analysisIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Can Israel and the PA continue to cooperate?

When 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas leaves the political scene, the “Palestinian Authority” will enter a new phase. Abbas’s legacy to the Palestinians is the destruction of the P.A. as a unified entity.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ramallah, May 25, 2021. Credit: Flash90.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ramallah, May 25, 2021. Credit: Flash90.
Lt. Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch
Lt. Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch is the director of the Initiative for Palestinian Authority Accountability and Reform in the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs; a senior legal analyst for Human Rights Voices; and a member of the Israel Defense and Security Forum.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is 87 years old. When he leaves the political scene, will Israel be able to continue supporting the Palestinian Authority, or even influence who stands at its head?

Speaking in a closed session of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in Israel’s Knesset, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to answer the question affirmatively, saying, “We are preparing for the day after Abu Mazen. We need the Palestinian Authority. We can’t let it collapse. We don’t want it to collapse, either. We are ready to help it financially. We have an interest in the P.A. continuing to work. Where it manages to operate, it does the work for us, and we have no interest in it falling.”

Israel’s ability to maintain the P.A. depends significantly on the identity of Abbas’s successor, and Jerusalem’s ability to influence who that will be.

To assess Israel’s ability to influence the next head of the P.A., it is necessary to provide critical background information.

Absence of P.A. democracy

Created pursuant to the Oslo Accords—a generic name given to a series of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from 1993 through 1995—the P.A. was meant to be the political vehicle for the realization of democratic, autonomous Palestinian rule. In reality, the P.A. was rarely genuinely democratic.

The Oslo Accords, and thereafter Palestinian law, prescribed that general elections for the two central P.A. positions—the P.A. chairman and the P.A. Legislative Council (the P.A. parliament)—would be held regularly. In practice, however, elections for these positions have only been held twice in 30 years. The first elections for chairman and parliament were held simultaneously in 1996 as part of the P.A.’s inaugural process. The second election for the position of P.A. chairman was held in 2005, following the death of Yasser Arafat. The second elections for the P.A. parliament were held in January 2006. Since then, no elections have been held.

In late 2020, when the United States and the European Union finally recognized the lack of Palestinian democracy and demanded that the Palestinian leadership “renew its legitimacy,” Abbas temporarily acquiesced. Following the international community’s call, Abbas set elections for the P.A. parliament in May 2021, which were meant to be followed by elections for P.A. chairman in July 2021. However, when Abbas realized that his Fatah party had, in fact, splintered into several different branches—each claiming to be the authentic Fatah party—and that the elections would result in a landslide victory for Hamas, he decided to postpone the elections indefinitely.

While Abbas’s decision flouted the desire of the international community and the Palestinian people, since then, neither the United States nor the European Union have taken any actual steps to ensure the renewal of the democratic process.

Throughout his reign as chairman, Mahmoud Abbas steered the Fatah-controlled P.A., enjoying the benefits of having once won an election, on the one hand, and the willful blindness of the rest of the world, including the United States, the European Union and Israel, regarding the fact that he had turned the P.A. into a totalitarian regime on the other. He also enjoyed the international prestige of being considered the sole, or at least foremost, Palestinian representative.

While the absence of Palestinian democracy is not ideal for the Palestinians, it undoubtedly gives Israel more flexibility and potential influence on the next P.A. leader. However, the absence of any democratic process is just one piece of the puzzle.

The chasm between Hamas and Fatah

Despite being geographically separated, the Oslo Accords invented the fiction that the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria are “one territorial unit,” meant to be governed by one unified Palestinian Authority.

Initially, the P.A. did function as one unit that simultaneously governed the areas transferred to it both in the Gaza Strip and in Judea and Samaria. However, this has not been the case for almost 17 years, since 2007—i.e., most of the P.A.’s existence.

As noted above, in 2006, the P.A. held general elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which is the P.A. parliament for all intents and purposes. In anticipation of the elections, Abbas, who had replaced Arafat as P.A. chairman, did all he could to stack the cards in his favor. He changed the voting system and enlarged the PLC from 88 to 132 members, in breach of the Oslo Accords. He also managed to secure a $50 million donation from the United States to the P.A. and an additional $2.3 million in support for the elections, which many observers allege was designed to bolster the image of Abbas and his Fatah party. Going into the elections, favorable polls also bolstered Fatah, which predicted a secure Fatah majority.

Alongside the preparations for the P.A. elections, in the summer of 2005, just months prior to the elections, Israel had fully implemented its “disengagement plan” from the Gaza Strip, pulling out all its troops and forcibly expelling the Israeli civilians who had lived there since the 1970s. To Abbas’s dismay, Israel’s disengagement and the scenes of destruction of what used to be Israeli communities there were quickly claimed as a success for Hamas.

In an act of regrettable folly, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bowed to Palestinian and international pressure and allowed Hamas, an internationally-designated terror organization, to participate in the elections. The result for the P.A., Abbas, and his Fatah party was catastrophic.

Running under the “Change and Reform” banner, Hamas broke the decade-long Fatah hegemony. After beating Fatah in almost every electoral district, at the end of the day, Hamas won the elections by a landslide, with 74 of the 132 PLC seats.

The Hamas win caused Abbas a huge dilemma. On the one hand, the Palestinian people had spoken and chosen their democratically-elected leaders. Conversely, the chosen leaders were members of an internationally-designated terror organization. Israel, the United States, the European Union and others refused to cooperate with, and more importantly, refused to continue funding, the elected P.A. government.

Despite initially tolerating the Hamas-formed government, in early 2007, following a succession of events, Abbas deposed it and replaced it with a non-affiliated, so-called technocrat government.

Rejecting Abbas’s illegal coup, Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007. While senior, privileged Fatah representatives, such as Mohammad Dahlan, managed to save themselves, other less fortunate Fatah representatives in Gaza were killed by Hamas, some being thrown from the top of buildings.

Following the Hamas takeover, the technocratic government established by Abbas in Ramallah was quickly replaced with a government filled with Abbas’s Fatah party members—a situation that has continued to this day.

Effectively, in 2007, the P.A., at least as envisaged by the Oslo Accords, ceased to exist, and was replaced with a despotic “Hamastan” in the Gaza Strip and a despotic “Fatahland” in the areas of Judea and Samaria transferred to the control of the P.A. in 1994-1997.

In Fatahland, Abbas has controlled all the executive and legislative functions of what all the various actors have continued to erroneously call “the Palestinian Authority.” Abbas craftily used the U.S.-supported P.A. security coordination with Israel to fortify his rule, ensuring that Hamas never gained a stronghold. When he feared the existing P.A. courts would not do his bidding, he simply created new ones.

In Hamastan, Hamas holds similar powers, passing “legislation” and performing all governance functions, including controlling the border crossings and collecting taxes.

Abbas’s multiple hats

In parallel to his position as P.A. chairman and head of Fatah, Abbas is also head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—Israel’s co-signatory to the Oslo Accords. While the PLO is theoretically an umbrella organization for many different Palestinian factions, including internationally designated terror organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in practice, it is dominated by Fatah.

After the creation of the P.A., for many observers, the continued role of the PLO was unclear. For Arafat and Abbas, however, the PLO remained the sole source of Palestinian leadership, while the P.A. was merely a form of internal governance.

Over the last few years, this reality has become even more pronounced. Since mid-2018, notwithstanding the intentionally deceitful move of calling and then indefinitely postponing the 2021 elections, Abbas has adopted a series of decisions to ensure that Fatah hegemony over the P.A. continues even after his death. These decisions included, inter alia, dissolving the PA parliament and merging the P.A. governmental institutions with those of the PLO.

Which Palestinian leaders see themselves as successors to Abbas?

Abbas’s Fatah party has dominated the P.A. since it was created. While this reality was initially a function of elections, as noted above, for more than a decade, Fatah has despotically ruled the P.A. Accordingly, the senior leaders of Fatah all see themselves as potential successors of Abbas at the head of Fatah and, consequently, of the P.A.

In the last internal elections held by Fatah in 2016, the pecking order set Marwan Barghouti in first place, followed by 2) Jibril Rajoub, 3) Muhammad Shtayyeh, 4) Hussein al-Sheikh, 5) Mahmoud al-Aloul, and 6) Tawfiq Tirawi.

Having come in second and hoping that Israel will not be willing to grant a special presidential pardon to terrorist murderer Barghouti, Rajoub (70) sees himself as Abbas’s natural successor.

Despite only coming in third, Mohammad Shtayyeh (65) would most likely want to capitalize on the fact that he has now filled the position of P.A. prime minister for over four years and undoubtedly sees himself as a potential replacement for Abbas.

While he placed only fifth in the internal elections, al-Aloul (73) would point to the fact that in early 2017, Abbas appointed him as the deputy chairman of Fatah, a position he has filled since then.

Hussein al-Sheikh (63) would stake his claim to succeed Abbas on the fact that in May 2022, Abbas appointed him to be the Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee, in addition to his ministerial position as the head of P.A. Civil Affairs. Moreover, as Jerusalem Center Middle East specialist Yoni Ben Menachem recently noted, the Fatah movement’s Revolutionary Council has set Dec. 17, 2023, as the date for the movement’s eighth conference in Ramallah. In that conference, al-Sheikh, backed by the powerful head of Palestinian intelligence, Majed Faraj, intends to pave his way to Fatah’s leadership, removing some of his rivals from leadership positions within the movement.

Mohammed Dahlan (61) also sees himself as a potential successor to Abbas. Dahlan, who once headed the Preventive Security Forces in Gaza and served as the P.A. National Security Adviser, fled the P.A. after a conflict with Abbas. Dahlan was later indicted, convicted and sentenced to three years in prison and a $16 million fine, all in absentia. Since fleeing, Dahlan has resided in the United Arab Emirates. For his candidacy to be successful, it would require the interim P.A. leadership, one of his direct rivals, to grant him clemency.

Who would Palestinians like to see replace Abbas?

If the Palestinian people are asked who they want to succeed Abbas, the answer is clear. According to a survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR):

  • If Palestinians were asked to choose between Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas or Marwan Barghouti of Fatah, a convicted murderer currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison, Barghouti would win 60% of the votes and Haniyeh 37%.
  • If the race were between Ismail Haniyeh and current P.A. Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, Haniyeh would receive 62% while Shtayyeh would receive only 33%.
  • When given a list of candidates to choose from, 34% expressed support for Barghouti; 17% support Haniyeh; 6% Dahlan; 5% support Hamas politburo head Khaled Mashaal; 3% support Yahya al-Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza; 3% support Shtayyeh; and 3% support al-Sheikh.

Who would the Palestinians elect to the P.A. parliament?

If elections for the P.A. parliament were held today, according to the PCPSR survey, Hamas would repeat its 2006 electoral victory. While Fatah would have a slight majority of the votes (36%) compared to Hamas (34%), the result assumes that only one united Fatah list would run. Since, as seen in 2021, this is not necessarily the case, Hamas would most likely receive the most significant number of seats, while Fatah’s share would be divided between the different groups claiming to be the “original Fatah.”

Why is Netanyahu confident he can influence the Palestinians’ choice?

Given the absence of any Palestinian democratic process, Netanyahu apparently believes he can influence the choice of the next P.A. leader, for several reasons.

The central reasoning behind any of the following moves would be that the Oslo Accords, from which the P.A. and its leader draw their basic legitimacy, set out clearly the manner in which the P.A. chairman is elected. For the last decade, Israel has ignored the absence of Palestinian democracy and the breach of the Accords, but it need not continue on that path of folly.

To influence the identity of the next P.A. leader, Israel could declare that it expects strict adherence to the provisions of the Accords. Several measures could support this demand.

Israel holds the financial future of the P.A. in its hands

As part of the Oslo Accords, Israel agreed to waive billions of shekels of tax income in favor of the P.A. As part of the agreement, Israel collects four main categories of taxes and transfers them to the P.A. Palestinians pay two of the taxes—import taxes and excise duties—for goods and fuel imported from abroad. The two other taxes—VAT and income tax—are paid by Palestinians for goods and services purchased from Israel or for working in Israel or in Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria.

Over the years, the tax income has grown substantially. According to budget performance reports published by the P.A., for 2017 through 2022, the taxes accounted for between 65.9% and 68.8% of all P.A. revenues.

In 2022, according to budget performance reports released by the P.A., the taxes collected by Israel and transferred to the P.A. accounted for 68% of the total expenditure by P.A. institutions.

In other words, Israel’s government holds the financial future of the P.A. in its hands. If the Israeli government does not recognize the leader who claims to stand at the head of the P.A., it could simply refuse to transfer the tax income, and the P.A. would not be able to survive.

Netanyahu is well aware of the power he holds over the P.A. Even though he knows that the money Israel transfers is used by the P.A. to incite terror and the murder of Jews, to fund the PLO/P.A.’s terror-rewarding “pay-for-slay” policy, to fund the P.A.’s international lawfare against Israel in the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, and a host of other P.A. malfeasances, he has consistently balked at implementing decisions, policies and legislation that might potentially negatively affect the P.A.

While considering Israel’s reluctance to use its financial leverage, any potential candidate to replace Abbas who is not chosen in the manner prescribed by the Oslo Accords would need to gain Israel’s consent to continue receiving the critical tax income.

It should be noted that the collection by Israel and transfer of taxes to the P.A. is not done in a vacuum. Instead, it is governed by Israeli law that periodically implemented the Oslo Accords. The term “Palestinian Authority” has a specified meaning in those laws. If it were found that the established body no longer exists, Israel would have to change its laws to cater to the new reality and continue transferring the tax income.

The mobility and privileges granted to the P.A. chairman

Alongside the financial considerations, Israel and the potential replacement for Abbas would also have to weigh mobility factors.

A person who claims to head the P.A. is naturally required to travel between the different parts of Fatahland and certainly internationally outside of Judea and Samaria.

While the P.A. is relatively autonomous, the Palestinian leader needs Israel’s cooperation to travel around.

Within Judea and Samaria, travel between the areas that the P.A. theoretically governs requires passage through Area C, which, according to the Oslo Accords, is under the sole jurisdiction of Israel. While Palestinians can enter and travel around this area in regular circumstances without any obstacles, the P.A. leader must be accompanied by armed guards.

Similarly, since Israel controls the external borders and airspace of Judea and Samaria, for the P.A. leader to travel abroad and maintain the façade and privileges of being the P.A. leader, Israel would have to recognize that person’s legitimacy.

The unique travel privileges granted to the chairman, his family and his bodyguards are stipulated in Annex I of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which is the most dominant of the Oslo Accords.

If the person claiming to head the P.A. does not receive Israel’s recognition, Israel could prevent that person from enjoying the privilege the Oslo Accords granted to the P.A. chairman.

While there are certainly other considerations, without money and without the status and privileges Israel grants to the P.A. leader, Abbas’s potential replacement would find it impossible, in the long term, to function on both an institutional and personal level.

Can Israel maintain the P.A.?

Netanyahu has stated that Israel is preparing for the “day after Abu Mazen” and that Israel aims to maintain the P.A.

Since it is evident to any objective observer that no single, unified Palestinian Authority, as envisaged by the Oslo Accords, actually exists today, after Abbas leaves the political scene, Israel, according to the prime minister, will strive to maintain the pretense of the existence of that body. It is unclear, however, whether Israel will strive to preserve the despotic rule of Fatah over Fatahland while simultaneously maintaining the internal Palestinian rift with Hamastan.

The advantage of maintaining the pretense is that, irrespective of the identity of the despotic leader chosen, the Fatahland leadership will continue to govern and provide for the needs of the Palestinian population, however poorly, thereby relieving Israel of that burden.

While the task of the new Fatahland leader would not be simple, it comes with a potentially multi-billion-dollar dowry, the perks of traveling the globe as a national leader and the ability to enrich those close to him.

The disadvantage of maintaining the pretense is that to survive internally, the new Fatahland leader must prove his fighting credentials, and that he is not just another Israeli stooge. Will that mean the new leadership of Fatahland will continue the pugnacious practices and policies of Abbas, incite terror and the murder of Jews, squander billions to reward terrorists, attack Israel in international forums and continue undermining Israel’s legitimacy?

When 87-year-old Abbas leaves the political scene, the “Palestinian Authority” will enter a new phase. Abbas’s legacy to the Palestinians is the destruction of the P.A. as a unified entity. Instead of fighting terror, Abbas embraced the internationally-designated terror organization Hamas and insisted that the terrorists be allowed to participate in the P.A. elections. Abbas similarly squandered billions inciting terror and murder and incentivizing and rewarding terror and terrorists. Abbas also spearheaded the use of lawfare to attack and delegitimize Israel. The P.A. under Abbas was little more than a glorified terror organization.

Nonetheless, the Israeli security establishment, which has sunk deep into the Oslo paradigm, has managed to convince Israel’s government that maintaining the semblance and pretense of the existence of the “Palestinian Authority”—i.e., the presence of Fatahland—is in Israel’s strategic interest.

Will Israel’s government continue its willful blindness to the wrongdoings of the Palestinians to maintain this pretense? Will Israel continue funding all the disastrous policies of the Fatahland leader and grant him all the privileges and perks of being the Palestinian leader, even if the Palestinians had no say in his selection?

Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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