Save the collapsing Palestinian system
Save the collapsing Palestinian system

Save the collapsing Palestinian system

Besieged from without and divided from within, the Palestinian political system is coming apart. It is hard pressed to deliver vital services or ensure law and order and is virtually incapable of producing basic decisions, let alone generating a coherent political program.

Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, who openly exhibits his contempt for the current Palestinian leadership, and U.S. President George W. Bush, who seldom conceals his disdain toward it, may see little reason to fret. But while the costs to Palestinians of the political vacuum are evident, they should be no less clear to Israelis seeking peace and security and to Americans who can only watch as a dangerous blend of desperation and rage takes hold.

Destabilized by its leaders' policies, paralyzed by internal rivalries and battered by Israeli military and economic measures, the Palestinian National Authority is no longer national and barely exercises authority. Security forces have borne the brunt of Israeli attacks; largely disarmed and unable to move freely, their activities have become haphazard at best. Fatah, the backbone of the Palestinian national movement, is politically and geographically fragmented. Divided, with some of its most dynamic leaders behind Israeli prison bars, it may not survive the coming succession struggle.

Various actors are stepping into the breach. Some are the traditional sort - mayors, clans and civic associations, seeking to pick up where the formal structures of the Palestinian Authority (PA) have left off. Others are new, and more perilous. Most notable are the armed militias, particularly the loose network of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. Initially established by Fatah to spearhead the armed uprising, today they often act as decentralized guns for hire. In some cases, the brigades rely on individual Fatah or PA patrons for funding and arms; in others, I was told, they obtain them from groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Lebanon's Hizbullah. The Martyrs' Brigades are slowly becoming proxies both for intra-Palestinian disputes and larger regional conflicts. The Occupied Territories, meanwhile, risk becoming a theater in which rival Palestinians and outside actors wage deadly surrogate battles.

Few Palestinians question their share of responsibility. However, American cooperation with Israeli efforts to marginalize and divide the historic Palestinian leadership contributed to the political paralysis. The stated goal was to reduce Yasser Arafat's hold. But has this been achieved? In the past decade, the legitimacy of PA and Fatah leaders rested essentially on their capacity to govern, their ability to achieve statehood and their aptitude at obtaining support from the outside world. They now manifestly cannot deliver on any.

Arafat, in contrast, can count on what a majority of Palestinians still consider unimpeachable personal, historical and democratic credentials. He is weaker, no doubt, but most around him are even more so; what power he has lost in absolute terms he has made up for in relative ones. A policy intended to debilitate him has instead left him the one man standing.

After years of seeing things break down, it is time to start building them back up. Pragmatic Palestinian leaders need to establish accountable institutions, end attacks against Israeli civilians, develop a response to a possible Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and reach consensus on national objectives and how to achieve them. To succeed, leaders with the capacity to make collective decisions and the authority to make them stick must come forward, a feat that most Palestinians feel requires long-overdue elections at all levels and within Fatah.

Instead of remote-control diplomacy, the U.S. should make Palestinian elections a priority - first, by telling Israel that Washington supports free elections and expects at least temporary withdrawals from population areas and full participation by Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. Second, if Palestinians are to rally around pragmatic candidates, they need to be convinced that Sharon's current course will lead neither to the fatal dismemberment of Palestinian territories nor to the indefinite postponement of a comprehensive agreement. The U.S. should therefore present its vision of a fair and viable final deal, and oppose any thickening of West Bank settlements.

Finally, the Arafat question must be resolved. Spurned by Israel and the U.S., yet sitting atop the Palestinian polity, he has lost none of his ability to obstruct, while gaining every incentive to do so. He should be offered a trade-off: serious steps on security and domestic reform in exchange for restoring his freedom of movement.

The political crisis of the Palestinians is largely one of their own making, an own goal of tragic proportions. But crucially it was also achieved with Israeli assistance and an irresponsibly passive and biased American referee. It is a lethal game in which all, if something is not done, and quickly, inescapably will lose.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen is welcomed by Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 14, 2022. Mohamad Torokman / REUTERS

Realigning European Policy toward Palestine with Ground Realities

Events in 2021 – particularly the Gaza war – put in sharp relief how much Europe’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs a refresh. The European Union and its member states should use the levers they have to push for their stated goal of a peaceful resolution. 

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report