Abbas allies fear new Israeli government intends to destroy Palestinian Authority

Ben Lynfield

The Guardian  /  January 13, 2023

Minister says ultranationalists in coalition want to dismantle body and create ‘new reality in the West Bank’.

Senior allies of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, have expressed fears that Benjamin Netanyahu’s new ultranationalist coalition in Israel will seek to dismantle the Palestinian Authority (PA), established after the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

The Palestinian social development minister, Ahmad Majdalani, said members of the government intend to destroy the authority, which administers a degree of self-rule in parts of the West Bank and is considered by Abbas as the institutional building block for a future Palestinian state.

“Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are aiming to destroy the authority as part of their ideology,” he said, referring to Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, the heads of ultranationalist, anti-Arab parties who have emerged as highly influential ministers.

Majdalani suggested Israel would instead attempt to forge localized municipal bodies with no connection between them and no national attributes to replace the PA. “They want to create a new reality in the West Bank,” he added.

The Netanyahu coalition has announced it plans to massively expand Israeli settlements and eventually annex the occupied West Bank, an area of land that Palestinians have long sought to build a state.

The power of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich in coalition talks and afterwards has left many Israelis wondering whether Netanyahu has enough clout to rein them in or if he wants to do so.

Israel last week imposed financial sanctions on the Palestinian Authority in response to the body’s spearheading a successful UN drive to petition the international court of justice to rule whether Israel’s protracted control of the West Bank is a de facto annexation.

Smotrich, who serves as finance minister and as top administrator of the West Bank, told a press conference last week. “As long as [the PA] encourages terrorism, what is my interest in helping it exist?”

The PA, which launched after the 1993 Oslo agreement, provides educational, health, social and other services, and its security forces coordinate with Israel to thwart attacks on Israeli targets and keep Hamas in check. Originally envisioned by Israeli-Palestinian agreements as a transitional institution, its existence has lurched on indefinitely with the breakdown of any hopes for peacemaking that would lead to independence.

In response to a query, the Israeli Foreign Ministry denied that Israel has any interest in the collapse of the PA.

But two Israeli analysts, Menachem Klein and Zvi Barel, this week expressed the view that the Israeli government is bent on the destruction of the PA, with Klein speculating it might move ahead unless stopped by Washington. One possibility was that the effort would advance after the 87-year-old Abbas leaves the scene, he said.

“The new government doesn’t want the old ideas of shrinking the conflict or managing the conflict,” said Klein, emeritus professor of political science at Bar Ilan University and a visiting fellow at King’s College London’s department of war studies. “They want to determine the conflict in favour of settlement, annexation and shrinking the Palestinians to local bodies.”

Smotrich in 2017 published a plan calling for the destruction of the PA, establishment of local bodies and giving those Palestinians who refuse second-class status incentives to emigrate.

“There are many Arabs who want to get along with us and they can run things on a local, municipal level,” said Noam Arnon, a settler leader who said he supports “stopping” the Palestinian Authority.

The previous Israeli government had a different stance. While ruling out political negotiations with Abbas, it did help the PA by releasing money that had been withheld as a punishment for it paying stipends to families of those carried out attacks.

The security establishment has been in favour of preventing a PA collapse on the grounds that continued security coordination is paramount, that Hamas could fill any vacuum and that the PA presence relieves Israel of the burden of directly ruling the Palestinian population.

Financial crisis for the PA is chronic but other challenges are emerging. Its popularity has plummeted further given its inability to wrest concessions from Israel, which is offering no political horizon while deepening the occupation. With despair rampant among the youth, a trend of independent armed Palestinian groups coalescing in the West Bank with public support is expected to continue.

Their confrontations with Israeli forces could cause a major escalation, says Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, though he discounts the idea that Israel will seek to eliminate the PA.

The latest sanctions will, however, hit hard unless donor countries step in, with further wage cuts for PA employees expected to reverberate through the economy, according to Rabeh Morrar, the director of research at the Palestine Economic Research Institute-MAS.

Ziyad Shreim, the owner of a Ramallah grill restaurant, is on edge. “People don’t go out to eat when they have less money,” he said. Things were already slow because of tension and heightened Israeli strictures on movement, he added. Now Shreim worries he will have to lay off half his staff. “The future will be even worse,” he said.

Ben Lynfield in Ramallah