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Preparing for the Era After Abbas

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the Fatah congress in Ramallah, November 29, 2016.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the Fatah congress in Ramallah, November 29, 2016. Credit: Mohamad Torokman, Reuters

Like the “fortunes” of Bazooka Joe and his gang, the head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, opened up and divulged a somber prophecy. “The year 2017 won’t be a stable year for the Palestinian Authority,” he warned, because of the weakened status of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the wars of succession. According to his analysis, there will be a lot of factors undermining Abbas’ leadership, and Hamas will be seeking to chalk up achievements to outshine him.

The result, Halevi said, will be “a very challenging reality in Judea and Samaria.” Challenging to whom? To the PA? To the residents of the territories? To the State of Israel? And what exactly is the Israeli government supposed to do with this fortune-cookie message?

Based on the government’s conduct, it’s doubtful that Halevi’s prediction is really regarded as a challenge. Abbas had only one important role – to be the “non-partner,” the obstacle to peace, someone whom the Israeli government could count on to not pressure it with peace initiatives and to leave it in its splendid isolation as the only peace-lover in the region. As such, Abbas became Israel’s most significant diplomatic asset, even compared to the U.S. administration of Barack Obama. In the era of Donald Trump, who is expected to be a president who is particularly reluctant to become entangled in diplomatic or military conflicts abroad, Abbas can simply disappear — as far as Israel is concerned.

But within Halevi’s banal warning, from which it should be self-evident that a train speeding down a slope without a conductor is an impending disaster, one can also find something positive: The struggle for succession could indicate the importance the Palestinian elite ascribes to the continuing existence of the PA. Whoever wants to replace Abbas will presumably see the authority as not just a source of profit, but as a lever for conducting a tougher international struggle against Israel. Such a Palestinian leader is likely to try to put an end to the hostility between the PA and Hamas, which was an Abbas hallmark, and establish a unified leadership that will serve the Palestinian interest more effectively and will seek to create a supportive international coalition with the help of the EU, Russia, Turkey and the Arab states.

That’s the relatively positive scenario, because under the alternative scenario the PA will break down, its ministries will cease functioning, the power struggles will produce private militias, the military cooperation with Israel will collapse, the funding now provided by the West and the Arab states will stop, Israel will be sucked into micromanaging the lives of the Palestinians at its expense, and Hamas will look like the only responsible adult in the territories.

Under both scenarios, Israel will face stifling international involvement, which is liable to include the delightful prospect of imposed sanctions that will make the pressure the EU is currently exerting look like child’s play.

In view of these possibilities, and in view of its boycott of Abbas, Israel must now, if only for its own sake, allow the Palestinians to establish their next generation of leaders. One cannot both watch apathetically as Abbas departs from the scene and warn of the “challenge” his exit will pose. One cannot denounce him as rejecting peace and inciting terror, while also dreading the intifada expected during the war of succession. Elections for the Palestinian Authority are crucial to understanding the Palestinian political map Israel will have to deal with, and – no less important – will strengthen the position of the PA as the Palestinians’ representative body, to prevent its collapse and allow for as peaceful a transition of power as possible.

The working assumption that it doesn’t matter what the Palestinians do, since Israel will be prepared for any scenario has just the opposite effect: It prevents Israel from assessing and handling potential scenarios before they occur, forcing it instead to deal ad-hoc with scenarios that have already unfolded.

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