Is the Palestinian Authority on the verge of collapse? 

Commentary: There are three main scenarios that could rapidly change the relative stability in Judea and Samaria: a very serious economic crisis, a substantial change in the status quo on the Temple Mount, and violent clashes between the Jewish and Arab populations in Judea and Samaria, writes Dr. Michael Milshtein, an expert on Palestinian affairs  

Is the Palestinian Authority on the verge of collapse? 

Reuters Photographer

By Michael Milshtein

During the last week, reports surfaced that the U.S. government is concerned over what was described as the poor condition of the Palestinian Authority, and that Washington requested Israel to take action to stabilize the Palestinian regime, especially via economic aid. 

The American warning followed dozens of alerts over the last decade over the possible destabilization of Judea and Samaria that may bring about a variety of dangerous scenarios for Israel, including a "third intifada"; a wave of terror similar to the one that characterized the second intifada; and the collapse of the Palestinian regime including a decision by it to "turn in the keys", namely hand over control of Judea and Samaria to Israel. 

And recently, there were warnings over the possible outburst of a "Palestinian spring" following public protests over the murder of human rights activist Nizar Banat by the Palestinian security forces. But these kinds of alerts haven been proven wrong for a decade, with relative stability in Judea and Samaria despite a series of occurrences that could have caused widespread unrest, such as four military operations in the Gaza Strip, the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018, the metal detector crisis on the Temple Mount in 2017, violent clashes between Jews and Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, the effects of the COVID-19 crisis, and continuing deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations accompanied by countless crises between the sides during which the civilian and security coordination between the two sides was disrupted. The most recent example of the relative stability was operation "Guardian of the Walls" during which stability was maintained in Judea and Samaria, bitterly disappointing Hamas that had aspired to open an additional front against Israel.

The relative calm in Judea and Samaria is a strategic asset for Israel. It is not incidental, as it depends on a formula that combines the joint interests on the two sides of the Green Line, and thus prevents a violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as well as widespread Palestinian public protest against the regime in Ramallah. The formula is based on a number of factors, which are: 

1. Collective Palestinian traumatic memory of the harsh clashes during the last 20 years that still deter the majority of the residents of Judea and Samaria from a conflict with Israel or from promoting widespread domestic protest.   

2. Collective understanding by the public in Judea and Samaria that despite the limitations imposed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the basic quality of life is still better than in Arab countries or the Gaza Strip, which emphasizes how much they could lose from another conflict.  

3. The Palestinian Authority's strategic adherence to the security and civilian coordination with Israel, which serves as a main existential foundation of the regime in Ramallah, and to avoiding violent struggle.  

4. The continued absence of a "critical mass" that would be needed for widespread public support for a revolution, among other reasons because there is no protest movement that provides leadership, organizational framework or a defined vision.    

5. Collective despair and weariness among the majority of the Palestinian public from the major ideologies that drove the Palestinian system in the past (mainly the political negotiations and the armed struggle) and did not yield substantial national achievements, and the public's preference to focus on realizing their personal ambitions and improving their quality of life (a concept called "bidna naish" – let us live - in the Palestinian dialogue).      

6. A simultaneous effort by the Palestinian Authority and Israel to limit the influence of Hamas in all domains in Judea and Samaria and to stop its efforts to incite the region. 

7. Wise conduct by Israel over the last decade that reflected understanding of the importance of stabilizing and cultivating the quality of life in Judea and Samaria in order to maintain security in the region. 

However, the situation of the Palestinian Authority is complex. It suffers from a poor image and low level of legitimacy among the public, and is dependent upon Israel in almost every aspect, but on the other hand, a quarter of a century after its foundation, it is an established fact and is the only reality that almost half of the Palestinians (the percentage of the population born after 1994) know. 

The Palestinian Authority faces the constant danger of destabilization of its internal position, but it is relatively stable and has developed functional bureaucratic power. It serves as the main address for the Palestinian public, and its senior officials have a deep interest in its continued existence as it is the source of their personal and political survival.      

For Israel, this analysis should not induce calm. There are three main scenarios that could rapidly change the relative stability in Judea and Samaria: a very serious economic crisis, mainly if there are negative developments in the Israeli economy; a substantial change in the status quo on the Temple Mount; and violent clashes between the Jewish and Arab populations in Judea and Samaria. 

This requires Israel to continuously maintain awareness and develop a complex network of indicators of possible change in Judea and Samaria, and also to continuously maintain stability by promoting economic aid to the Palestinians, improving the quality of life of the Palestinian public (especially that of the young generation) and strengthening the regime in Ramallah, especially the Palestinian security services.     

These types of steps will not ensure a long-term solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they can enable strategic calm in one if the most sensitive and important arenas in terms of Israel, even if there are dramatic developments such as another war in Gaza or the eventual scenario of "the day after" Abu Mazen.     

 

Dr. Michael Milshtein serves as Head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and as a senior analyst at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. 

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