A weak Palestinian Authority might lose control after vote
The Arab Spring may have had little effect on the governance of the Palestinian territories, save for a few demonstrations that sparked a patently insincere unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas, both of which have been preoccupied with avoiding blame. But the Arab Fall may yet bring the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. The "diplomatic tsunami" bearing down on Israel in the form of a Palestine Liberation Organisation bid to have the United Nations recognise a state of Palestine on the 1967 borders could also drown the PA, which has since 1994 been the administrative and security foundation of the West Bank status quo.
The PA is a hybrid structure built on the foundations of a national liberation movement and its symbols and rhetoric, intended as a transitional institution during the process of negotiating Palestinian statehood. But the breakdown of negotiations a decade ago has left the PA in a conflicted role under occupation.
The limits of PA control are set by Israel: it has no say over freedom of movement or Israeli security operations in West Bank cities; it cannot stop Israeli land grabs for settlement expansion or the building of the security wall; and it depends on Israel for everything from electricity to the collection of import tariffs. And PA security services are used to protect Israel from the wrath of Palestinians, whether in the form of terror attacks or non-violent protest, rather than protecting its own people from Israeli soldiers and settlers.
And the World Bank this week has revealed that for all the talk by the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu, Tony Blair and Tom Friedman about West Bank prosperity, the PA remains an economic basket case, almost entirely dependent on donor aid.
"In areas where government effectiveness matters most - security and justice; revenue and expenditure management; economic development; and service delivery," the World Bank wrote, "Palestinian public institutions compare favourably to other countries in the region and beyond. These institutions have played a crucial role in enabling the positive economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza in recent years. Though significant, this growth has been unsustainable, driven primarily by donor aid rather than a rebounding private sector, which remains stifled by Israeli restrictions on access to natural resources and markets."
The occupation, in other words, is the key factor, and business as usual - which President Mahmoud Abbas has promised Israelis and Americans once the UN vote is done, in the form of continued negotiations and security cooperation - offers no road to ending it.
The World Bank also tastefully neglected to mention the wee matter of democracy when discussing Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's institution-building. Sure, he's done a remarkable job of curbing corruption, ending chaos on the streets and ensuring a modicum of administrative predictability, but he's done so while ignoring the PA's institutions of representative government. Those were the Bush administration's orders, of course, in a shameless 180-degree reversal of its earlier insistence on representative government after Hamas was elected the ruling party in the Palestinian legislature. For all its administrative progress, the PA in the West Bank is a kind of mini-Mubarak mukhabarat state of the sort that has gone out of fashion since the Arab Spring.
The Palestinians who are going to the UN - whether the PA or the PLO - were not sent by any elected body. And Hamas on Monday distanced itself from the effort, to Israel's delight reminding the world that Mr Abbas does not speak for all Palestinians.
And the situation that pushed Mr Abbas to defy Washington's pressure and go to the UN in the first place - the failure of the US to press Mr Netanyahu to accept a credible peace process - is more likely to deteriorate than to improve after a UN vote.
A US Congress whose positions on the conflict sometimes seem to the right of Mr Netanyahu's is likely to make cuts in the $450 million (Dh1.6 billion) in annual US aid to the PA if a UN vote goes ahead. That is bad news for an Authority that is the West Bank's major employer, and whose donor funds are already falling as a result of the global recession. Already this summer, the PA was unable to pay full salaries in July, and while it did so in August, its finances are under mounting pressure. The salaries it pays are widely viewed to be the basis of its support from West Bank Palestinians; if donor funds cannot pay salaries, it could be politically fatal.
And then there was the warning issued in Washington in 2009 by US army Lt Gen Keith Dayton, who was then in charge of training Palestinian security forces. Gen Dayton warned that the forces had been built on the premise that they were the nucleus of the army of a future Palestinian state. It was not just a paycheque that maintained cohesion in the face of charges that they were a gendarmerie for the Israeli occupiers. And their loyalty could not, therefore, be taken for granted if the peace process stalled: "There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you're creating a state, when you're not." That, of course, was two years ago.
A UN vote on statehood blocked by the United States and resisted by the Israelis will demonstrate to those security men that there is no Palestinian state in the making through cooperation with the Israelis and Americans. And economic pressure is mounting, and further provocations by Israeli settlers can be expected.
The collapse of the Oslo process has turned the PA into part and parcel of the occupation status quo, a form of Palestinian self-governance within the limits set by the Israelis. Mr Abbas has called for popular demonstrations to back his UN representations. No doubt, he will expect demonstrators to go home after providing the flag-waving photo op, but once they are out on the streets expressing themselves, many Palestinians may go beyond the officially approved slogans.
Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @tonykaron
Published: September 14, 2011 04:00 AM