A new Israeli policy on the PA

Israel must encourage Palestinian elements that do not promote an extremist narrative or participate in terror.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech at P.A. headquarters in Ramallah, May 5, 2020. Credit: Flash90.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech at P.A. headquarters in Ramallah, May 5, 2020. Credit: Flash90.
Yossi Kuperwasser
IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.

Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinian Authority has waged a campaign against Israel that has repeatedly, systematically and intentionally violated P.A. commitments under the Accords. The principal reason for the P.A.’s behavior is its fealty to the narrative of the Palestinian struggle, which includes the goal of establishing a Palestinian state in the entire land west of the Jordan River.

Another reason is that the Palestinians know Israel prefers to avoid a harsh response to their violations, fearing that such a response would undermine the P.A.’s stability and its security cooperation with Israel.

Israel’s accommodating stance was based for a long time on a combination of willful blindness and a belief that concessions would bolster more pragmatic Palestinian elements. In addition, Israel believed it would soften international criticism. These hopes were disappointed.

In recent years, the Israeli attitude has begun to change, though it is too soon to say whether this change will be substantial.

The P.A. has violated the Oslo Accords from the moment they were signed.

For example, not only does the P.A. do very little to fight Palestinian terror, as the Accords obligate it to do, but it is derelict in other responsibilities. The P.A. does not arrest terrorists or systematically prevent attacks, put terrorists on trial or incarcerate them. Nor, when attacks are thwarted, does the P.A. complete the effort with investigations, interrogations and weapons seizures.

The P.A. supports terror in many ways. In particular, by the huge salaries it pays to terrorists imprisoned in Israel and its monthly grants to the families of terrorists killed due to their activities.

P.A. chief Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly declares that he assigns these payments the highest priority. Such payments to terrorists, guaranteed in advance, are undoubtedly an incentive to terror, and they make the P.A. an active partner in terror attacks. Moreover, many of the terrorists are members of official Palestinian security forces or the Fatah organization.

Palestinian propaganda that rejects Israel’s right to exist (delegitimization), shows Israelis as loathsome creatures (demonization) and encourages violence is widespread in P.A. curricula, Palestinian media, statements by senior P.A. officials and in Palestinian culture generally, with the endorsement of the P.A.

Despite its Oslo obligations to fight incitement, the P.A. takes a blatantly antisemitic line. The emphasis in recent years is on portraying Israel as a cruel apartheid state and undermining the Zionist narrative by transforming it into the distorted and historically fallacious Palestinian narrative.

In this endeavor, the P.A. cooperates with, among others, the BDS movement, which seeks to end Israel’s existence and replace it with a Palestinian state in the entire Land of Israel.

The P.A. also refuses to eschew unilateral activity and international activity in general, as it is required to do under the Oslo Accords. One of the high points in this campaign was the P.A.’s decision to declare itself a state and its success in promoting a U.N. General Assembly resolution that recognized it as an observer state. Based on that resolution, the P.A. joined numerous international organizations, such as UNESCO, and was able to push through anti-Israel resolutions in all of them.

Building in Area C without Israeli authorization is being done even though the Accords state clearly that Israel alone can authorize building in the area. In this endeavor, the P.A. cooperates with the U.N., the European Union and many individual European countries.

The P.A. includes Hamas in elections for P.A. institutions, even though Hamas does not meet the necessary conditions for doing so; first and foremost accepting the Oslo Accords.

In light of all this, why does Israel continue to strengthen the P.A. and its chief Mahmoud Abbas?

The answer lies in Israel’s, and particularly its defense establishment’s, adherence to the status quo. Even if no one loves it, and indeed no one planned it, it is the reality produced by the actions of both sides and international actors. Israel feels there is no incentive to bear the costs of trying to change this status quo.

Indeed, it is not even truly a status quo, since reality keeps changing. Certain developments will probably accelerate the pace of change:

  • The formation of an Israeli government that does not feel bound by the status quo.
  • The contest over control of the P.A. as Abbas leaves the stage.
  • Growing pressure on Hamas to demonstrate its commitment to its jihadist identity.
  • Increasing Palestinian unrest, fueling the recent spike in terror attacks.

In recent years, reflecting fears of an escalation, the Israeli government’s approach has combined fighting terror, deterring Hamas, buttressing the P.A. and improving the Palestinians’ quality of life. Those governments were willing to live with the diplomatic pressure the PA mustered against Israel while seeking to strengthen and expand the Abraham Accords. At present, it is quite clear that the logic behind this approach has failed.

The defense establishment is sorely mistaken in justifying its advocacy of aid to Abbas because he opposes terror. Abbas and the P.A. in fact encourage terror. At present, Abbas regards certain kinds of terror as more costly than beneficial to the Palestinian struggle, but this cost-benefit calculation could change. When that happens, Abbas will probably revert to backing such forms of terror.

Israel assumes that, without Israeli support, the P.A. could collapse at any moment. But the P.A. is not in danger of collapse and continues to function in the civilian sphere. True, once Abbas leaves the scene, chaos could erupt, necessitating a temporary Israeli takeover of P.A. territory. However, it is not clear that Israeli efforts to boost Abbas can avert such a scenario. There is no guarantee of an orderly transition or continued control by Abbas’s putative successors.

Israel’s coordination with the P.A.’s security mechanisms is perceived as contributing to Israel’s security. The defense establishment usually exaggerates the value of this coordination, since the P.A. acts only against the terror operatives that challenge it.

Israel believes that enhancing the Palestinians’ quality of life through the P.A. dampens their inclination to encourage and perpetrate terror. There is no basis to this belief. The Palestinians indeed desire a better quality of life. However, terrorism does not stem from feelings of economic distress but from commitment to the narrative of the Palestinian national movement. The P.A. continues to promote this narrative and unrest among young Palestinians continues despite all efforts to improve living standards.

The international community, including the United States, Egypt, Jordan and, to a certain extent, the Abraham Accords nations, expects Israel to fortify the P.A. This policy, they believe, justifies relegating the Palestinian issue to the margins of the international and Arab agenda, keeps Hamas in check, promotes the Palestinians’ quality of life and builds an infrastructure for the future implementation of the two-state solution.

In recent years, these factors have been combined with the illusory threat of a binational state that would compel Israel to choose between being a Jewish or a democratic state. In fact, Israel will never agree to a binational state under any circumstances.

The P.A. will not disintegrate of its own volition. The Palestinians regard it as the most outstanding achievement of their national struggle and the basic infrastructure for the future Palestinian state, even if they dislike its rampant corruption and are repelled by its leadership. It is also the largest employer of the Palestinians.

This reality is not going to change whether Abbas is strengthened or not. Even if, after his departure, the P.A. collapses into civil war, almost all the Palestinian factions will share the aim of reestablishing it.

Israel, then, faces a dilemma. The more the problematic attributes of the PA and its leader become evident, the harder it is to justify an ongoing relationship with the P.A. One can only hope for a frank discussion on the issue between the political echelon, which does not want escalation but sees the broader picture, and the security services, which are convinced of the need to focus on short-term considerations.

Abbas also confronts a difficult dilemma. He is not prepared to settle for the role that Israel, in his view, accords him as its chief executive of the civil administration in Judea and Samaria. From his standpoint, the mission of the P.A. is to advance Palestinian national objectives in line with the Palestinian narrative, not just to improve the situation in the civil, economic and security spheres.

Hence, Abbas may opt for an escalation, especially if he can pin the blame on the “extremist Israeli government” and thus recruit the international community to his side. His experience, however, has shown him that it is easy to incite but hard to foresee how a conflict will develop. Thus, despite the temptation, he is likely to show caution.

The current Israeli government would probably like to make a far-reaching change in the status quo. But it also recognizes the limits of its power and will refrain from applying Israeli law to the disputed Area C. It appears, however, that it will take some measures that have the potential to inflame passions and rethink the determination to shore up the P.A. at any price.

In contrast to its predecessors, the new government will likely inform Abbas that there is a price to be paid for hewing to the mendacious and antisemitic narrative that he pushes and for continuing to support terror.

The government will continue to fight hard against the terror infrastructure in the P.A. It will probably stick with the previous government’s policy towards Gaza as long as Hamas keeps reining in terrorism. Still, it may show greater resolve towards Hamas if it does engage in terror. On the sensitive issue of the Temple Mount, Netanyahu will probably avoid a fundamental change in the status quo. However, he may find himself challenged by more extreme elements in his government.

In summary, even if the PA as a framework contributes to the ability to live with the ongoing conflict, manage it and prepare the ground for a peace settlement, its policies are deeply problematic. Instead of maintaining the status quo, the Palestinians should be encouraged to change the P.A. so they will eventually accept Israel’s existence as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people. The more the Palestinians can be convinced that their chances of achieving their hardline aspirations are receding, the more a gradual improvement will be possible.

The election of the current Israeli government should help convey this message to the Palestinians. The reduced interest in the Palestinian issue among the international community, which is occupied with other problems, should help as well. The trump card in this context is the effort to add Saudi Arabia to the sphere of normalization.

Elements in the Palestinian population that do not promote an extremist narrative and are not involved in terror should be encouraged to take measures that will improve the Palestinians’ quality of life and deal with security risks to the extent possible. This would be an alternative to making gestures to the P.A.

Israel must apprise its friends of the problems entailed in continuing the status quo. This is all the more important as the Mahmoud Abbas era nears its end. Many of the “day after” scenarios will require Israel to address the issue with special urgency.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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