November 14, 2011 Edition 32 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Ramifications of dissolving the Palestinian Authority
Gaza first  - Yossi Alpher
Internationally and regionally, Palestinian timing would have to be judged as inauspicious.

Simply not an option  - Ghassan Khatib
How do we prevent the consolidation of the status quo and develop the Palestinian Authority into a state?

Both sides would suffer  - Yossi Beilin
The argument is that this is the only real punishment the Palestinians can inflict on Israel.

Dissolving the Palestinian National Authority or considering a new strategic direction  - Sameer Abu Eisheh
The overall path since the establishment of the PNA should be reviewed.

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Gaza first
 Yossi Alpher
About half a year ago, I and several colleagues spent two hours conversing and dining with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. One of the questions we asked him concerned his options in the event the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations failed--or for that matter, if it succeeded but Israel refused to honor it.

"I'm going to answer you in deliberately vague sentences," Abbas replied, with a twinkle in his eye. Of course, most politicians sometimes prefer to offer vague replies to troublesome questions. But few admit it. Abbas proceeded to list a broad spectrum of options for post-UN action, ranging from a third, non-violent intifada to his own resignation. Somewhere in that list was the option of dismantling the Palestinian Authority.

Was Abbas "deliberately vague" because he calculated that this gave him a certain tactical advantage in dealing with Israel, or because he himself did not know what to do? Six months later, my sense is that then, as now, he really doesn't know what to do next.

One of the striking aspects of the current discussion of Palestinian post-UN options is that it remains vague and continues to span a broad spectrum of possibilities. No doubt this is one of the factors that reduces the credibility of Palestinian talk of dismantling the PA: at the time of writing, the PLO is also still pushing two UN options (Security Council and General Assembly), Abbas is negotiating with Hamas to set a date in May for new elections in which he ostensibly does not plan to run, and of course there is still the talk of a new intifada.

Yet, despite the credibility problem--or perhaps precisely because of the evidence of Palestinian indecisiveness--Israel and the international community should take seriously the possibility that the Palestinian leadership will decide, willy-nilly, to dismantle the PA. Sometime in the coming months, the list of contributing factors and circumstances could become overwhelming. It could include the almost certain failure at the Security Council, the perception that General Assembly recognition as an observer state has become a "non-event", and recognition that, after the UNESCO triumph provoked financial disaster for that UN agency, it's pointless to seek membership in additional agencies. In parallel, Abbas will likely fail to move ahead on the reconciliation track with Hamas, whether on an agreed election agenda or on anything else.

Further afield, there is the ongoing chaos of Arab revolutions surrounding us, the total absence of American peace process leadership, and of course the ongoing settlement and Jewish-nationalist agenda of the Netanyahu government. At some point, it might indeed seem logical for Palestinians to judge that, since autonomy had failed to produce a state, it should simply be dismantled and the status quo ante invoked.

A second intriguing aspect of a discussion of dismantling the PA is not how and why it would happen, but how everyone concerned would respond. Significant right-wing pro-settler sectors of the Netanyahu government would probably react the same way to dismantling the PA as they would respond to any step that could be construed to end the Oslo agreement, including UN recognition of a full-fledged Palestinian state: by demanding Israeli annexation of around 50 percent of the West Bank, including the settlement blocs, the Jordan Valley and even many of the isolated mountain-heartland settlements.

Regardless of how much influence Israel's reactionary right would be able to exercise within the government, one thing is certain: virtually all political streams in Israel would seek at any cost to avoid reoccupying the West Bank. This follows the pattern exhibited with the withdrawals from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip: despite the perceived failures of these moves, very few in Israel advocate returning and reoccupying, to the extent that in 2006 Israel preferred a problematic international force in southern Lebanon to reoccupation by the Israel Defense Forces.

Under present international circumstances, with the United States in an election year, the European Union in financial chaos and the Arab world in genuine turmoil, the rest of the world would probably offer little by way of substantive response to the crisis created by a Palestinian move to dismantle the PA. In this sense, Palestinian timing would have to be judged as inauspicious.

Finally, one additional key reaction has to be factored in. Hamas in Gaza, which in any case is enhancing its strategic position on the coattails of the rising Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, would draw strength from the dismantling of the PA. In effect, it would emerge as an independent Palestinian mini-state and the only Palestinian political entity around: the ultimate "Gaza first" strategy.

That's something the PLO leadership in Ramallah should ponder before opting to dissolve the PA.-Published 14/11/2011 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Simply not an option
 Ghassan Khatib
The recent speculation about the future of the Palestinian Authority, including its possible dissolution, arose as a result of discussions in Fateh's Central Committee meeting two weeks ago. These discussions were not about dissolving the Palestinian Authority per se, but about the future of the governing body that has grown into numerous agencies and employs nearly 200,000 people. Fateh's leadership sought to address the fact that the difficulty of transforming this transitional Palestinian Authority into a state has produced an uncomfortable--and even untenable--status quo.

The current status quo, including the parameters of the Palestinian Authority, is a product of unilateral Israeli policies imposing facts on the ground, not an outcome of the Oslo agreement signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. During the mid-1990s, Israel refrained from implementing certain aspects of this agreement, including further redeployments from Palestinian land. In this way, by the turn of the century, Israel had actually reversed certain aspects of the Oslo accords. To give one example, the Oslo agreement called for the creation of a safe passageway between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, joining the divided territories. It is easy to see that this scuttled detail contributed directly to the conditions that exist today, where the Palestinian Authority is restricted in its operations in Gaza.

The sum outcome of these reversals is a functional division whereby Israel keeps for itself full security control over all of the occupied territories, including control over land, land use and natural resources. It has unilaterally left to the Palestinian Authority the job of providing services, despite a great deal of restrictions that make this job in fact impossible. (How does one provide water, when almost no wells are allowed to be drilled? How does one process sewage when permits are not granted for the construction of treatment plants? How does one meet a dire need for more schools when cement is not allowed to enter Gaza except under tight restrictions?)

For many years, Palestinians coped with this uncomfortable reality, hoping that eventually the Palestinian Authority would be allowed to develop through bilateral negotiations into an independent state. Now, however, the Palestinian people and their leadership--one as moderate as they come--have arrived at the conclusion that this approach is not taking us towards statehood, but rather towards the consolidation of the status quo. It is clear as day that Israel intends, through this status quo, to maintain its occupation and ultimately prevent the two-state solution.

The raising of this question--how do we prevent the consolidation of this status quo and develop the Palestinian Authority into a state?--has generated a public discussion. One of the options being discussed is that of dissolving the Palestinian Authority.

In my view, closing the doors of the Palestinian Authority is not an option for the Palestinian leadership. It is not even an option for the Palestinian opposition, not for groups in the PLO like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine that opposed the Oslo agreements, nor for the major opposition faction Hamas. It has taken Palestinians in the occupied territories years to build (and rebuild) the institutions that make up the Palestinian Authority and provide law and order, health, education and other crucial services. To remove these in one fell swoop would hurt Palestinians for generations.

There are other, less damaging paths. The request for statehood at the United Nations, at its heart intended to engage the international community and press the world to play an effective role in finding a way out of this destructive status quo, is one of these. Redefining the Palestinian Authority is another.

Having said that, however, it is also important to say: if Israel is allowed to continue to apply pressure on the Palestinian Authority with impunity, it is quite possible that the Palestinian Authority could simply collapse on its own. Right now, the Palestinian leadership is perceived by its constituency--and even perceived by itself--as being incapable of delivering. The peace process is not moving us towards ending the occupation. The democratization process is being interrupted by ongoing political division. Even the economic situation is problematic due to Israel's restrictions and a continued need for foreign aid.

For all these reasons, the debate among Palestinians regarding how to find a way out of this impasse will continue. We seek to maintain our achievements, including the Palestinian Authority, while changing the status quo that has been created by Israel's illegal actions. An important element in this debate is Israel's increasingly aggressive approach towards the Palestinian Authority and the ongoing expansion of settlements. They are making the current reality simply unsustainable.-Published 14/11/2011 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Both sides would suffer
 Yossi Beilin
The Palestinian Authority was supposed to cease existing on May 4, 1999, the date a final status agreement was to take effect. Of course, that never happened. In the absence of any alternative agreement, the PA could remain in existence until final status is agreed or, indeed, until the end of time (whichever comes first. . .).

This situation is a far cry from what was anticipated when it was decided, in 1993, not to opt for an immediate final status agreement. Instead, we followed the Camp David agreements and the Madrid conference that ratified them and opted for a five-year interim agreement during which a temporary Palestinian entity was to have come into existence. We did not at the time determine what would happen if that entity did not produce a permanent status agreement. But it was obvious then as it is now that the Palestinians would not acquiesce in the temporary becoming permanent, with their authority limited and only 40 percent of the West Bank under their rule. It is also obvious that the government of Israel has no incentive whatsoever to move to permanent status with its well-known demands in terms of territory, the partition of Jerusalem and a symbolic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.

It is against this backdrop that some Palestinians argue that the authors of Oslo deliberately created an agreement designed to allow Israel a long interval for continuing to build settlements and controlling the territory. This is of course ridiculous. Yet it is not surprising that such theories of intrigue are making the rounds after so many long years of frustration.

The idea of dismantling the PA and "returning the keys" of occupation to Israel is not new. It has been broached for several years now by a few Palestinian leaders led by Saeb Erekat. The argument is that this is the only real punishment the Palestinians can inflict on Israel. It would be a perfectly legal step, totally non-violent, and would force Israel to fund the occupation of the entire West Bank and to restore the bureaucratic structure that ruled the territories until 18 years ago. It would also generate greater international pressure on Israel to truly end the occupation and would deny Israel the possibility of arguing that the vast majority of Palestinians live under Palestinian autonomy and not Israeli occupation.

The reason this idea has not been implemented to date is that its immediate effect would be a sharp and possibly mortal blow to the Palestinians themselves. Tens of thousands of PA officials would find themselves abruptly out of work. The donor nations would cease their funding. The Palestinian leadership would lose its special status. And while obviously this would be a highly problematic situation for Israel, which would search long and hard for a response, the price paid by the Palestinians is liable to be even heavier.

Still, today more than ever, the Palestinians are undoubtedly examining the option of dismantling the PA. These days, I hear about this possibility more and more frequently from people who opposed it in the past. Someone who has rejected the option of violence and has failed at the option of diplomacy is liable, in despair, to turn to an option that will hurt Israel even if Palestinians pay a heavy price. All or most of the Palestinian bureaucracy obviously opposes the idea. A proposal recently heard to dismantle the PA but leave its security forces in place was rejected by the latter on the grounds that it would turn them into a recycled Southern Lebanese Army (that collaborated with Israel prior to the May 2000 withdrawal). One way or another, in view of the mood prevailing among the Palestinian leadership, I would not entirely rule out the possibility that it might dismantle the PA.

What would Israel do? Obviously, one possibility is to take back the keys, rebuild the military government and civil administration in the territories, and employ thousands of civilians to run the system--just like in the years between the Six-Day War and the Oslo accords. I find it hard to believe the government of Israel would be prepared to move in this direction in view of the international reaction it would provoke.

A second possibility is to compel the Palestinians to engage in self-rule in a way similar to the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005: withdraw from the West Bank without an agreement to a border considered reasonable by the Netanyahu-Lieberman government. Insofar as this border was delineated some time ago--the fence erected by the Sharon government--I wouldn't be surprised if the current government preferred to withdraw unilaterally to the fence line that annexes eight percent of the West Bank to Israel and does not touch Jerusalem.

That would be as stupid as the withdrawal from Gaza. All the wounds would continue to bleed and no security understandings would exist. But it would be preferable to remaining in the West Bank.

Of course, there's a third option: reaching a comprehensive peace agreement. But when it comes to the current Israeli government, the likelihood of that happening is close to zero.-Published 14/11/2011 ©

Yossi Beilin, a former minister of justice, currently chairs the Geneva initiative and is president of Beilink.

Dissolving the Palestinian National Authority or considering a new strategic direction
 Sameer Abu Eisheh
First, we have to ask ourselves about the role of the Palestinian National Authority. Is the PNA a vehicle for independence and the establishment of a sovereign state, or is it limited to running an autonomous area and, in parallel, relieving the Israelis from the burdens of their occupation?

If the answer is yes, it is a vehicle for independence and the establishment of a sovereign state, then we have to stick with it. The overall path since the establishment of the PNA should be reviewed and we must learn from our experience and our mistakes. We also should ask ourselves, are we on the right path? How much does the PNA deserve to be considered a vehicle for freedom and independence?

The Oslo accords affirmed the Palestinians' right to govern themselves within specific areas of the Palestinian territories through the creation of an interim authority. Palestinian self-rule was slated to last for a period of five years, during which permanent status negotiations were supposed to commence to reach a final agreement.

But, after years of negotiations that did not lead to a solution, and after stating that negotiations should be based on international law and United Nations resolutions, and where the facts on the ground show that the Israelis (who are supported by the US without limits) intend and are doing everything possible to have a long-lasting self-government authority with Palestinian economic dependence and Israeli security arrangements, we have to rethink and reassess our strategy. Do we need to have such an authority? In fact, many have questioned why Palestinians accepted such an authority in such a manner from the start, or why they should continue on now that it is understood what is intended.

For the past few years, a debate has been underway about dissolving or reconstituting the PNA. Three years ago, the Palestinian Strategy Group stated that, after nearly two decades of Palestinian peaceful discourse and negotiations leading to nowhere, Palestinians should regain the initiative and consider strategic options that can lead to the realization of their legitimate aspirations. With the expected failure to secure the needed votes in the UN Security Council for Palestine to become a state at the UN, there are more voices calling for dissolving the PNA.

The facts on the ground, especially the accomplishments in building institutions that aim to serve the Palestinians socially and economically and form the basis for an independent and sovereign state, along with the high costs of dissolving the PNA (where close to 200,000 are employed), raise a serious question about the consequences of dissolving the PNA.

What is needed now from Palestinians, especially after their intent to seek UN recognition against Israeli and US will and their announcement of the failure of the negotiations approach, is to consider and adopt a new strategic option with a clear vision and goals. This strategy should emerge based on collective discussions and a sort of consensus, engaging not only Fateh and Hamas but also other Palestinian factions, independents, intellectuals and strategists.

The new strategy should consider national reconciliation as its first priority, thus strengthening the Palestinian position, rebuilding the Palestine Liberation Organization, learning from previous mistakes, and benefiting from the changes in the world and the region. A strategic assessment should be performed, strategic options should be studied, and the most appropriate strategy should be agreed upon. One possible outcome of this would be to reconstitute the Palestinian Authority so that it no longer serves Israeli interests by legitimizing an indefinite occupation and protecting Israel from bearing the full costs of occupation. This, again, was advised by the Palestinian Strategy Group in their 2008 study entitled, "Regaining the Initiative". If the Palestinians choose such a course, based on the considerations of national reconciliation and unity, then the world will have to listen to Palestinians more carefully and satisfy their legitimate demands.-Published 14/11/2011

Sameer Abu Eisheh is professor of engineering and planning at An-Najah National University. He also served as Palestinian minister of planning and as a member of the Palestinian Strategy Group.