After two decades, has the PA run its course?

As Mahmoud Abbas prepares to step down, the Palestinian Authority faces existential questions, writes Joseph Dana

More than two decades after its creation, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is a dysfunctional pseudo-state that has exhausted its mandate. A growing number of Palestinians believe that, through the PA’s security and economic cooperation with Tel Aviv, its interests conflict.

Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and PA president, has entered the 11th year of his four-year presidential term, but appears close to stepping down. Will his departure lead to a period of PA reform or continued status quo?

Possible successors to Mr Abbas are starting to drop clues. Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator and PLO secretary-general, told Deutsche Welle last week that he would not seek the office of president after Mr Abbas. Instead, he threw his support behind jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti.

Barghouti is undoubtedly the most popular Palestinian leader in the country, but he is serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli jail for orchestrating several deadly attacks against Israeli civilians. Without a massive global campaign to release Barghouti, similar to the campaign to release Nelson Mandela, there is little chance that he will be available to replace Mr Abbas in the near future. As such, Mr Erekat appears to be honing his populist credentials before an appointment to the presidency.

The PA was set up in the 1990s as an interim governing body to oversee Palestine’s transformation from occupation to statehood. As part of the Oslo peace accords, signed by Israel and the PLO, the PA was supposed to eventually dissolve into a functioning Palestinian state. This never happened.

As a result, in the eyes of many Palestinians, their leaders have lost moral legitimacy and failed to provide a clear path to liberation. In a last-ditch effort to mark his legacy and jolt the status quo, Mr Abbas pursued statehood recognition at the United Nations in 2012, which succeeded in applying pressure on Israel and the US but did little to improve daily life under occupation.

For Mr Abbas, the statehood bid was an attempt to shore up legitimacy at home as a politician committed to delivering his people from oppression. But it failed.

After the statehood bid, about $500 million (Dh 1.8bn) in donor aid was withheld by the United States, while Israel withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenue as a way of punishing Mr Abbas for attempting to bypass the peace process. The entire episode highlighted the inability of the PA to provide for Palestinians.

Under former PA prime minister Salam Fayyad, the PA sought huge sums of money from donors to begin the process of building a state and creating a large public sector. The creation of a Palestinian middle class, the thinking went, would discourage resistance. If one has a car loan and a home loan, one is less willing to protest and risk arrest.

Ultimately, Fayyadism – as Mr Fayyad’s economic model came to be known – failed to create a robust private sector capable of generating independent Palestinian capital.

The need to reform the PA in the post-Abbas era is clear, but economic reform is only one path. Palestine is overdue for elections, especially when it comes to the leadership of the PLO. In 2007, Palestinians held elections at the behest of the United States. The result was a win for Hamas; not because of its religious inclinations, but because the group offered resistance as a viable alternative to negotiations with Israel.

Fatah, which continues to dominate the PA, is increasingly seen by mainstream Palestinians as colluding with Israel, whether in the realm of security or donor aid.

Resistance credentials, or a willingness to stand up to Israel, hold more political currency than religious platforms. In the absence of genuine reform, grass roots movements like the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) of Israel fill an important void in society. Appealing to a cross section of Palestinian society, from trade unions to village councils, the BDS movement presents a clear path to break the status quo. It also cuts through the disunity of the main Palestinian parties and gives Palestinians everywhere a form of non-violent resistance to rally around. That is one reason for Mr Abbas’s disdain for the BDS movement.

For now, it is highly unlikely that Palestine will hold elections to appoint Mr Abbas’s successor, because the Fatah old guard would probably be voted out. Pending a major shake-up inside Fatah, Mr Erekat will be Mr Abbas’s successor.

Majid Faraj, the PA’s intelligence chief, or Jabril Rajoub, the former West Bank security chief and head of the Palestine football association, could attempt to take control of power but such an event is unlikely.

The PA was not designed to last forever. Its mandate has run its course, the Palestinian people are fed up with the status quo, and Israel has used the body to advance its settlement project in the West Bank.

The PA leadership is not able to ignore these realities forever and should thus be preparing for elections and institutional reform. Either it prepares now or risks facing the increasingly real prospect of mainstream Palestinian society turning on the PA.

On Twitter: @ibnezra