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What next for the Palestinian Authority?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets Palestinian Authority executives in Ramallah, West Bank on 25 July 2017 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

The decision by US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a major turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as in the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. Trump’s decision has finally blown away one of the greatest hoaxes of international politics, namely that the US is an “honest broker” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The global consensus against the unilateral US shift on Jerusalem’s status, as demonstrated by a vote at the United Nations General Assembly, indicates that there is sufficient political and diplomatic capital to resist US and Israeli plans.

This global consensus stands in stark contrast to the muted opposition of leading Arab states, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The silence of these states speaks to the erosion of the Palestinian cause as the leading issue of the Arab world.

Whilst the prospect for effective opposition at the pan-Islamic level is a little more optimistic, as demonstrated by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s declaration of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, in the short-term at least this does little to arrest Israel’s momentum.

Participants pose for a photo during the extraordinary summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey on 13 December 2017 [Arif Hüdaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency]

Needless to say, the entity that is most affected by Trump’s decision is the Palestinian Authority (PA), which now has to fully come to terms with the demise of the “two-state” solution as a gateway to Palestinian statehood.      

Absent a radical rethink of its role and status, the PA at best risks becoming an irrelevance and at worst a colonial-style administrative arm of the Israeli state.

An existential crisis?  

The significance of the US shift on Jerusalem has led to some prominent Muslim thinkers questioning the very existence of the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, a leading thinker has called for the dissolution of the PA so that the conflict can be restored to its “basic and clear expression: the people versus the occupation”.

This is a bold argument which appears to take sufficient stock of foundational issues, notably the deep contradictions bedevilling the PA, not least its dependence on American financial assistance.

Moreover, the argument is also sound on strategic grounds in so far as the PA grew out of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which are now as good as dead. By dissolving itself the PA effectively amplifies the occupation burden on Israel and presents it with a stark choice: either grant Palestinians full rights as citizens or become an “Apartheid” state.

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It is noteworthy that even some Israeli analysts view the demise of the two-state solution as a “pyrrhic” victory in so far as it runs the risk of undermining the Jewish character of the Israeli state and sets it on the path to becoming a “Muslim-majority” state.

But if dissolution is sound on foundational and strategic grounds, it is less appealing in terms of prevailing politics as well as broader socio-economic issues. For a start, the two leading forces in Palestinian politics, notably Fatah and Hamas, signed a reconciliation agreement in October, thus ending a decade-long feud.

It is hoped that this agreement can, in due course, produce better governance as well as more effective leadership. PA dissolution removes this opportunity as governance and leadership are necessarily predicated on formalised and well-established structures.

Read: 70% of Palestinians want Abbas to resign immediately

More broadly, in socio-economic terms, since its foundation in 1994 the PA has introduced a measure of qualified stability to the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank. This period has seen the tentative rise of a Palestinian middle class in the West Bank, which like middle classes everywhere yearns for stability and perpetual prosperity.

Although the economy fostered by the PA is essentially “captive” to Israel, nonetheless its continuation is essential to the lives of many ordinary Palestinians. PA dissolution would throw countless lives into chaos and subject Palestinians to even more suffering.

The way forward

Needless to say, the PA is not going to dissolve itself. Leaving aside the issue of corruption which afflicts the PA at every level, the authority has nevertheless set down deep roots in the West Bank which would render dissolution intolerable to key communities. Moreover, most Palestinian leaders and activists would likely view dissolution as a backward step in terms of the quest for statehood.

Short of dissolution, the PA and the Palestinian political community more broadly, can take radical steps to respond to both the US and an increasingly confident and belligerent Israel. The biggest issue is the leadership deficit of the PA and the urgent need to pave the way for the emergence of a younger and more dynamic leadership.

Read: Abbas keeps silent regarding Israel attack on Gaza

Power-sharing is another big issue which needs to be addressed urgently. The Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement in October allowed the PA to restore its authority over the Gaza Strip. This should be followed through with a commitment to diversify the governing structures of the PA in the West Bank with a view to fully reflecting the balance of power in Palestinian politics.

This essentially means involving Hamas in key structures, including negotiations with foreign powers. This will of course provoke fierce opposition from Israel and the US, with the latter likely threatening to withhold all aid to the Palestinians.

#OccupiedPalestine

A more confrontational attitude to the US – and one that fully recognises the US role as an indispensable Israeli ally – is arguably the best way the PA can regain moral and ideological legitimacy.

This approach runs the risk of escalating the conflict, but at least the conflict will not unfold entirely on Israel’s terms, as it is currently. A unified Palestinian resistance – symbolised by greater cohesion between the PA and the streets – has the potential to force Israeli society – if not the Israeli state – to finally open an honest debate on Israel’s stark strategic choices.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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