Palestine's Changing Politics
Palestine's Changing Politics
Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability
Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Palestine's Changing Politics

Much ink has been spilled on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, including his announcement this week of a plan for increased West Bank economic development. Comparatively little has been written about where Palestinians and Israelis will find themselves should talks start and then breakdown. The last year has been the most tumultuous in Palestinian politics since Hamas seized Gaza in 2007. West Bank violence has spiked since Operation Pillar of Cloud, the November 2012 Gaza-Israel conflict, giving rise to predictions of a third intifada. The Palestinian Authority (PA) found itself in a financial crisis, unable to pay salaries or halt economic decline. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned. 

Protests over the economy (at their largest in September 2012) and prisoners detained by Israel (February and April 2013) led many to wonder if another major eruption, or even the end of the PA, might be on the horizon. Despite the ferment, such fears -- or what for others are hopes -- were overblown. As of yet, there is little indication that a critical mass of Palestinians will push their political system to the boiling point or move forcefully into confrontation with Israel, which is trying to avoid just such an eventuality by keeping the PA's economy afloat and limiting Palestinian causalities and especially fatalities. With no unified Palestinian leadership, no strategy, and the people themselves divided and exhausted, an uprising possesses limited popular appeal. 

It is telling that PA finances and hunger-striking prisoners were the issues that galvanized large protests; while both are vital for individuals and in national life, they excite little dissent or rancor (beyond that directed at Fayyad). Both are non-partisan and tangential to the fundamental, strategic issues -- the Gaza-West Bank division and Israel's occupation -- that Palestinians confront. Secondary issues have traction precisely because it is only there that the major factions allow mobilization and that ordinary Palestinians feel empowered to demand change. Once protests threatened to exceed the boundaries the leadership had set, they were reined back in.

Some Palestinians would want to use the protests and underlying discontent as triggers for greater change, but relatively few seem willing to leap into the unknown. They are concerned about what radical revisions to the PA would mean for their national movement and personal welfare. Those who champion "ending Oslo" -- whatever that would mean -- have been unable to convince their compatriots to act, in part because it is unclear what that might entail, but also since there is no guarantee it would solve their problems.

For this reason, reports of the PA's imminent death seem exaggerated. Israel has shown that it considers the PA's existence, if not its flourishing, to be in its own national interest. The divide between Fatah and Hamas remains deep, giving the former an incentive to maintain the PA, its strongest institution. Western diplomats and many Palestinians believe that, for the foreseeable future, enough money will continue to flow to keep the PA alive, and President Mahmoud Abbas will stick around and do what he can to delay much-feared steps toward confrontation with Israel. Aid to Palestinians, and particularly to the PA, still literally buys time.

And yet. A page is being turned. Palestinian politics and the PA are being fundamentally transformed. Succession talk no longer is taboo. Abbas is 78. When he departs, an era will end for the national movement; he is the last leader, of national stature and possessed of historical legitimacy, truly committed to the kind of negotiated settlement the world favors. The "collapse" of the PA is less likely to be a discrete event, and its "dissolution" less a matter of conscious intent than a process: the gradual hollowing out of institutions that were never particularly strong. 

These transformations are traceable not only to PA anemia but also to that of the Palestinian political system and, perhaps most fundamentally, to its absence of legitimacy, which -- within the context of occupation -- presents the greatest threat to West Bank stability. A legitimate system can bear significant strain; one that does not command genuine allegiance can bear very little. Buying time through technical solutions, economic investment, and other palliative measures would serve a purpose and might postpone the government's disintegration but ultimately would be of limited effect. Managing potential triggers of conflict is increasingly akin to a game of whack-a-mole.

The resumption of negotiations also could help postpone a crisis. Though Palestinians don't have much faith in what they might deliver, they would give the Palestinian leadership a reason -- some would say an excuse -- to delay moves that could precipitate an escalatory dynamic, such as steps at the International Criminal Court (ICC) or other international bodies, and might convince some in the security forces that the PA has not yet run its course as a national project. The corollary, however, is that a breakdown in renewed talks risks accelerating the very dynamics they are meant to forestall. Negotiations for the sake of negotiations risk doing more harm than good.

However thick the PA's insulation, it is doubtful it can withstand the test of time or the pressures of mounting frustration. Objectively, many of the conditions for an uprising are in place: political discontent, lack of hope, economic fragility, increased violence, and an overwhelming sense that security cooperation serves an Israeli -- not Palestinian -- interest. At some point, perhaps triggered by an unexpected event, Palestinians may well decide their long-run well-being would be better served by instability, and only by rocking the boat might they come closer to their desired destination. The result likely will differ from the second intifada, as the second differed markedly from the first. But short of steps to unify and reinforce the legitimacy of Palestinian institutions and move Israelis and Palestinians toward a comprehensive peace, another destabilizing event is inevitable. In buying time, aid dollars go only so far.

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