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The West Bank is burning, and where is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? In India, on an official visit. The distance between New Delhi and Ramallah is an apt metaphor for the alienated relationship between the chairman of the PLO - the organization that sees itself as "the sole legal representative of the Palestinian people" - and those it claims to represent.

And here's another metaphor for this alienation: In front of the gleaming, renovated Muqata (the "presidential" compound ) is a small lawn that is kept bright green. In the middle is a fountain, which no longer works. But a sprinkler is turned on once every few days to water the lawn. And this is at a time when, because of the quotas Israel sets for drinking water, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are living without running water throughout the long summer months.

Abbas' key advisers presumably told him he could go abroad without fear, because the West Bank isn't really burning. Everything is under control. The official discourse was initially careful to praise the demonstrations against the high cost of living for being "apolitical." In other words, they didn't undermine the rule of Abbas' Fatah party. But after Hebron's city hall was stoned, and tires were burned at the entrance to every refugee camp just like during the first intifada, and demonstrators in Nablus stormed the police building - the rebukes followed immediately, along with the suspicion that "foreign elements who want to inflame the atmosphere" were at work.

Conspiracy theories are flourishing. One of them - which is heard also in official circles - is that Fatah members began the strikes and demonstrations in order to bring about the ouster of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. If there's truth to that rumor, that would be even worse than the president's alienation: Are Fatah members so disconnected from reality that they don't know how bad the economic distress has become, how deep the frustration runs? And that every demonstration is a match that could set much more than tires and trash bins ablaze?

It's the nature of fires that they are hard to control. And from Jenin to the South Hebron Hills, people are speaking of the Palestinian Authority as if it were a foreign government. Or a second occupation.

Alienation from the people, along with an unbridgeable gap between the lifestyles of the leaders and the lifestyles of those they lead, are the norm in every regime, including democratic ones. And ties between big business and government are everywhere perverse and anti-democratic. Yet from the day the PA was established, its leaders thought themselves entitled to act like the "big guys" of sovereign states: that is, to get rich and enrich their cronies, and create dynasties of senior office holders.

All this has been done under the aegis of the Israeli occupier and requires permits from it. What it demands and receives in exchange is that the PA serves as its subcontractor for arrests and interrogations.

In 2006, the PA and Fatah suffered a major blow when they were defeated in the elections. One might have thought they would learn a lesson from this failure and change their ways. But the institutional and fiscal changes they made, after cooperating with the West to oust Hamas, which won the elections, were made first and foremost to please the donor states. And in the process of "building the institutions of statehood," the inequality in Palestinian society grew worse.

Nevertheless, a substantial proportion of the West Bank's population once again gave the PA a credit line, in the expectation that in exchange, the West would force Israel to honor international decisions and set up a Palestinian state.

But the West didn't force Israel to do anything. And because of the global economic crisis, it can no longer continue to compensate for the losses that Israeli rule has caused the Palestinian economy. Yet the PA stuck to diplomacy that isn't ending the occupation, and didn't even bother to set different domestic economic policies that would reduce the intolerable economic gaps, in an effort to restore the public's faith in it. (The measures Fayyad announced yesterday are nothing but a Band-Aid.)

And the public? It is left with economic distress and a leadership that honors its commitments to the Israeli security services.