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Middle East Report N°142 29 May 2013
Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s resignation has pushed questions of West Bank economic, political and security stability back to the fore. Even under Fayyad, the last year has been the most tumultuous since Hamas seized Gaza in 2007. The Palestinian Authority (PA) found itself in a financial crisis, unable to pay salaries or halt economic decline. Fatah, resentful of marginalisation, exploited the resulting economic-cum-political protests, which quickly escaped its control. Escalating Israeli-Palestinian clashes gave rise to predictions of a third intifada. For now, though rates of violence remain comparatively high, the general mood has quieted; U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic initiative faces myriad obstacles, but a sustained uprising is unlikely to be among them. There are ways to further insulate the West Bank against instability, but if the interested parties do not get beyond managing conflict triggers to addressing root issues, today’s relative calm could well be fleeting.
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, the preponderance of evidence indicates that such fears – or what for others are hopes – were overblown. As of yet, there is no indication that a critical mass of Palestinians will push their political system to the boiling point or move sharply 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, without which protests fade quickly. With no unified Palestinian leadership, no strategy and the people themselves divided and exhausted, an uprising possesses limited popular appeal.
Questions of finances and prisoners, or even demonstrations at checkpoints or settlement outposts, are unlikely in themselves to tip the balance in the current context. True, the economy, Fayyad’s trump card as prime minister, in 2012 became his Achilles heel. Though he survived years of political paralysis, months of late and partial salary payments destabilised his position. Owing to plummeting donor support, future interruptions cannot be excluded, nor can the expected tumult they would create. True, prisoners have long played a critical role in the national imagination, where they have been accorded pride of place; the demonstrations in early 2013 certainly were not the last on their behalf.
Paradoxically, however, that PA finances and hunger-striking prisoners were the issues that galvanised large protests illustrates the timidity and limited horizons of Palestinian politics. While both are vital for individuals and in national life, there are reasons political activity crystallised around them. They excite little dissent or rancour (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. Relatively secondary issues have traction precisely because it is only there that the major factions allow mobilisation 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. These were tactical actions with limited goals; they were not bids for a strategic readjustment internally or vis-à-vis Israel.
Some Palestinians would want to use them as triggers for greater change, but relatively few seem willing to leap into the unknown. They are concerned about what radical changes to the PA would mean for both their national movement and themselves. 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 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 already are being fundamentally transformed. Succession talk no longer is taboo, suggesting the West Bank is entering the transition many are trying to postpone. When Abbas 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 favours. 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. The chronic strikes that encumber lives, the increased absenteeism, the drag that PA debt has imposed on the private sector all indicate that the perpetual crisis the quasi-government faces is weakening the entire system. PA dissolution is less threat or political option than evolving reality.
These transformations are traceable not only to PA anaemia 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 would serve a purpose and might postpone breakdown but ultimately would only scratch the surface. And managing potential triggers of conflict increasingly would be akin to playing a game of whack-a-mole.
Too, because Palestinians have not shown much appetite for escalation does not mean it will not happen. In Israel/Palestine, events with potentially major consequences are frequent; with the system so brittle, virtually any substantial shock could have significant repercussions: Abbas’s departure and the attendant succession battle; intensified settler violence; large clashes on Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade; the death of a hunger striking prisoner; or an act of spectacular political violence by either side that spins out of control. Already, a new Palestinian generation, one with little memory of the second intifada, is coming of age. Some of its members have begun referring to their parents’ generation as traitors.
Two immediate types of adjustments ought to be made. In the short run, the PA needs to be shielded from the vagaries of Israeli-Palestinian political relations and the kinds of shocks that could set off a chain reaction within the brittle system:
Jerusalem/Ramallah/Brussels, 29 May 2013