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Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas Need Each Other to Survive
Israel needs the Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation to avoid another intifada—and without security ties to Israel and the funding that comes with it, the PA could cease to exist.
RAMALLAH, West Bank—It was dubbed a case of mistaken identity. Just after midnight on June 11, Palestinian security forces observed a suspicious vehicle idling in the dark outside one of their bases. They approached to investigate, and undercover Israeli troops opened fire on a Preventive Security base, injuring a Palestinian officer. What happened next is disputed, with the Israeli army alleging that its troops made an honest mistake in misidentifying the Palestinian security forces as suspects, and an exchange of fire ensued.
But the Palestinians are calling foul. Ibrahim Ramadan, the governor of Nablus, rejected the Israeli army’s claim that Palestinians shot at the Israeli troops and said they “surprisingly and unjustifiably” surrounded and launched a two-hour siege on the security forces’ compound. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh quickly condemned the incident as well, calling it a dangerous escalation that threatened Palestinian sovereignty.
“This is not the first—and it won’t not be the last—time that the occupation army harms our people, but the dangerous part in this incident is that a Palestinian military headquarters was targeted,” the governor said, according to the Palestinian Authority’s official Wafa news site. Ramadan characterized the incident as part of Israel’s strategy to foment chaos and instability in the West Bank, giving it a pretext to unilaterally annex territory or implement other policies aligned with the White House’s nascent peace plan.
The incident was significant for two reasons: It occurred in Area A of the West Bank, which is—in theory at least—under full Palestinian administrative and security control. It also marked the first time in many years that Palestinian forces, which regularly liaise with their Israeli counterparts on security matters, have come under Israeli fire. Under the Oslo II Accord, the 1995 agreement between the PLO and Israel, the West Bank was divided into three separate administrative zones: Area A, where most Palestinian urban centers lie and where the Palestinian Authority (PA) is nominally responsible for security and civil administration; Area B, the outlying hinterlands of built-up Palestinian cities and villages where the PA administers civil law, but Israel reserves security functions; and Area C, where the vast amount of Israeli settlements lie and Israel oversees security and civil matters.
Area C contains the majority of land in the West Bank (about 60 percent) connecting Israeli settlements while cutting off Palestinian villages and cities from each other. The United States has always acted as a coordinator and liaison between the Israeli and Palestinian security forces, playing the honest broker, so to speak.
In reality, Area A (the area of the West Bank allotted full Palestinian autonomy under the Oslo Accords) has never been administered exclusively by the PA. Israeli troops regularly raid West Bank villages and cities there, terrorizing, detaining, and killing Palestinians. PA security forces have taken pains to avoid their Israeli counterparts in public, often retreating to their barracks when notified that IDF soldiers are operating in the vicinity. This dynamic is not lost upon the Palestinian public, which takes a dim view of security coordination in general, likening it to a necessary evil at best and treason at worst.
“The Israelis storm into Ramallah whenever they please, and you don’t see one member of the Palestinian security forces in the vicinity,” said Tami Rafidi, a human rights activist who ran in the 2012 local elections with a Fatah list and is active in the party’s student council elections. “But when there’s a protest [by Palestinian dissenters], you see dozens of them. That’s why Israel can’t allow for the Palestinian security to be weakened. Because our security forces are making their job easier.”
The Palestinian security forces have received training and equipment from the United States since they were officially established in the West Bank and Gaza in the 1990s after the Oslo Accords were signed. The Palestinian security sector was decimated by Israel during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005, including the widespread destruction of its infrastructure and equipment.
With the end of the Second Intifada in 2005, Mahmoud Abbas assumed the presidency of the PA. Only two years before, he had been an unelected prime minister ushered into office with U.S. support because he was more palatable to the Americans than Yasser Arafat. Abbas immediately implemented a massive security sector reform effort to prove to Israel and Western donors he was trustworthy.
Under the mission of the United States security coordinator, also instituted in 2005, the Palestinian forces were furnished with U.S. trainers, but they also facilitated coordination with Israeli military authorities and even private security at Israeli settlements in the West Bank. During U.S. Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton’s term as security coordinator from 2005 to 2010, he was responsible for forging the Palestinian National Security Forces. Dayton oversaw the recruitment and training of thousands of Palestinian troops deployed across the West Bank, mainly to pursue Hamas militants and criminal gangs.
Recruits were vetted by the CIA and Israeli and Jordanian security services before being trained in Jordan. “What we have created are ‘new men,’” Dayton told a crowd at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 2009. However, the Palestinian security forces that Dayton’s oversaw are also largely blamed by rights groups for carrying out domestic repression against peaceful demonstrators protesting Abbas’s policies in the West Bank, even among Fatah’s rank and file; they may have reduced crime, but they were also accused of running a police state.
The PA depends on the good graces of the Israeli military to carry out its job on the most basic level—administering civil and security matters for its constituents under highly restrained circumstances. Israel controls the West Bank’s borders, devastating its economy, while repeatedly invading supposedly sovereign areas under the guise of security operations. This lopsided equation led the PLO to leverage any pressure it could muster to get the Israeli government to adhere to its prior agreements and international law. These included diplomatic efforts like seeking United Nations recognition, joining international organizations, filing charges at The Hague, and even threatening to dismantle itself altogether, thus making Israel solely responsible for the approximately 5 million people who live under its military occupation, per the Geneva Conventions.
The situation, arguably, may be different now. In recent months, the PA has been refusing to accept transfers of taxes Israel collects on its behalf. This started after Israel began deducting an amount it says the PA gives to families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, those killed by Israeli forces and settlers, and Palestinians killed or imprisoned after attacks on Israelis. PA civil servants have been getting paid half of their salaries since February, after the United States cut all aid to Palestinians to pressure them into agreeing to U.S. President Donald Trump’s yet-to-be-disclosed “deal of the century.”
Fears of unrest due to the political stalemate and the poor economic situation are not lost on the PA. Indeed, the same security officers who liaise with the Israelis can sometimes turn against them. According to a study by Neri Zilber and Ghaith al-Omari, at the height of a wave of stabbings and car-ramming attacks perpetrated by Palestinians, there were 13 attacks against Israelis carried out by Palestinian security forces.
In early June, in an interview with the New York Times, Prime Minister Shtayyeh warned that if Israel continues to withhold taxes it collects on the PA’s behalf, it could mean laying off members of the Palestinian security services. Should that happen, Shtayyeh continued, it will be a “very hot summer. At every level.”
The PA badly needs the tax revenues it has been spurning, and it will no doubt have to begin thinning the ranks of its security forces soon. With fewer troops on the street to keep the lid on domestic unrest, things could spiral out of control. Right now, it seems the PA and Israel are waiting to see who will blink first.
In the meantime, the Trump administration seems to have deviated from the path taken by its predecessors, which sought to ensure that security coordination between the two sides endured. Earlier this year, another funding cut targeted Palestinian security services when the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA) came into effect. The Palestinians stopped accepting assistance from Washington for fear of prosecution, because under the new law, any government that accepts funds from Washington may be subject to U.S. counterterrorism laws. The Palestinian security sector previously received some $60 million annually from the U.S. government.
“I think that the effort by the Trump administration to pass through ATCA was miscalculated overreach,” said Tareq Baconi, an International Crisis Group analyst. “They probably thought they could force the PA into further concessions or score political points domestically, but it backfired given the PA’s willingness to forgo the entire amount, precisely because it knows that the U.S. will never let security coordination drop.”
Trump, fixated on domestic politics and a commitment to helping Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu get reelected in September, seems to be writing Netanyahu a blank check, implicitly trusting him to not counter U.S. interests in the region. But things are more complicated than they seem. Due to domestic politics and an unlimited amount of support from the White House, Netanyahu may very well make moves that have far-reaching consequences in the region, such as annexing parts of the West Bank—decisions opposed even by his own military and intelligence advisors.
The only program to escape the Trump administration’s slash-and-burn approach to Palestinian aid has been the security coordination. Indeed, it seems in an effort to play hardball with the Palestinians, the U.S. Congress overstepped and made giving the PA any aid whatsoever a federal crime. This puts Israel in the very awkward position of having to lobby Congress to restore aid to the Palestinians, at least for security purposes.
The results of this new role were on display when 10 armored vehicles were allowed to be transferred to the Palestinian security forces in May, after being delayed by Israel for months. The armored vehicles, used by elite units, are to be deployed in civil disturbances, which Israel is worried it will see in the coming months due to the PA’s funding crisis, ironically spurred by Washington’s funding cuts.
“Even the Israeli military establishment is against the funding cuts, because they know it’s destabilizing—because when people become desperate there are security implications,” said Khaled Elgindy, a former advisor and peace negotiator for the Palestinians. “But to survive politically, [Trump is] willing to go to great lengths—even defying his security establishment—to score points, and putting pressure on Palestinians is an easy way to do so,” he added. “It’s reckless, because he’s undercutting his own national interests.”.
This isn’t the first time the PA has threatened Israel with suspending security coordination, but the Palestinian leadership has always stopped short of dismantling its substantial internal security apparatus. Israel no doubt fears chaos in the West Bank, unless it can spin it to its advantage, perhaps by using it as a justification to annex substantial parts of Area C— now a popular campaign promise in Israeli politics. It’s not clear if these threats are credible or just empty rhetoric. “It’s a little bit of both,” Elgindy said. “The reality is the PA has used it as a threat in the past to leverage with Israel, but this time you have a real financial crisis.”
“They’ve lost American funding. The situation is very desperate—the PA has been forced to cut half of [public servants’] salaries. I don’t think it’s totally an idle threat,” he added.
Ending security coordination was always the PA’s last ultimatum, and it endured even the most egregious events. When Ziad Abu Ein, a Palestinian cabinet minister, died of a heart attack in 2014 after being assaulted by an Israeli soldier, the PA continued to cooperate with Israel on security issues. The event, and many others that involved the deaths of Palestinians due to the actions of Israeli forces, proved how central security coordination is to the PA. Abbas called liaising with Israeli forces on security matters sacred and nonnegotiable.
In 2015, the Palestinian Central Council—the PLO’s second-highest executive body—called for ending security cooperation with Israel. The recommendation was never carried out. Since 1993, the Palestinian security apparatus has grown in size and increased its clout. Today, the PA spends more on security than on education, health, and agriculture combined. At least before the United States cut aid to the PA, the security sector received roughly a third of all foreign aid given to Palestinians.
In a recent poll, 65 percent of Palestinians said they wanted the PA to do away with its security coordination, while 78 percent said that they didn’t believe the PA would ever undertake such a step. They may be right; doing so would render it superfluous. “The authority’s sole purpose now is to administer Palestinian populations under Israel’s occupation, through pacifying economic and social policies and security repression,” Baconi, of the International Crisis Group, argued.
Indeed, the Palestinian leadership knows very well that shifting their goal from independent statehood to a shared binational state is the only way to truly pressure Israel’s government. But such an effort would threaten their fiefdom and various economic interests, which are intertwined with the Israeli economy. “I think ending security coordination is the very last thing that Abbas wants to do,” Elgindy said. “I think he will make other cuts elsewhere, because security is important for his regime’s survival. He will do anything he can to avoid getting to that place, but he might not be able to stop it.”