Can Israel Survive Without the Palestinian Authority?
Why the threat to dissolve the government in the West Bank could put the region on the edge of anarchy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s obsessive focus on Iran ignores a greater and much more immediate threat to the security of Israel: the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank’s potential transformation into an ungoverned space that could become a haven for terrorism. The current state of relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians is grim and threatens an end to the decades-long negotiations process started by the Oslo Accords.
Both sides have taken steps in recent weeks that could usher in a new era of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On March 5, two days after Netanyahu’s speech before the U.S. Congress on nuclear negotiations with Iran, the PLO’s Central Council held a formal meeting at which it voted to recommend to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that Palestinian National Security Forces (PNSF) suspend security cooperation with the Israeli military. This would be the first step in dismantling the Palestinian Authority, which has governed large parts of the West Bank for the past 20 years, and handing responsibility back to the Israeli military. Meanwhile, Netanyahu cast doubt this weekend on his tentative support for a two-state solution: His Likud party released a statement saying that the prime minister’s 2009 speech, in which he declared support for a Palestinian state, was “simply not relevant” anymore — an assertion quickly walked back by the prime minister’s office.
How did we come to this latest crisis? In January 2015, after years of threatening to accede to the Rome Statute and join the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Palestinians finally followed through on their threat. Once the accession process is complete and the Palestinians formally become members on April 1, the court will be able to consider cases against Israeli military officials for actions in Gaza and the West Bank. While the procedures in the ICC are prolonged and cumbersome, the Palestinians hope to use the threat of prosecution to increase pressure on Israel, isolate it internationally, and force the Israelis to make greater concessions to the Palestinians. This step is likely to be counterproductive — simply increasing tensions with the Israelis and causing a tit-for-tat escalation of the conflict that will do little to bring the Palestinians the state they so desperately want.
The Israeli government retaliated by withholding tax revenues that it collects on behalf of the Palestinians and transfers to the Palestinian Authority. As a result, the Palestinian Authority has been unable to pay the full salaries of its employees and many of its bills for basic services. If the withholdings continue, the Palestinian Authority could begin to teeter on the edge of bankruptcy, leading to civil unrest — focused not on Israel but on the Palestinian Authority itself for its inability to govern effectively. After that point, it would be a slippery slope to a total collapse of governance and potential anarchy.
Many pragmatic Israelis, particularly those in the security establishment, recognize that Israel is playing with fire. However, this is a political decision, and with Israeli elections set for March 17, the policy is unlikely to change. The question is whether Israel can show some flexibility after the election season, or whether the coalition formation process that follows the election will lead to a political calculation to continue to financially strangle the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinians argue that if Israel is going to choke them financially, they might as well hand responsibility for West Bank security back to Israel. While this gambit could be a bluff, meant simply to force Israel to hand over the tax revenues, the Palestinian leadership has a tendency to threaten and bluff for the purpose of leverage — until it decides to finally follow through. The threat to dissolve the Palestinian Authority is no different from the previous threat to join the ICC: It is a useful tool that the Palestinians have been deploying for some time, but it may one day soon become reality.
Abbas has not yet indicated how he plans to proceed. On the one hand, he is a man deeply committed to nonviolence who would probably prefer to avoid the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank’s descent into anarchy. On the other hand, he is increasingly concerned that his legacy with the Palestinian public will be as a leader who simply perpetuated a permanent Israeli occupation. He is also a weak leader who finds it difficult to push back against intense political pressure from the rest of the Palestinian leadership, which is pressing for a withdrawal of security cooperation.
No one truly understands what would happen if the Palestinians took this fateful step, but of one thing we can be sure — it would have a profound and destabilizing effect on the entire region. Netanyahu said in his congressional address that Israel will stand firm against the threat of militant Islam, and his re-election campaign has tried to drive home the message that his center-left opponents are weak against the threat from the Islamic State. But the worst-case scenario is that Netanyahu’s tactics lead to the very Islamist takeover he has pledged to combat. A Palestinian decision to dismantle the Palestinian Authority would leave a security vacuum in the West Bank that could be filled by extremists and present an opportunity for the Islamic State and its allies to achieve inroads into the area.
Israel’s policy toward the Palestinian Authority is already fueling Palestinian discontent and weakening the motivation and effectiveness of the PNSF, a force whose general record of effectiveness at combating terrorist threats has been applauded by Israeli officials themselves. The PNSF is also a significant source of employment for Palestinians, providing more than 70,000 jobs in the West Bank and Gaza and making it an important thread in the social fabric of the nascent Palestinian state.
The dissolution of the PNSF would come with real costs for Israelis as well as Palestinians. Thousands of Israel Defense Forces soldiers would likely be deployed in the event of a Palestinian security dissolution, and their long-term presence in former Palestinian Authority-controlled areas would likely cost billions of dollars to Israeli taxpayers. The Palestinian Authority’s 2014 budget was $4.2 billion, roughly half of which was funded by international donors that would not be willing to foot such a bill if the costs were borne by Israel.
For an Israeli public that is increasingly decrying socioeconomic strain at home, the additional cost of a return to a full occupation of the West Bank would be an unwelcome burden to bear. But much more unbearable would be the emotional cost of having young Israelis resume security responsibilities for the entire Palestinian territory. This would be a tragic development for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Ultimately, both sides are acting irrationally and taking steps that will do more harm than good. Netanyahu argues that Israel can never withdraw from the West Bank because doing so would leave a failed state in its wake — but he is now taking steps that may very well bring about that outcome. Abbas argues that he cannot continue to govern his people while Israel holds all of the tools of power — but it is hard to imagine how suspending security cooperation or collapsing the Palestinian Authority would have any benefit for the Palestinian people. We must hope that both sides see reason and step away from the precipice.
Ilan Goldenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.