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Israeli officials fear a looming disaster: the collapse of the Palestinian Authority

A young boy plays with a Palestinian flag in a street in Rafah near the Egyptian border on August 21, 2011.
A young boy plays with a Palestinian flag in a street in Rafah near the Egyptian border on August 21, 2011.
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Israeli security officials and political leaders are increasingly worried that the Palestinian Authority — which along with Israeli security forces is responsible for governance and security in the West Bank — is on the verge of collapse, and that when it does collapse, law and order in the West Bank will erode, bringing disaster for Palestinians there and potentially opening the territory to a takeover by Hamas or other extremists.

These fears, long expressed by some Palestinian and American officials along with independent analysts, appear to have gripped the Israeli establishment as well.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is the interim Palestinian government created by the 1993 Oslo Accords to administer Gaza and parts of the West Bank. It was meant to be a temporary and limited government, giving Palestinians partial self-rule until Israelis and Palestinians reached a final peace deal. The accords were supposed to "expire" after a five-year interim period during which the parties were to conclude a final agreement. But 20-plus years later, no peace deal has been reached, and the PA is still there.

Many Israelis, Palestinians, and outside observers increasingly fear that the PA's days are numbered. Its leadership is weak and increasingly viewed as corrupt and ineffectual by Palestinians. Its leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, is 80 years old and lacks a clear successor. But most damaging of all is the PA's crisis of legitimacy, which stems from several factors: the failure of the PA to deliver a peace deal, the growing authoritarianism of Abbas (including the fact that elections have not been held for almost a decade), the corruption scandals involving Abbas's sons and the cronyism that plagues the PA, and the PA's security collaboration with Israel and increasingly oppressive actions against protests.

In short, Palestinians thought the PA would help bring them a state, and instead the PA has brought them corruption, authoritarianism, and continued occupation. As Palestinian dissatisfaction with the status quo grows, their frustration is focusing increasingly on the PA.

As Neri Zilber, a journalist and adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me, "The PA's reason for being was always as an interim entity, leading up to statehood. If you take away that seeking of the end goal, then the Palestinians are going to start asking: 'What is the purpose of maintaining this?'"

Should the PA collapse, many fear the West Bank will descend into chaos and violence. They fear that the terrorist organization Hamas, which currently rules Gaza, could rise to power in the West Bank as a result.

Who is worried about the collapse of the PA?

In short, everyone. On a recent trip to Israel, I had a series of off-the-record conversations with Israeli and Palestinian academics, lawyers, journalists, security professionals, and others to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One thing I heard expressed over and over by people on all sides was that the PA is on the brink of collapse, and that when it happens the result will be chaos and violence in the West Bank and the probable rise to power of Hamas.

Israeli officials — not just politicians but serious, sober military, security, and intelligence officials — are worried about this: At the end of November, as reported by Haaretz, senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Shin Bet security service officers told Israeli Cabinet ministers that they "are very worried by the possibility of the PA collapsing" and "warned the ministers of the consequences for both security and civilian affairs." Zilber confirmed this when I spoke to him recently:

The people who are most concerned are the professionals, the Israeli security establishment, who deal with the Palestinians on a daily basis, who know it better than any Israeli politician, any outside analyst, because this is what they do for a living. They're the ones, probably more than anybody, who are the most concerned about instability in the Palestinian Authority, up to and including collapse.

The US is worried about this as well. In December, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that "there are valid questions as to how long the PA will survive if the current situation continues."

What happens if the PA collapses

There are three ways that the PA could break up, according to a study conducted in 2013 by a respected Palestinian research organization. The study concluded that, as reported by Haaretz:

One, the least likely scenario, is a voluntary decision by the Palestinian leadership to dissolve it. The second is collapse as the result of Israel’s punishing economic, military and political power, and political and economic pressure, mostly American, in response to Palestinian steps that violate the status quo, such as petitioning the International Criminal Court or leading a non-militarized uprising. The third possibility is a breakup that results from internal Palestinian unrest and rebellion.

The consequences of such a collapse would be severe and immediate. As Kerry noted, "There are some 30,000 Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank, and Israel’s security officials acknowledge their key role in preventing the situation from spiraling out of control, including by the way during the turmoil of three wars with Gaza."

In other words, without the PA, much of the West Bank would suddenly be without a government, including security forces. This would be a disaster for Palestinians in many ways, but the one concern that I heard Israelis raise over and over is that there would be no one to keep a lid on unrest or violence.

I heard two ways that people thought this could play out; both sounded very bad for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Either Israel would feel compelled to retake Palestinian cities and institute direct military rule over the West Bank or Israel would withdraw completely — perhaps even leading it to seal off the West Bank as it did with Gaza.

In the latter scenario, people I spoke to expected that a security vacuum in the West Bank would allow Hamas to take over there. Israel would likely respond as it did to Hamas's takeover in Gaza, by sealing off the territory and putting it under a full blockade. In Gaza, this has been followed by a decade-long humanitarian crisis, sent unemployment as high as 43 percent, and contributed to periodic and deadly violence between Israel and Gaza.

Repeating this in the West Bank would thus be a humanitarian catastrophe for Palestinians there. It would also be a security disaster for Israel. Hamas uses Gaza to launch rockets into neighboring towns in southern Israel; doing the same from the West Bank would bring major Israeli cities such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv under much greater threat.

The other way that Israel might respond is by replacing the PA with direct Israeli rule of PA-administered areas. Direct rule by a foreign power is not pleasant: not for the people being occupied, certainly, but also not for the soldiers tasked with occupying them. This could risk a third intifada, or Palestinian uprising, and even if Palestinians accept direct Israeli rule, it would still impose significant new burdens on both Palestinians and Israelis.

Kerry, in his speech in December, laid out the potential costs for Israel if the PA should collapse:

Without the PA security forces, the IDF could be forced to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers to the West Bank indefinitely to fill the void. Are Israelis prepared for the consequences this would have for their children and grandchildren who serve in the IDF when the inevitable friction leads to confrontation and violence? ...

Without the PA Israel would also shoulder the responsibility for providing basic services in the West Bank, including for maintaining schools, hospitals, and law and order. Are Israelis ready to make up for over a billion dollars a year in assistance that the PA would no longer see provided by the international community because it’s no longer there? What about the additional billion dollars in development-related assistance, most of it for the West Bank? What would happen if the Palestinian economy and private sector collapsed under the pressure and there was widespread unemployment and poverty?

Based on my conversations in Israel, this is something Israeli security and political officials are seriously worried about.

Could it actually happen?

It's not just that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is 80 years old and there is no clear successor in line to replace him. Palestinians are distrustful of Abbas personally, but more than that, they are fed up with the entire PA system. Some 20 years after the PA was established as a temporary measure meant to bring Palestinians closer to peace and a state, the conflict persists. Palestinians increasingly see the PA as a tool of the Israeli occupation, which many doubt will ever end.

A recent poll shows just how disaffected Palestinians have become with the status quo. The poll, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from December 10 to 12, found that 68 percent of the public supports abandoning the Oslo agreement (which includes the establishment of PA rule). Similarly, 64 percent said the PA should stop all security cooperation with Israel. And 65 percent of respondents said they want Abbas to resign.

Finally, the poll found that 66 percent of surveyed Palestinians (71 percent in the Gaza Strip and 63 percent in the West Bank) believe that an armed uprising would serve Palestinian interests in ways that negotiations could not.

All this suggests that the PA's ability to keep the current violence from boiling over into a full-fledged intifada is diminishing, as is Palestinians' faith in the ability of the PA to produce positive results — namely, a peace deal with Israel, an end to the occupation, and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

If new legislative elections were held today, 71 percent say they would participate in such elections. Of those who would participate, 33 percent say they would vote for Hamas and 33 percent say they would vote for Fatah (Abbas's party). In June 2014, just before the Gaza war, vote for Hamas stood at 32 percent and Fatah at 40 percent. With support for the PA on the decline and support for Hamas on the rise, it is entirely reasonable to worry that a PA collapse could allow Hamas to fill the void in the West Bank.

Some analysts, though, said they thought the odds of this happening were overstated — in large part because Israelis, Americans, and some Palestinians are working to prevent it.

I spoke with Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and the former chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at the US Department of State, about how likely it is that the PA will collapse. Here's what he told me:

While the collapse of the Palestinian Authority would be a game changer, with massive consequences in terms of Israelis and Palestinians and the possibility of a two-state solution, I would call it a medium- to low-probability event. That's what makes it so scary. It's not one of these far-fetched scenarios. I don't think anybody wants it to happen. Palestinians don't want it to happen. The Israelis don't want it to happen. Even folks like [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi [Benjamin] Netanyahu don't want it to happen and neither does Abbas.

Some are even more skeptical. Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst with the Middle East Program of the International Crisis Group covering Gaza, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, called the threat of the PA collapsing in the near term "extremely unlikely" and said that "Israel, the United States, and the PA leadership will do everything in their power to ensure that the PA survives and to bolster it if it appears to be slowly dissolving."

What this all means for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The collapse of the PA would be, in the words of scholar Khaled Elgindy, "the greatest blow yet to a two-state solution." The PA was set up to eventually become the legitimate government of an independent Palestinian state. Its collapse, therefore, would signal that the dream of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel — the so-called two-state solution — was well and truly dead.

But even if the PA doesn't collapse right away, or at all, just the fear of that happening has consequences for the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Many Israelis I spoke with expressed the view that there was no point in restarting the peace process because any agreement would soon be null and void once the PA collapsed.

The problem as they see it is this: A peace agreement would see Israel withdrawing from the West Bank and recognizing a sovereign, independent Palestinian state. If the PA were to then collapse shortly after, law and order would collapse with it, and there would be no Israeli security presence on the ground to keep chaos from erupting and threatening Israel.

Some analysts see this fear as legitimate. Goldenberg told me:

When you're talking about fear, on the Israeli side it is fear of the collapse of Palestinian authority, but at the end of the day it's really all about Gaza. ... That’s been one of the fundamental shifters in how people think about the two-state solution. It used to be, in the 90s and 2000s, that the most challenging issue was Jerusalem and refugees. Now security has really taken on a new level of complexity and difficulty as a result of what's happened in Gaza.

Also, it's not just about the Palestinian Authority, it's also about Israelis looking around and seeing what's happening in other Arab countries: Syria, Egypt, Libya. That also adds this new level of fear, concern, discomfort with the idea of leaving the West Bank.

But they're going to have to overcome it.

Others, such as Thrall of the International Crisis Group, find the threat to be greatly exaggerated.

As Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who previously served in various positions within the Palestinian Authority, including as adviser to the negotiating team during the 1999-2001 permanent-status talks, sees it, things could go either way. He told me:

The Israel-Palestine conflict is at one of its most acute phases. While the status quo could continue for some time, it could very easily collapse in short order with little warning due to unpredictable, and therefore unpreventable, incidents. The longer the current stagnation continues, the more likely that such a collapse becomes.

Almost everyone I spoke with used some variation of the phrase "self-fulfilling prophecy" to refer to the potential collapse of the PA. So regardless of whether the PA really is on the verge of collapse, the fact that so many worry about this may actually make it more likely, with potentially terrible consequences for both Palestinians and Israelis.