The Palestinian Authority (PA) is in a parlous state. Its standing with the Palestinian population has sunk to new low levels, while it has lost authority to more extremist groups in large parts of the West Bank. Voices from within Israel’s defense and security establishment have been warning for months that if the PA were to collapse, the resulting power vacuum in the West Bank would almost certainly be filled by extremist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) that would present Israel with much greater problems than it faces at the moment.
It was doubtless this consideration that led prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet on July 9 to agree that Israel would strive to shore up the crumbling PA. The decision, which did not sit easily with the views of his far-right coalition partners – finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, and national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir – stated: “…Israel will act to prevent the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, while demanding that it cease its anti-Israel activity in the international legal-diplomatic arena, the incitement in its media and education system, the payments to the families of terrorists and murderers, and the illegal construction in Area C” (that it, the portion of the West Bank under full Israeli control).
The reference to anti-Israel activity in the international legal-diplomatic arena concerns the PA’s request to the International Court of Justice earlier this year to rule on the legality of the Israeli presence in the West Bank. Israel’s punitive measures in response included withholding $40 million in tax revenue, and diverting it to Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism.
The PA is a child of the first Oslo Accord. In September 1993 Yasser Arafat, then head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), agreed to a new division of the West Bank into three areas designated A, B and C. Area A would be wholly, and Area B partially, administered by a new body, to be called the Palestinian Authority under the aegis of the PLO. This would be a temporary five year arrangement, giving time for a final status agreement to be concluded between Israel and the Palestinians.
Those five years have stretched to thirty, all efforts to reach a final settlement have failed, and the interim Oslo arrangement has ossified into an uneasy semi-permanent situation which satisfies neither Israel nor the Palestinians. Meanwhile the PA has seen its popularity shrink amid allegations of graft, incompetence and widely hated security cooperation arrangements with Israel.
It is not widely known that within the Palestinian territories an organization exists wholly engaged in fighting corruption. Founded in 2000, the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity publishes an annual report about the state of integrity and corruption in the territories under PA administration. Its report on the situation in 2022 appeared recently, and it pulled no punches. Among the cases of suspected corruption reported to the organization in 2022 were: forgery, abuse of power, nepotism, embezzlement, bribery, non-disclosure of conflicts of interest, complacency in performing public duties, occupational exploitation, illicit gain, abuse of trust and money laundering.
The report castigates both the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip for restricting human rights and abuse of power. The PA president is specifically accused of exceeding his authority in making high-level appointments to supporters of the ruling power, while he and other senior officials are charged with ignoring the requirement to disclose conflicts of interest and the rules on receiving gifts.
The full facts concerning rampant corruption within the PA may not be in the public domain, but the Palestinian population is well aware of the general atmosphere of sleaze that surrounds the upper echelons of the PA, from the president down.
The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research is a well-regarded organization that conducts regular polls of Palestinian opinion. The results of its survey in the second quarter of 2023 showed a decline in the popularity of Fatah and President Mahmoud Abbas. For some years the polls have recorded a demand for Abbas to resign. In this survey it was greater than ever, reaching 80% of those polled.
The PA’s standing is also worsening. The collaboration between the PA and the Israeli security forces in combatting terrorist activity is unpopular with the Palestinian people, and half those polled said that the collapse or dissolution of the PA would serve the Palestinian interest. No less than 63% believe that the PA’s continued existence is in Israel’s interest, an increase by six percentage points in three months.
Which may explain why Netanyahu’s offer of support apparently left the PA cold. The organization had to maintain its street cred. On July 10 its prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, rejected the Israeli decision to extend funds to the PA and ease travel and security measures. The strings attached, which called on the PA to end its anti-Israel activities were, he maintained, unacceptable.
“The money withheld by Israel,” said Shtayyeh, “is our money, and Israel must transfer it to us without extortion or conditions.”
A report on July 11 by the well-respected news agency The Media Line quotes Dr. Omer Zanany, director of the Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking Program at Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. He maintains that Netanyahu’s gesture initiative “comes from immense pressure from the defense establishment, which wants to strengthen the PA in order to take the pressure and the burden off itself.”
Should the PA collapse, he explains, Israel does not want Hamas or the PIJ to take over the West Bank, but neither does it want to step in and rule over the 3 million Palestinians who live there. So Israeli support for the PA was “a tactical move that is supposed to relieve the pressure.”
Israel has also been under pressure from the US to make concessions to the Palestinians. On July 9 President Joe Biden in an interview with CNN described Netanyahu’s government as Israel’s “most extreme” ever, adding that his coalition partners were “part of the problem.”
Authorizing an increase in settlement construction is almost certainly Netanyahu’s way of placating his coalition partners for propping up the PA in the West Bank. Yet on July 17, in his telephone conversation with Biden which included his long-awaited invitation to the White House, he reportedly told the US president that he would limit construction in West Bank settlements until the end of the year.
The PA and its president have lost the support of the Palestinian people. How long can support from Israel, which they must seem to reject, sustain them?