Netanyahu Fears Palestinian Authority Collapse That He Helped Induce

The PA is a narcotic for Israelis: It allows them to control millions of stateless, disenfranchised Palestinians without paying the cost.

Tomer Appelbaum and Reuters

Benjamin Netanyahu is worried that the Palestinian Authority may collapse. According to Barak Ravid, he’s twice convened Israel’s security cabinet to discuss the prospect since late December. It reminds me of a quote from the 2003 film Cold Mountain: “They made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say “Shit, it’s raining.’”

Created as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was built upon a bargain. Israel would get a Palestinian leadership that recognized its right to exist and policed the West Bank so Israeli 19 year olds would no longer have to patrol every village and town. (An activity that had become more dangerous since the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987). In return, the Palestinians would get the embryo of a state. The PA was supposed to last only five years. After that, most Palestinians assumed, the PA would police not Israel’s occupation but their new country.

To work, the bargain required that each side gain trust in the other. The more security the PA provided Israel, the more Israelis would support transforming it into a state. The more Palestinians believed Israel would grant them statehood, the more willing they would be to police themselves on Israel’s behalf.

By the time Benjamin Netanyahu first became prime minister in 1996 that trust had already frayed. For Israelis, the suicide bombings of the mid-1990s constituted a betrayal of the Palestinian side of the bargain. For Palestinians, settlement growth constituted a betrayal of the Israeli side. All this weakened the Palestinian Authority.

But before Netanyahu’s election, 44 percent of Palestinians still believed that the PA would become a state. Within a year of his taking office, according to the Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, that figure had dropped to thirty percent.  It fell because, in the words of the late Ron Pundak, one of Oslo’s architects, “Netanyahu sabotaged the peace process relentlessly, and made every effort to delegitimize his Palestinian partners.” 

To be fair, the Palestinians also delegitimized themselves: Yasser Arafat did not consistently combat terrorism. At times, he fomented it. But by showing Palestinians that he had no intention of giving them a viable state, Netanyahu undermined the political bargain on which Palestinian security cooperation relied. “I don’t intend to dismantle any settlement,” Netanyahu declared in 1998. Indeed, he oversaw a major new one at Har Homa, along with 170 illegal outposts, as detailed by Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal in their book Lords of the Land. “Neither President Clinton nor Secretary Albright believed that Bibi had any real interest in pursuing peace,” observed U.S. envoy Dennis Ross. After leaving office, Bibi admitted as much himself, boasting that during his time as prime minister, “I halted the process of giving away land.” 

By the time, Netanyahu returned as prime minister in 2009, the PA was more than a decade past its original expiration date. And the political bargain undergirding it had been further damaged: By the violence of the second intifada for Israelis, and by continued settlement growth for Palestinians. Still, there were embers of hope. Under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Palestinian security forces had grown more professional, and won praise from their Israeli counterparts. In 2008, Ehud Olmert had made the most far-reaching two-state offer ever by an Israeli prime minister. Abbas had made dramatic concessions too including on refugee return.

Then the Bibi wrecking crew returned. Netanyahu withdrew Olmert’s proposal and offered none in its place. Under international pressure, he endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state in the summer of 2009, but emphatically rejected the idea that it would be based upon the 1967 lines plus land swaps, thus rejecting the parameters that had guided every serious two state negotiation in the past. Then, in 2014, he declared that he no longer supports any Palestinian state at all. 

Once again, the Palestinians are not blameless. The PA is authoritarian and corrupt, and West Bank Palestinians cannot elect new leaders because neither Abbas nor Netanyahu nor Barack Obama want to risk another free election that Hamas might win. But the single biggest reason for the PA’s legitimacy crisis is simple: Palestinians only supported it as a means towards statehood. They didn’t sign up to permanently oversee their own subjugation. As Salam Fayyad explained when he resigned as the PA’s prime minister in 2013, “The occupation regime is more entrenched, with no sign it is beginning to relinquish its grip on our lifeOur people question whether the PA can deliver.” 

Now, having spent a career undermining the PA, Bibi wants to keep it afloat. The reason would have been familiar to any 19th century colonial administrator: Indirect rule is cheaper. Why send Israelis to pick up the garbage and hunt for terrorists in Qalqilya if Palestinians will do it for you, especially when foreign donors largely pick up the tab?  

But they won’t keep doing it. For Israelis, the Palestinian Authority has been a narcotic: It allows them to enjoy the benefits of controlling millions of stateless, disenfranchised Palestinians without paying the cost. But the cost is starting to rise. It’s rising as security in the West Bank breaks down, and Palestinians commit horrific, unjustifiable, acts of violence. And it’s rising as, slowly but inexorably, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement isolates Israel around the world. When the Palestinian Authority collapses entirely, and chaos grips West Bank, the cost will rise even more, since Israel will have to send its soldiers to again patrol house to house in Palestinian cities and towns whose inhabitants hate their guts.

Saving the PA, if it’s even still possible, would require a profound shift in Israeli policy: a real settlement freeze, a two-state offer within the Clinton parameters, support for a Palestinian coalition government that can pave the way for Palestinian elections. (To run, Hamas would have to pledge to accept the will of the Palestinian people if they endorse a two state deal via referendum. If Israel wants Hamas to lose, it could let Marwan Barghouti, the most popular Palestinian politician alive, and a two-stater, out of jail.).

Bibi is not considering any of this. He’s already made his choice: one state, from river to sea, in which Jews enjoys citizenship and West Bank Palestinians don’t. He just doesn’t want to face the consequences of that choice. He’d rather peer up at the darkening sky and say, “shit, it’s raining.”