By Linda Gradstein, The Media Line
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas set off a storm in Israel when he reportedly told American negotiators that if the Kerry-brokered talks fail, he could dismantle the Palestinian Authority (PA), and shift responsibility for governing 2.5 million Palestinians to Israel. That would ostensibly mean that Israel would be responsible for all aspects of life in the West Bank from health to education to garbage collection.
As quickly as the threat was unveiled, Palestinian officials seemed to backpedal from the idea that Abbas would turn over the keys to the Muqata’a [the presidential compound in Ramallah] to Israel.
“No Palestinian is speaking of an initiative to dismantle the Palestinian Authority,” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Ariqat told reporters. “But Israel’s actions have annulled all the legal, political, security, economic and operations aspects of the prerogatives of the Palestinian Authority.”
Israeli officials seem to see the idea of dismantling the PA as an empty threat being used to try to force Israeli concessions before the clock runs out on the nine months the parties agreed to allot to Secretary of State John Kerry to try to reach an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement. In the last few weeks, the talks have centered simply on reaching a deal to continue negotiating past the April 29 deadline.
“If they’re threatening, let them threaten. It doesn’t mean we have to panic and go into all of the implications,” an official Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told The Media Line on condition of anonymity. “Someone who threatens to cut off their nose off to spite their face should be thinking about the implications. We’re not going to fall into their trap and play their game.”
The Palestinian Authority was created as part of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and since then has governed the West Bank and the 2.5 million Palestinians who live there. Until 2007, the PA ruled the Gaza Strip as well. But after the first (and only) Palestinian election, the Islamist Hamas movement forcibly took over control of Gaza. Between 1967 — when Israel acquired the West Bank — and 1993, Israel was responsible for daily life in the West Bank, and set up a bureaucracy called the civil administration to handle it.
Israeli analysts say that if Abbas did decide to dissolve the PA, it could throw the West Bank into chaos.
“For Israel it would be a disaster,” Roni Shaked, a Palestinian expert at the Truman Institute at Hebrew University told The Media Line. “It would mean an increase in terrorism because Abbas is the one who is stopping terrorism against Israel.”
Shaked said that it would also strengthen Hamas, which would be seen as the only legitimate Palestinian movement if the PA, controlled by the Fatah faction, opted out.
Under that scenario, Israel would also have to create a new bureaucratic infrastructure in order to pay the salaries of at least 150,000 civil servants such as teachers and policemen who work for the PA in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the months it would take to create the infrastructure, civil servants would not get paid, doubtless fomenting protest and violence.
“I could just imagine a policeman coming home and saying to his wife, ‘Sorry dear, there’s no salary this month,’” the Israeli foreign ministry official said sarcastically. “Do we really expect they would just hand their guns over and go home? It will be armed chaos there.”
Donor nations from the international community would arguably end its support for the Palestinian Authority if it dissolved, meaning Israel would have to find large sums of money to pay the salaries, as well as fund all municipal services the PA currently provides.
In backing away from the threat, Palestinian officials said it was meant mainly to push Israel to reassess its relationship with the PA.
“I think the main idea is that the (Palestinian) Authority cannot continue the way it is now,” Dr. Bassam Al-Salahi, General Secretary of the Palestinian People’s Party and an elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council told The Media Line. “We will stop our commitments toward the Israelis because they stopped their commitments to the Palestinian Authority. So the issue is not exactly to dismantle the Palestinian Authority but to change the commitments to Israel.”
Palestinians have also used the PA as a way to build institutions such as a banking system and a police force to pave the way for a Palestinian state. Dismantling the PA would also mean dismantling those institutions and constitute a major step backwards in the Palestinian quest for an independent state.