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Negotiation? Done it. Violence? Check. Spoken openly of a one-state solution? Already part of the playbook. Declared statehood? A few times. UN recognition? In the bag. In the last almost decade and a half, the Palestinians have tried almost everything to force the Israelis to be more forthcoming on the issues that divide them—settlements, refugees, Jerusalem—all to no avail. For a combination of political reasons and security concerns the Israeli leaders have resisted the pressure, arguing either that the Palestinians cannot deliver or that Israel will not respond to threats. Indeed, the Israelis have been ruthlessly effective in demonstrating to the Palestinians that these tactics do not work through violence, settlements, and economic pressure. The result has been a crippled Palestinian leadership and bred despair among both West Bankers and Gazans.
What then should the Palestinians do? There are dire warnings that a third intifada—which observers have been predicting for years—is imminent. The death of a young Palestinian activist, Arafat Jaradat, at Israel’s Megiddo prison over the weekend led to clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces and settler violence heightened these concerns, but the fact of the matter is that the situation in the West Bank has been deteriorating for months. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should do what he can to put a lid on the tension, but not because the Israeli government has made “an unequivocal demand to calm the territory” along with the promise of $100 million in tax revenue that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians. Rather, there is a potentially more effective way for the Palestinian leadership to deal with their present circumstances: Abbas should declare the Palestinian Authority (PA) closed for business. The benefits of dissolving the PA are twofold. First, the Palestinians might actually create a more favorable political environment for negotiations. Second, if it does not force Israel’s hand, the end of the Palestinian Authority will finally bring Oslo (remember that?) and the fiction of Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank to an end.
There is little doubt that twenty years ago when Yair Hirschfeld, Ron Pundik, and Ahmed Qurei dreamed up the Oslo Accords, which was a negotiating process, they hoped the Palestinian Authority would be the basis for the state that was to emerge in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by May 1999. Yet Oslo made Palestinian statehood conditional upon Israeli consent and while Yasser Arafat proved to be a wholly irresponsible and inappropriate partner for peace and Abbas is perennially weak, Israel has done much to thwart what the Palestinian Authority was meant to do. First and foremost for the Israelis, the PA was a way of outsourcing the security functions of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By the time the first intifada wound down in the early 1990s, Israelis had grown weary of policing the occupied territories and Israel’s leaders were worried that putting down the uprising had sapped the IDF’s ability to perform its core functions, protecting the country from attack. To paraphrase the late Yitzhak Rabin, “the PA would be there so we wouldn’t have to be.” As a result, an elaborate scheme of security cooperation was built into the follow-on to the original Oslo Accords.
The arrangements worked well for a while, but as time went on and the immediate promise and optimism of Oslo faded, the Palestinians were increasingly unwilling to do the Israelis’ bidding on security. The first crack came in September 1996, pitting Palestinian paramilitary police against IDF soldiers. Despite efforts to re-establish security cooperation, the damage was done and whatever trust that had once existed between Israeli and Palestinian security forces was badly frayed. When the second intifada erupted in late 2000, Israel demanded that the PA “do more” to establish security even as the IDF systematically undermined the Palestinians’ ability to establish order. Of course, by that time Arafat had come to believe that he had more to gain from the violence than from upholding Oslo, which from the perspective of the vast majority of Palestinians had been an abject failure. To be sure, there was a semblance of Palestinian self-government, but in the seven years between the time the Israelis and Palestinians initialed Oslo and the second intifada, the number of Israeli settlers grew considerably, leading Palestinians to conclude that the endless and inconclusive negotiations had been nothing more than a ruse.
The Palestinian Authority has limped along since the end of the second intifada and Arafat’s death in 2004. Its functions are limited, Abbas is an afterthought in the region, and the prospects for a Palestinian-Israeli breakthrough are dimmer than ever. Declaring an end to the PA will either jolt the Israelis out of their complacency or lay bare the actual situation in the West Bank in which Israel has tightened its grip on the land that was supposed to be Palestine. By proclaiming the end of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians would be saying to the Israelis, “If you want to occupy the West Bank, it is yours, but do not expect us to administer it for you.” The logic of dissolving the Palestinian Authority is so clear that one wonders why Abbas has not taken this step. After all, the PA is now little more than a vehicle to employ hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who draw their salaries and livelihoods from it and the international donors on which it depends. The idea that they could once again be primarily responsible for the Palestinian population should be enough to scare the Israelis into negotiation.
In the end, however, Abbas and his deputies are not going to put the Palestinian Authority out of business and hand the keys of the Muqata’a over to IDF commanders. Despite its decrepit state, the PA serves several important functions for them. Whatever shreds of power, international prestige, and riches Palestinian leaders in the West Bank still enjoy, they flow from the Palestinian Authority. It is a classic case of politicians doing something in their parochial interest that leads to a suboptimal outcome for the people they represent. For the rest of us, it just means that the fiction of Palestinian sovereignty and the policy distortions that come with it will continue.