A dim future for the Palestinian National Authority: short on funds, criticized for how it cooperates with Israel and experiencing a major leadership crisis.
In the halls of international diplomacy, a funeral march is being played on a loop for the Oslo Accords. Signalling their demise is the very institution that the Accords created, which is now experiencing its own fully blown identity crisis.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) was founded as a result of the historic agreement in 1993, signed by Yasser Arafat and the then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Almost 25 years later, it has been declared dead by Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas.
As for the cause of death, most fingers in Ramallah point to Israel and its aggressive settlement policy in the Palestinian Territories as well as to the US, which in recognising Jerusalem as the sole capital of the Jewish state abandoned the role of mediator that it had proudly played since the 1990s. But while moving away from the two-state solution within the 1967 borders makes the Oslo Accords (based on that very premise) less and less feasible, the PA now faces a future that is by no means rosy.
The most intricate problem concerns the dual identity of the PA itself. According to the “Interim Accord on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip”, better known as Oslo II, the Palestinian Authority is configured as an organ of self-government required to coordinate with Israel on a number of issues: first and foremost, security.
This coordination has been questioned over the years, both by Palestinian citizens (according to a poll conducted by the daily al-Quds, 94% oppose it) and equally by the leaders of Hamas, the Islamist paramilitary organisation that controls Gaza.
When a wave of protest exploded in Jerusalem in July 2017, following the installation of metal detectors at the entrance to Temple Mount, the PA suspended security cooperation, only to resume contacts with the Israelis a few weeks later. This episode illustrated, however, that such an approach is no longer an option for the long term. “Breaking with Israel on the issue of security”, explained Palestinian journalist and activist Daoud Kuttab, “would endanger the Ramallah government that has been tolerated by Tel Aviv solely because it has ensured cooperation”.
The impossibility of burning bridges with its awkward neighbour is not merely an ideological question. It also resonates with the new narrative that Fatah, the party of Abbas and governing power in the West Bank, has begun to convey.
“In order to avoid losing authority amongst the population, the president’s party is changing the way it speaks to Palestinians”, said Belal Shobaki, head of the Political Science Department at the University of Hebron. “Fatah is adopting a new rhetoric, closer to that of Hamas, and focussing more on the themes of struggle and resistance”.
A deeply conflicted duality is consuming the Palestinian Authority: on one hand the indivisible link with Israel, on the other the increasingly intense push of internal centrifugal forces. Consequently, faith in Abbas has been inexorably eroded, along with popular disillusionment with the State apparatus controlled by those loyal to him.
According to the independent think tank Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, 70% of Palestinians want Abbas to resign, 77% consider the institutions to be corrupt. Furthermore, were Abbas to run for election against Marwan Barghouti and Ismail Haniyeh (the senior political leader of Hamas), Barghouti, the Fatah representative detained since 2002 in Israel and nicknamed the “Palestinian Mandela” in the Arab world, would win.
Another previously high profile figure in the party, Mohammed Dahlan, is backed by powerful external actors but enjoys considerably less popular support (especially in the West Bank). Dahlan is detested by Abbas and exiled in the United Arab Emirates, but he has been laying the groundwork for a return to Palestine. There was an outcry in Ramallah last February over a meeting held in Cairo between a delegation of Dahlan loyalists and the leaders of Hamas, who in recent months have seen the peace agreement with Fatah get bogged down (tensions culminated in a crossfire of accusations concerning the failed assassination attempt on the PA prime minister Rami Hamdallah in March) and are seeking an ally in Dahlan, a Gaza native.
Dahlan was an active participant in the implementation of the Oslo Accords and head of security in Gaza under Arafat. Outsiders view him as one of the few figures capable of bringing Gaza and Ramallah closer together. A group of Sunni countries consisting of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt is urging him on, with the aim of boosting their influence over the PA in the medium to long term and, at the same time, guiding Hamas away from the Shia orbit and overtures from Iran and Hezbollah in opposing Israel.
The 83-year-old Abbas, who is in a precarious state of health, has already thrown his weight behind loyalist Mahmoud al-Aloul as his successor, appointing him vice president of the party. Palestinian citizens and regional powers, however, are pushing for a more drastic change. The long-term consequences of a power shift within the PA, in addition to having significant geopolitical repercussions, could have an effect on UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East). UNRWA currently provides core services to more than five million Palestinian refugees. But if the US actually proceeds with with the funding cuts proposed at the beginning of 2018 (from 125 to 60 million dollars), the agency risks running out of funds, at least unless other donors step in to cover the shortfall. Arab countries currently contribute 3.5% of the agency’s budget compared with 25% from the US.
A growing political influence could bring with it greater generosity in terms of economic aid. As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, both of these factors would fall within the framework of a new negotiating position.
For Riyadh, the Oslo Accords belong to the past. As reported by Eugenio Dacrema, an analyst for ISPI (Italian Institute for International Political Studies), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has been cooking up a plan with the US that (in addition to recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital) includes the constitution of a Palestinian entity with limited sovereignty (without, for example, its own air space) over a territory that is smaller than the area delineated by the 1967 borders as well as the elimination of the right of return for the millions of Palestinian refugees.
Whether or not this will be the basis for future negotiations, what is certain is that compared with the conditions in 1993, any agreement would be a worse deal for the Palestinians. Accepting or changing it would more closely mirror the current complicated reality.
In the plans of the powers around the negotiating table, the magic circle of Abbas loyalists looks set to remain, but not the PA, which perhaps will see some sort of reduction in the gap between the context in which it operates and the situation that it hopes for. The PA risks having to contend with popular discontent even greater than that of the current scenario, not to mention a new and dangerous identity crises.
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