Save the Palestinian Authority

Israel would face a grim reality the day after the complete collapse of the PA.

arab violence 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
arab violence 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
While the Israeli public, media and decision-makers have understandably been focusing on Lebanon, important events taking place in the Palestinian arena have gone largely unnoticed. Take the session, two weeks ago, of the Palestinian Legislative Council (or parliament) in which Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declared it was time for all Palestinian factions to seriously consider the possibility of dissolving the Palestinian Authority. The idea of dismantling the PA is by no means new to Palestinian politics. Last March, Fatah activists claimed that the IDF operation in Jericho, culminating in the arrest of those responsible for the murder of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi, proved that the PA was no longer relevant. They essentially demanded a return to the pre-Oslo era. These calls were rightly understood as another Fatah attempt to circumvent the results of the elections. However, a few days later Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal declared that if the PA does not serve Palestinian interests, it may as well "go to hell." Dissolving the PA was again on the public agenda in the wake of the abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit on June 25. Elements in Hamas's military wing argued that the IDF's retaliatory strikes and its reentry into Gaza proved that Hamas's attempt to instigate change from within the political system had failed. Such failure meant, the argument went, that it was time to dissolve the PA and return exclusively to "armed struggle." Two weeks later, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that due to the severe erosion of his powers he was under immense pressure to officially dissolve the PA. THE MAIN reason such declarations have not been transformed into actual policy is that they are partially generated by partisan interests and internal power struggles within the Palestinian polity. Neither Fatah, Hamas nor Abbas can on their own dissolve the PA. Demolition of the governmental structure of the PA, dilapidated as it may be, requires an institutional action of its governing institutions: the presidency, government and Palestinian Legislative Council. Taking into account the current division of power within the PA its dissolution could only be achieved by a coordinated Hamas-Fatah effort, which would include Abbas's resignation, the dismissal of the government, and dissolution of the PLC. This is why the debate in the parliament last week was a significant landmark. What prompted the discussion was the arrest of Aziz Dweik, speaker of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council. This was the first time that the question of dissolving the PA was brought before an official national institution and considered a viable option by prominent representatives of various political factions. FEW WOULD consider the PA a successful experiment in state-building. Ten years of Fatah rule have been characterized by widespread corruption, while Hamas's electoral victory in January served to accentuate the danger of a PA led by Islamists. However, in the final analysis the question is not whether the PA experiment has been successful, but rather whether Israel could afford the alternative. What reality would Israel face the day after the complete collapse of the PA? I would argue that the dissolution of the PA would deal a heavy blow to moderate Palestinian elements. It would serve as proof that the political and peaceful channel had failed in promoting the Palestinian national cause. Furthermore, the chaos that has prevailed in the PA lately is likely to increase, with no incentive to declare a cease-fire. Upheaval in the Palestinian areas would not make life easier for Israelis. Another probable result of the collapse of the PA would be an international demand upon Israel to take responsibility as the occupier of Gaza and the West Bank. Israel might even be asked to reinstate the civil administration over Palestinian population centers. The only way to avoid such a measure would be through massive international, perhaps Jordanian and Egyptian, involvement. However, Israel would find it hard to find outsiders ready to voluntarily take responsibility for a chaotic and violent area on Israel's behalf - especially given that the dissolution of the PA would be perceived as a direct outcome of Israel's policy toward Hamas. Moreover, our current experience in Lebanon shows that putting together any multi-national presence is no easy task. THE GUIDELINES enunciated by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government in March were based on the understanding that in order for Israel to preserve its Jewish and democratic nature it needs to demarcate borders and end control over the Palestinian population. The dissolution of the PA would actually obstruct any attempt to relinquish control over Palestinian territory and population, whether unilaterally or through an agreement. A Palestinian entity to which Israel can transfer powers and authorities is a prerequisite for sustainable political separation between Israel and the Palestinians. A collapse of the PA would not only reduce the feasibility of a two-state solution, but also undermine the international consensus regarding this principle. The failure of the first attempt to create a reality of two political entities between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean would serve the forces advocating the establishment of a binational state. Since Hamas's victory Israel has worked to erode both its military and political power. However, paralyzing the Hamas government by withholding funds, arresting its political leaders and destroying its institutions has taken a toll on the effective control and stability of the PA itself. Hamas's entry into the PA political system is irreversible. Since it holds the majority of parliament seats, any government that would be established in the PA in the foreseeable future would be either led or supported by Hamas. Abbas has been holding talks with Haniyeh to establish a unity government. If successful, this would presumably bolster the PA. If not, the two men may cooperate to dissolve it. Israel therefore needs to choose between two less than ideal alternatives: to accept Hamas's leadership of the PA, or deal with the consequences of the demise of the Palestinian Authority. The writer is an analyst at the Re'ut Institute for policy planning.