning PA is in Israel’s interest. However, strengthening the PA cannot comprise free handouts or hollow rhetoric. It must include the weakening of Hamas and the launch of a political process supported by regional architecture and American backing.
Terrorism (including Israeli terrorism) should be fought in every way, with Hamas weakened on a large-scale platform. Yet these operational achievements must not be realized without a broader strategic framework, which includes the political effort to prevent the slide into a one-state reality.
If Israel cannot successfully implement such an effort, it would do well to consider a unilateral move that requires a broad public consensus. Both strategic choices can only be achieved through a government of national unity that will be able to make difficult, effective decisions and implement them successfully.
Prof. Kobi Michael is a senior research fellow at INSS; visiting professor at the International Center for Policing and Security Studies of the University of South Wales, UK; and senior research fellow at Neapolis University in Paphos, Cyprus.
Dr. Ori Wertman is a researcher at INSS and research fellow at the International Center for Policing and Security Studies of the University of South Wales, UK. His recent book (co-authored with Christian Kaunert) is Israel: National Security and Securitization (Springer, 2023).