Israel must prepare for the possibility that the Palestinian Authority will collapse, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet Monday.
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“We must prevent the Palestinian Authority from collapsing if possible, but at the same time, we must prepare in case it happens,” he said, according to two senior officials briefed on the meeting.
Over the past 10 days, the diplomatic-security cabinet has held two meetings on the possibility that the PA might collapse, in light of the freeze in the diplomatic process, the ongoing wave of terror attacks, the economic crisis in the West Bank and the political crisis within the Palestinian leadership. They were the latest in a series of meetings that began after the failure of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to the region in November.
One senior Israeli official said the discussions about a possible collapse of the PA were sparked by both written and oral opinions warning of this possibility that were given to the government by the defense establishment over the last two months. In any such scenario, he said, the PA was liable “to collapse on Israel,” meaning that Israel would be stuck with responsibility for both security and civilian affairs in areas now controlled by the PA.
The defense establishment advised the diplomatic-security cabinet “to adopt an official policy of preventing such a collapse,” said another source involved in the discussions on the matter, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue. “Not just to say we aren’t interested in a collapse, but to make gestures and take steps on the ground that will stave off the materialization of such a scenario.”
Netanyahu accepted the defense establishment’s position and has effectively adopted a policy of preventing the PA’s collapse. In a briefing for reporters during the Paris Climate Conference in early December, he said he doesn’t want the PA to collapse, because the alternative is liable to be worse. He is interested in taking practical steps to prevent this from happening and has even held several meetings on this subject in recent weeks with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Yoav Mordechai, Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen and other officials.
However, due to political pressure from some of the ministers in the security cabinet, Netanyahu is not implementing most of the recommendations made to him by the security establishment. Some of the ministers, like Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, do not support Netanyahu’s desire to prevent the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and make conciliatory gestures in the field.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett does not support moves to expedite the PA’s collapse, but also objects to doing anything to prevent it.
During the meetings of the security cabinet in recent weeks, there were also scenarios described in which even if Israel took steps to strengthen the PA, it might not be able to prevent its disintegration. The defense establishment believes that the PA could fall apart for internal reasons that have nothing to do with Israel or on which Israel can have little influence.
For example, the cabinet discussed the possible collapse of the PA if PA President Mahmoud Abbas, 81, would die. Under this scenario the resulting succession struggle could cause such a crisis in the PA that it would be unable to function. The Shin Bet security service and Military Intelligence have no assessment as to which dominant figure might take Abbas’ place.
The names that come up during internal discussions are “the usual suspects,” like senior Fatah figure Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison, former senior Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan or the head of Palestinian intelligence Majid Faraj. Senior Israeli officials admit, however, that any assessment at this point is mere guesswork.
The United States, the EU, and other elements in the international community are very worried about the possible collapse of the PA and the anarchy liable to follow. This was one of the issues discussed by the envoys of the Middle East Quartet – the United States, Russia, the EU and the United Nations – when they visited Israel two weeks ago.