AMMAN/BRUSSELS — The Palestinian political system is in disarray, and it will take sustained action by Palestinians, international assistance and — at a minimum — no obstruction by Israel to prevent its total collapse.
Who Governs the West Bank? Palestinian Administration under Israeli Occupation, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines that system, which faces its most acute crisis since the Oslo process was launched in 1993. Although Israel’s occupation provides the context, the Palestinian Authority’s predicament is decidedly domestic.
“The PA has been in virtually continuous crisis since the uprising began in September 2000, but it is now close to breaking point”, says Robert Malley, ICG’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “It is paralysed and unable to make even basic decisions on Palestinian objectives”.
There is a growing consensus among Palestinians that business as usual is not a viable option if they are to forge a path to statehood, garner international support or, in Fatah’s case, regain the initiative against Islamist rivals and survive the inevitably approaching leadership change. Realisation is growing that salvation will not come from outside, and Palestinians must seize the initiative.
“Besieged from without, divided from within, Palestinians need to act despite adverse circumstances precisely in order to overcome them”, states ICG Senior Middle East Analyst Mouin Rabbani. “They increasingly demand that the margins that exist be properly utilised before they disappear altogether”.
The agenda concerned Palestinians advocate reflects that set out when the PA was established: construction of unified, effective, accountable national institutions; appointment of competent, credible officials; rule of law; and good governance. It also includes formulation of a coherent political program, based on a national consensus, spelling out Palestinian strategic objectives and the means of achieving them. Increasing numbers add de-militarisation of the uprising to this agenda.
To achieve this, leaders must have popular legitimacy and capacity to make decisions. Long-overdue elections — local, legislative, presidential, and within Fatah — are needed to stem fragmentation and are perhaps the only alternative to greater domestic conflict. Some argue there is no other way to construct an effective political system and national strategic consensus.
The international community must press Israel not to obstruct those elections, must provide technical assistance and, most importantly, must create conditions that boost Palestinian pragmatists, in particular by fleshing out details of a two-state solution and persuading the Palestinian people that such an outcome remains realistic.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), indeed the Palestinian political system as a whole, face their most acute crisis since the Oslo process was launched eleven years ago. Palestinians need to put their house in order despite adverse circumstances precisely to overcome them. In doing so they should be supported by the international community and — at a minimum — not obstructed by Israel. A key element is the holding of elections, and a key to their success is a political environment in which Palestinians are persuaded by their leaders that they will be meaningful and by the international community that a negotiated and viable two-state settlement remains realistic.
Although the occupation and the confrontation with Israel that is entering its fifth year provide the context, the PA’s current predicament is decidedly domestic. Recent power struggles, armed clashes, and demonstrations do not pit Palestinians against Israelis so much as Palestinians against each other; the chaos is a product not solely of Israel’s policies, but of Palestinian ones as well. The political system is close to breaking point, paralysed and unable to make basic decisions on Palestinian objectives, how these can be achieved, and how to react to Prime Minister Sharon’s planned Gaza “disengagement” .
Besieged from without and divided from within, the PA is routinely said to face imminent disintegration or collapse. In fact, it has been in virtually continuous crisis since the uprising began in September 2000. Initially reluctant to continue governing in response to the escalating conflict, it has become increasingly unable to do so since Israel re-occupied the West Bank in 2002.
As fragmentation has intensified, a growing number of primarily local actors have stepped into the breach: mayors and governors, kinship networks, political groups, and armed militias. Some represent formal institutions devoted to upholding normal governance. Others seek to promote social stability on the basis of traditional allegiances and codes of conduct, or by enforcing discipline in the name of the national struggle. Increasingly, however, they are also vehicles for narrower interests, which have repeatedly brought them into competition and conflict with one another. The result is growing chaos throughout the West Bank.
The crisis is above all within the dominant Fatah movement. The struggles for power and position, armed clashes, increasingly disorderly militias, and growing crisis of authority and legitimacy emanate directly from its inability to establish internal order and unify its ranks — and other Palestinian forces — around a clear political vision and program.
Palestinians of all stripes and colours share today a growing consensus that business as usual is no longer a viable option if they are to forge a path to independent statehood, garner international support or, in the case of Fatah, regain the initiative against Islamist rivals and survive the inevitably approaching change of leadership.
There also is growing realisation that salvation will not come from outside and that Palestinians, irrespective of existing constraints, must seize the initiative. Their agenda is broadly similar to that tabled when the PA was established: construction of unified, effective and accountable national institutions, appointment of competent and credible officials, rule of law and good governance. In the context of the confrontation with Israel, it has been broadened to include formulation of a coherent political program, based on a national consensus, spelling out for Palestinians, Israelis and the international community alike the national movement’s strategic objectives and the means of achieving them.
Increasing numbers add de-militarisation of the uprising to this agenda, with some arguing resort to arms under existing circumstances should never have been pursued, and others concluding that a national movement that for four years has been incapable of using armed force in a disciplined and coherent manner should dispense with it.
For any of this to get off the ground, Palestinian leaders must enjoy popular legitimacy and the capacity to make decisions. This necessitates long-overdue elections — local, legislative, presidential, but also within the Fatah movement. As many Palestinians have concluded, elections are perhaps the only mechanism for resolving increasingly violent power struggles in an orderly fashion, integrating new leaderships and opposition factions into the Palestinian political fabric, forming a consensus on a political strategy and preparing the scene for Arafat to implement necessary reforms and his successors to lead a united national movement.
Some reasonably fear that elections under current circumstances would likely strengthen more radical elements and Hamas in particular. But the proper response to the crisis ought not be to postpone what is so germane to its resolution. Rather, it is for the international community to press Israel not to obstruct elections, to provide Palestinians with technical assistance and, most importantly, to create practical and political conditions that would boost Palestinian pragmatists. This means, in particular, fleshing out details of what a two-state solution would consist of.
With continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence and political inaction in the places that count most — the PA, Israel, and the U.S. — the odds against decisive action are high. But the alternative is growing chaos and mayhem in the West Bank. The costs to Palestinians are obvious. But these should be no less clear to Israelis seeking security and to an international community that watches with alarm as one conflict in the Middle East feeds upon another, and as a dangerous blend of desperation, rage and violence steadily takes hold.