The Case for Palestine

The Palestinian Authority Has Outlived Its Purpose—It’s Time for the State

Since the first weeks of the brutal war in the Gaza Strip, Washington has devoted an inordinate amount of attention to the idea that reforming the Palestinian Authority is an essential part of any postwar governance in the territory. The United States, as well as its Arab and European allies, want neither Hamas nor Israel in charge of administering Gaza once the war ends. The default candidate for that job is the PA, established by the Palestine Liberation Organization as its governing executive during the Oslo peace accords, a series of agreements in the 1990s meant to lead to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The PA continues to govern in part of the West Bank, having largely retreated from Gaza in 2006 in the wake of Palestinian political division. On March 14, PA President Mahmoud Abbas appointed a technocratic prime minister to form a new Palestinian government with the aim of reunifying the two regions politically, administratively, and economically—with the eventual goal of reconstructing the battered Gaza Strip. But the relevance of the PA today as a vessel for such profound change is dubious.

Faith in renewing the PA borders on the delusional. The PA has become increasingly ineffective since anything resembling an Israeli-Palestinian peace process collapsed a decade ago. The authority is widely distrusted by most Palestinians and seen as corrupt by foes and some friends alike. Its 88-year-old president has become autocratic, and support for him among Palestinians is lower than ever, according to recent polls. In the absence of a legislative assembly, Abbas has ruled by decree for 15 years. Well before the war, Abbas had been facing mounting pressure from Palestinians, Arab countries, and the Biden administration to relinquish some of his powers.

Those who argue that the PA must reform itself so that it can be entrusted with governing in Gaza are missing the point. Under Abbas—who was elected in 2005 for one term that was never legitimately renewed—successive prime ministers have tried every possible reform within their power, with little to show for it. The deeper trouble with the PA is not merely a matter of execution or personnel. The PA has far outlived its shelf life. Its days have long been numbered owing to its lack of legitimacy and its inherent weakness: the PA is a government without a sovereign state to govern. In its case, with great responsibility came little power. It was destined to be not an interim vehicle toward self-determination as planned but a guardian of an unsustainable status quo. It became a tool not of liberation but of subordination.

Instead of abetting unrealistic assumptions about the suitability of the PA as a governing authority, the Palestinian people should build on this rare moment of solidarity to create what they have been committed to, and denied, for decades. Today, they can unite by unilaterally and collectively adopting the “state of Palestine” as the political manifestation of their identity, their agency, and their common fate. For decades, Palestinians have been represented by liberation organizations, but today, the state is the only entity that can serve as the national home for all 14 million Palestinians worldwide.

The state of Palestine is already entrenched in the imagination of Palestinians and in their own legality. The Palestine Liberation Organization declared its establishment as a goal in 1988 and secured its UN membership as an observer in 2012. But the PLO has continued to govern under the PA rubric in the West Bank, and Hamas through a rump PA in Gaza, while both Israel and the United States have stood in the way of a Palestinian state. This was clearly a recipe for disaster, and one that undeniably contributed to Hamas’s attacks on October 7.

The PA was created as an interim body to lead to a Palestinian state. It is time to acknowledge that it has served its purpose. Shedding old institutions in favor of building new ones under the state of Palestine could unify Palestinians, renew their agency, and restore legitimacy and accountability to their politics.

The PLO formed the PA in 1994, and it was recognized by Israel and donor countries as an interim self-government to rule until permanent status negotiations in 2000 could produce an independent Palestinian state. That plan was part of the Oslo peace process. But the PA was meant to last only five years. And a great deal has changed since 1994: the Camp David summit of 2000 collapsed. Yasir Arafat, the head of the PLO, died and was replaced by Abbas. Several wars involving Israel have claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people. And Israel has ramped up settlement building in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

Palestinians have been divided between the PLO in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip for close to two decades. In 2006, Hamas triumphed over Fatah in legislative assembly elections, starting a deadly struggle between the two groups. Fatah favors (failed) negotiations as a path to statehood, while Hamas believes (disastrously) that armed struggle must be an option for achieving liberation. In 2017, Hamas amended its charter to accept a Palestinian state based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders but Fatah’s fear of losing power in democratic elections has continued to stymie progress in repeated rounds of national reconciliation talks sponsored by Arab countries. Neither Israel nor the United States has been innocent in deepening this division.

Not surprisingly, the PA has become sclerotic and unpopular. As of last December, around 60 percent of Palestinians thought the PA should be dissolved, according to Palestinian researcher Khalil Shikaki. The vast majority of Palestinians believe Abbas and his cadres should cede leadership to a younger generation who will govern through institutions and not as strongmen. Abbas has led the PA for nearly two decades, postponing elections most recently in 2021. He rules through a closed circle of confidants with little regard for the advice of experts, political allies, or subordinates. The PA has also become increasingly bloated. It has 25 ministries, a dozen public agencies, and 147,000 civil servants—yet it can barely provide basic services to the public. Palestinians deserve and can do better.

To Palestinians watching the world meddle with their fate, most alarming is the prevailing wisdom among U.S. politicians that bringing in a technocratic leader, independent of political factions, would somehow be the magic wand that will fix the PA. The problems of Palestinian governance need more than piecemeal reforms, new laws, or a yet another set of ministers. Today, the media frenzy about who can be the next president or minister misses the point. It is not about the personnel, it’s about the structures.

Around 60 percent of Palestinians think the PA should be dissolved.
The Palestinians have reformed the PA time and again with little to show for it. For example, from 2006 to 2012, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad pursued a so-called state-institution-building agenda. He hoped that if he strengthened PA institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund would certify them as “statehood ready,” persuading Israel to end its occupation and the world to recognize Palestinian rights. Fayyad’s program included public finance reforms and market-friendly policies but resulted in no meaningful changes from Israel. Since then, other prime ministers distanced themselves from this approach, but they have had few tools to respond to a Palestinian public that is increasingly disgruntled with poor governance, mediocre services, and a clientelistic, top-heavy civil service.

Some PA reforms have been successful. Arafat changed the constitution to separate some presidential and prime ministerial powers, moving toward something akin to France’s system. This was important in creating some checks and balances, but Abbas has ignored many of the restraints on his power. The PA provides basic public services and utilities and tries to be responsive to social demands, but it lacks the authority or credibility to effect change. The legislative branch of the PA has not met since the governing authorities of the West Bank and Gaza split in 2007. PA laws have since been made by ministerial recommendation and presidential decree, creating a legal morass.

A unified security force under Abbas brought an end to the lawlessness of the second intifada in the PA-controlled areas of the West Bank, and it continues to be an asset in Abbas’s ability to rule in the PA’s core jurisdiction. The weakness of the PA’s civil functions contrasts with its strong security forces that ensure intra-Palestinian law and order but steps aside in the face of Israeli military operations and attacks from settlers. This compounds its popular image as being little more than a wheel in Israel’s occupation system.

The PA is suffering economically and fiscally, too. The Palestinian economy is critically dependent on jobs in Israel and on revenues controlled by Israel, which together account for over a third of national income and have now simultaneously collapsed. Since October, Israel has barred entry to most of the 180,000 Palestinians who previously worked in Israel, while the extremist Israeli finance minister will not transfer tax funds to the PA, to punish it for paying salaries and pensions to its employees in Gaza. The PA can no longer be counted on to pay full public-sector salaries in Gaza or the West Bank, the last vestige of the PA’s purpose and power.

The PA is too dysfunctional to be revived, reformed, or reconstructed. The PLO can no longer claim to represent all 14 million Palestinians. Nor can Hamas and resistance factions assume governance after the Gaza dust has settled because they appear to be organizationally crushed. The Palestinian people desperately need and deserve efficient and honest government.

The only legitimate Palestinian political entity that is untainted by failure is the state of Palestine. It is waiting in the wings to assume its place among the nations of the world. The moment is opportune for Palestinian political leaders, including from Fatah and the PLO as well as the resistance factions, to shed the PA. They should endorse a new provisional government of the state of Palestine to represent all Palestinians, and to govern Palestinians under occupation today and within a free state tomorrow.

The process need not be revolutionary but transformative, akin to the manner in which the PLO devolved its powers to the PA after Oslo. Palestinians need a smooth transition of power. This time, the state formation process would fold Palestinian political factions, as well as the PA and its institutions, within the broader, nonpartisan framework of the state. It must start within the PLO, which is the signatory of the Oslo agreements and has legal and diplomatic representative status to empower the state to perform its functions. Abbas, who is the titular president of the PA and the PLO should declare the beginning of a time-bound state inception process, through a series of measures that would establish its institutions, beginning with a provisional government of the state of Palestine empowered to rule in the occupied territory, reconstruct battered Gaza with international support, and prepare for national elections.

The PA is too dysfunctional to be revived, reformed, or reconstructed.
Technocratic arrangements for good governance of the West Bank and Gaza can succeed only if a national political dialogue closes the chapter of division and opens a new one focused on state building. Through a presidential council formed by PLO factions and Hamas, alongside a public consultative assembly (such as the PLO’s dormant National Council), the outlines of a democratic future can be discussed and agreed on, leaving the politics of who is best suited to lead the Palestinian people to be decided at the ballot box. During this phase, top Palestinian legal experts from around the world should assemble to draft a constitution for the state.

Security and foreign relations should remain within the purview of the president, while finance, administration, and reconstruction should fall under the prime minister, a balance that was supposed to be established 20 years ago but was ignored by Abbas. How these roles might be enshrined in a constitution can be considered by the presidential council and a consultative body such as the National Council. But from day one, the new prime minister has an opportunity to demonstrate a clean break from his predecessors’ legacies. He can form a leaner government with half as many ministries, and push through public finance, civil service, social, and economic reforms that have been blocked for years.

At first, the state’s resident citizens should be those five million Palestinians now carrying PA identity cards and passports, but the state should eventually grant nationality without residency rights to Palestinian refugees worldwide, as an affirmation of identity. Palestinians could begin to be counted as individual citizens of a state that ties them to their homeland, not as a collective of diaspora communities and factions.

A government set up as part of the new state of Palestine might seem to offer few material benefits over today’s broken configuration of Palestinian politics. It is unlikely to be recognized by the United States or Israel. It would remain under Israeli occupation and would confer no diplomatic benefits over the current system. But a new government would offer Palestinians a chance to build new, better structures and restore trust in their leadership and the respect of the world. The state would be inclusive of all Palestinian factions and would serve as a forum where they can find commonalities and resolve differences. It is time for the state of Palestine to become more than ink on paper. Starting a government under its name is the next step in the long march of national liberation.

Check Also

Yémen : Les pilotes US offusqués par des attaques intenses d’Ansarullah

Les pilotes de chasse de la marine américaine ont décrit comme «traumatisantes» leurs rencontres avec …