Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The End of the Palestinian Authority?

It seems we are reaching the moment where we can talk of the fall of the Hamas government as a real possibility. This scenario will leave the Palestinian Authority hanging on the figure of President Mahmood Abbas; a burden too heavy for one man to carry. Without a functioning government, the entire PA edifice may collapse within weeks or months, probably amid spreading violence.
But stop a minute, and roll the clock back. Who has an interest in destroying the PA? At the moment - none of the main parties. Hamas were not elected to form a suicide-government, and it was not their intention to bring the whole thing down, but rather to prove that an Islamist government can rule and deliver a better life for the Palestinians. Fateh certainly have no interest in seeing the PA go - it's their project, since 1993, and they are heavily invested in it- most of the police/security are their people.

And believe it or not, the Israeli government has no interest in it either. Its unilateralist policies paradoxically depend on the existence of an internationally-recognized body on the other side of the wall. Otherwise, it will be more difficult to resist calls for international deployment (especially in Gaza). Through the Intifada years the PA has been keeping all the civilian infrastructure running - hospitals, water, electricity etc - with the help of European funding. If the PA goes, Israel is very likely to have to pay for these. Maybe not immediately, but a humanitarian crisis will soon force it to do so: this was shown by last week's events. After bombing the (U.S.- government-insured) Gaza power station, Israel is now being asked to supply the Palestinians with Israeli electricity. That's what I call smart.

So why is the Israeli Government pushing for this? I think it's a combination of hubris, short-sight, and the feeling that ultimately it has the complete backing of the U.S., no matter what. If this explanation is not convincing, let me try a parable, one I heard from Professor Sari Nuseiba (President of Al-Quds university) who gave a lecture here in London last year. When two men are wrestling, he said, and the stronger is holding the weaker to the ground, the man on top actually has less freedom of movement. He grips his opponent forcibly and dare not move, for he is afraid that any change or movement will lead to a reversal of the situation. Sometimes too much power is a weakness. This is how I see the current situation. Israel is locked within a set of policies which lead to a crisis, but it is too strong, and too entrenched to change course.

Some Palestinians think that, in the long run, they will be better off without the PA. In its 13 years it has been used by Israel as a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation, and as a scapegoat when things went out of control. Perhaps the PA dependence on Israel made it impossible for it to achieve the wishes of the Palestinian people. Some Palestinians say so openly and call to dismantle it. But they are, I think, a small minority. The majority would still want to make it work, despite the inherent flaws. Hamas participation in the elections is the best proof for this. And if the PA is gone, this may spell the end of the two-state solution.

For the last 13 years everybody has been playing according to the Oslo rules. Even when they called them dead and buried, the Oslo accords provided a framework which proved useful enough for the ruling groups on both sides to maintain. Perhaps we are reaching the end of this line. And again, perhaps not: the parties have a strong enough interest to pull back from the brink. But I am becoming more and more pessimistic: without any substantial pressure, either from the Israeli public or from the International community, I can't see Olmert making a U-turn and opening talks with Hamas. Whether he had planned to crush Hamas all along or he is being pushed to it by warmongers does not really matter in my view. But if the bombings and embargo continue, the PA will eventually go down - maybe not this time, but in the foreseeable future.


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