The default policy option: Chaos

Anarchy in the Palestinian territories poses a security problem for Israel, but as a temporary situation is not the worst-case scenario—and may have advantages.

Members of the Fatah movement's Balata Brigade take part in a parade in the Balata refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus, Dec. 24, 2022. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Members of the Fatah movement's Balata Brigade take part in a parade in the Balata refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus, Dec. 24, 2022. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Efraim Inbar

One of the challenges facing Israel’s new government is the potential for the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, bringing about a deterioration in the security situation.

Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), the P.A.’s leader, seems unable to rule effectively, i.e., to maintain a modicum of law and order in the territories under his control. He lost Gaza to Hamas in 2007, and we now see the “Lebanonization” of the P.A. taking place in the West Bank: the emergence of a myriad of armed groups, with some displaying only limited loyalty to the P.A., and others, especially the Islamists, trying to undermine the current regime.

In addition, a deteriorating economic situation, resulting from years of declining international aid, unsustainable public patronage and questionable fiscal policies have pushed the Palestinian government and banking sector to the brink of insolvency, further eroding the P.A.’s authority and legitimacy.

The P.A. also increasingly fails to provide basic governance, leading to a widespread Palestinian perception of the ruling elite as corrupt and authoritarian.

We may well see the breakdown of the P.A. into various sectors, effectively ruled by new local barons who maintain a monopoly over arms in their fiefdoms. The P.A. may become a “failed state.” A violent succession struggle following the death of Abu Mazen only enhances the probability of such a scenario.

The premise of the “two-state solution” (2SS) paradigm was that given the opportunity, the Palestinians would be able to establish a state and prevent terrorism against Israel, similar to Egypt and Jordan. Yitzhak Rabin hoped for a Palestinian state that “without the Supreme Court and B’Tzelem” on its back could govern effectively, while Israelis were led to believe that the Palestinians could establish a Palestinian entity that would have good neighborly relations with Israel. That did not work very well.

Yasser Arafat and his successor, Abu Mazen, were unwilling to confront the armed opposition groups (Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad) that continued to engage in terror against Israel. They refrained from engaging in a civil war to secure the monopoly over the use of force, the required feature of a modern state. This avoidance led to the emergence of two Palestinian entities (Gaza and the West Bank) and the potential for further fragmentation.

Moreover, the P.A. does not show any inclination to compromise on its maximalist goals and live peacefully next to Israel. It still demands the division of Jerusalem, the return of numerous Palestinian refugees to Israel and a withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Its education system and media continue propagating tremendous hostility toward Jews while blaming Israel for all Palestinian problems. Security cooperation with Israel primarily concerns apprehending armed activists of the Islamist opposition, as the P.A. often turns a blind eye to terrorist activities against Israel.

A desire on Israel’s part to prevent the anarchy of a failed state—the primary motivation to save and strengthen the P.A.—is understandable. Nevertheless, Israel should remember its limited capability for political engineering beyond its borders. Moreover, that the Palestinians can change and behave reasonably, or that a vigorous P.A. benefits Israel, are questionable.

In short, Abu Mazen and his coterie are part of the problem, not of the solution. Jerusalem should thus think twice about promoting efforts to preserve P.A. rule and prevent a descent into chaos while rejecting the reoccupation of the West Bank.

Chaos is indeed not a pleasant prospect. Chaos in the territories poses a security problem to Israel, but one that will be mitigated if the various Palestinian militias vying for influence compete with each other. A succession struggle following the death of Abu Mazen could divert attention from fighting hated Israel and prevent coordination in the low-intensity conflict against Israel. In addition, anarchy in the territories may give Israel a freer hand in dealing with the terrorists.

Furthermore, chaos might ultimately yield positive results. The collapse of the P.A. will weaken the Palestinian national movement, which heretofore has been a source of endemic violence and is a recipe for regional instability in the future. The P.A. has supported the policies of radical regimes such as Iran. It is also thoroughly anti-American. Moreover, it threatens at least two “status quo” states, Israel and Jordan.

The collapse of the P.A. and the failure of the Palestinian national movement to establish a decent state might reduce the appetite of the Palestinians for an independent entity. The disintegration of the P.A. would be a public relations debacle for the Palestinians and reduce their appeal among naïve Europeans and Israel-bashers worldwide. The dysfunctional character of the Palestinian political entity would become apparent to all and elicit a more robust understanding of Israeli fears over the destructive implications of Palestinian nationalism.

Moreover, disorder in the territories could be the incentive for fresh thinking on the Palestinian issue, both on the part of the Palestinians and elsewhere. More chaos in the Palestinian-ruled territories might open up new opportunities to stabilize the situation. The disappointment of the P.A. falling apart could bring a more realistic and conciliatory leadership to the forefront.

The internecine violence of the previous intifada led to the acceptance of the 1991 Madrid Conference formula—an indication of growing political realism among the Palestinians. The failed P.A. experiment could be an additional factor to a more politically mature body politic. For example, the Palestinians in Gaza may ask the Egyptians to return, while in the West Bank, the rule of the Hashemites may look increasingly favorable compared with that of the P.A.

Despite the terror group’s growing popularity, it is misleading to portray Hamas as the only alternative to the P.A. leadership. Indeed, Hamas rule in Gaza has not been a successful experiment; and the allure of Islamic radicalism is fading.

Chaos, as a temporary situation, is not necessarily the worst-case scenario. Israel should not shudder at the prospect of the P.A. taking a fall.

Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

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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