Nearly three decades after its establishment, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has failed to fulfill its historic national goal as a platform for the full implementation of Palestinian independence and the establishment of a viable state “with Jerusalem as its capital.” Despite the flickers of hope for reform, especially during Salam Fayyad’s tenure as prime minister, the PA is advancing nowhere; it offers no prospect of real change in the political, economic, or social situation. Israel, meanwhile, for lack of a better alternative and owing to political imperatives of its own, is locked into conflict management mode with no fresh political thinking to help break the stasis in relations. Thus, the PA in its present form is grounded in its failed function, increasingly loses the remnants of the legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian public and fails the test of controlling its destiny.
There are indications—not least in opinion polls and in the latest elections in the Birzeit University student body, as detailed below—that Hamas is effectively positioned as a political alternative. True, Hamas is not part of the PLO: although the official definitions and powers of the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people have not yet changed since its inception and over the years, the PA has pushed the PLO, in effect, out of the center of national activity and has become the most prominent political factor in the Palestinian system. Thus, as senior PLO officials have joined the PA leadership—in fact, the PLO chairman is also the PA president—the center of gravity of the Palestinian people has clearly shifted to the PA territories, making the Fatah–Hamas rivalry (or alternatively, disintegration along sub-regional lines) potentially central to the Palestinian future.
This situation has made the role of the Palestinian diaspora marginal and has even removed its ability to influence agenda in the PA territories. In fact, the clear expectation of realizing independence and establishing a state lay at the door of the PA, and not of the PLO. The manifest weakness of Mahmud Abbas’s leadership—and the PA’s failures in the field of governance—thus pose for Israel, and the world, a poor but inevitable choice between sub-optimal conflict management, the alternative of localized centers of power, or the dangerous rise to dominance of more radical elements.
Although the verdict on the PA’s failure to fulfill its mission is clear and decisive, the question still arises as to why this has happened. Of course, circumstances external to the PA’s own conduct—including the inability of Israel to determine the possible outlines of a permanent status agreement—cannot be overlooked. Nevertheless, it can be asserted, based on the evidence of the last 28 years, that the basic drivers for this failure and the reasons why it cannot easily be undone can be found in the PA’s own conduct.
Five main reasons, or rather, one cardinal reason and four auxiliary ones, can be adduced as an explanation (and as indicators of the difficulties that lie ahead). The main cause of failure, which can be presented as having inevitably caused the other four, can be identified in the failure of the Palestinian leadership—first of Yasser Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas, each in his own distinctly different way—to carry out the necessary transition from a revolutionary movement, a national liberation organization that was also characterized by many as a terrorist organization, to a real and painstaking process of state-building. This would have required a change in the aspects of consciousness, organization, and political behavior, which did not come about; the political conduct of the PA and the Palestinian leadership in the institutional, economic, and social dimensions did not significantly change from the days of exile in Tunisia. These dimensions, in turn, feed:
- The deep domestic split between Fatah and Hamas, with the latter using the PA’s weakness to present a political alternative;
- The growing political distance between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and increasingly also the loss of central control in parts of the West Bank;
- The lack of agreed-upon social and political mechanisms for managing disagreements, as the result of which the PA’s public legitimacy is further eroded;
- Under the circumstances, Abbas finds it difficult to assert authority, and voices for the leader’s resignation are increasing.
Thus, Fatah, as the hegemonic movement, is losing its grip and public support as Hamas strengthens at its expense. Public frustration is growing and translating into protest and even violence and the loss of the PA’s monopoly on organized violence, thus shortening its path to a semi-dysfunctional existence paradoxically kept alive by Israeli interventions on the ground.
It should be borne in mind that the PLO, self-defined as a revolutionary movement and a national liberation organization (“heir to the Vietnamese in their prime”), began its path in total opposition to the very existence of the State of Israel and advocated the armed struggle for the liberation of the Palestinian homeland, especially as reflected by the declaration of Palestinian independence in November 1988. Over time, the organization moderated its positions, and, in signing the Declaration of Principle in September 1993, the PLO agreed to establish a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel—based on the 1967 borders—while keeping open other demands. However, despite the changes in the organization’s positions, the signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the PA, Arafat continued to act as head of the PLO and to his last day rarely acted as a head of state. His conduct was always characterized by a duality of statesmanship and striving for an agreement, alongside cultivating an ethos of resistance and liberating the entire homeland.
More than 17 years after his passing, the message implicit in Arafat’s actions back then still feeds expectations about the temporality of the agreements, marking them as mere tools and a prelude to the establishment of a Palestinian state from the river to the sea. Attempts to posthumously reform the management of the PA’s daily routine, which was not at all conducted like a state-in-being, repeatedly failed. Although national institutions and government ministries were established, a state bureaucracy developed and services were provided to the citizens, Arafat made sure to keep all centers of power in his hands; in this problematic respect, Abu Mazen has retained his legacy.
It should be said that while Arafat chose to tilt intelligence and security organizations against each other—using “divide and rule” methods—to prevent any organization or person from gaining too much power, Abu Mazen has allowed for the creation of a more centralized command structure under Majid Faraj. But neither he nor Fayyad as prime minister could undo the impact of the PLO’s corruption and nepotism imported into the PA.
As for the use of violence, there is a distinction but not necessarily a difference. Faced with failure to develop the economy and build civil society, Arafat ended his last years under siege in the Muqata in Ramallah, in the midst of a Palestinian terror war against Israel. Even if there are those who claim that Arafat did not initiate the Second Intifada, there is no denying that he did not prevent it, that he rode on the back of the tiger, and later even fed the tiger through the armed Tanzim (the forces loyal to Fatah), which he had nurtured over the years, As even the security forces were drawn into the fighting, the PA and Palestinian society came to the edge of the abyss of oblivion. Mahmud Abbas did warn against this outcome (in an essay in 2002, huzimna, “we have been defeated” [implicitly, by our own folly]). Although Abbas did avoid a similar descent into all-out conflict, he never fully disowned the “martyrs,” and the ambiguity continues to undermine prospects for resumed diplomatic progress (as does also the shift in Israeli opinion, another legacy of this bitter period between 2000 and 2005).
One specific result of this conduct and of the lack of Palestinian governance weakened the Palestinian position even further. During his years as PA chairman, Arafat managed to preserve (to some extent) the Palestinian veto power against the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states until the conflict was resolved as he would see fit. But even in Arafat’s era, Arab leaders increasingly grew tired of being held—in their own eyes—hostages to the Palestinian cause, when relations with Israel could serve important national interests. Consequently, following the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020, the Palestinian leadership found itself on the margins of the relevant Arab spectrum.
Thus bereft of one of its more potent strategic assets and increasingly shorn of its legitimacy due to failures of governance, the PA leadership could have opted for a more cooperative course toward Israel: but here is the grip of a maximalist ideology, characterized by a demand for absolute justice in the form of exercising the right of return and establishing a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem while denying the Jewish heritage in Jerusalem and the legitimacy of any Israeli historical, religious, and national claims. This was translated into reluctant and stubborn conduct and the rejection of all policy initiatives, including Prime Minister Olmert’s proposal to Abu Mazen in September 2008.
Following the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in 2009, the Palestinian leadership eventually decided to abandon direct negotiations with Israel. Alternatively, the PA opted for a strategy of internationalizing the conflict, assuming that it could mobilize the international community to force Israel to establish a Palestinian state without the Palestinian side having to pay the price of mutual national recognition and of having to acknowledge Israeli security needs. Recourse to the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as well as the UN General Assembly’s decision to recognize Palestine as a non-member state, came to replace the need for a practical compromise with Israel in the eyes of Abbas and Ereikat. Furthermore, President Obama’s decision in December 2016 to allow UNSCR 2334 to pass without a US veto may have also fed these expectations; however, his critical attitude toward Israeli policies faded with President Trump’s entry into the White House. Thus, the failure of the Palestinian leadership to understand the new mindset of the US and of much of the Arab world led to a complete severance of dialogue with the Trump administration.
The PA was unable to reverse the decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. American support for the PA and for UNRWA was drastically cut. The Abraham Accords further signaled the loss of Palestinian influence over regional affairs. These were the PA’s difficult hours, which became even more difficult due to the severe rivalry with Hamas. In turn, this fed—and was further exacerbated by—a dangerous acceleration of the PA and its leadership’s eroding public legitimacy, to the point of the public’s widespread demand for Abu Mazen’s resignation.
A poll in December 2021 conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research led by Prof. Khalil Shikaki illustrates this point well. 71% of the Palestinian public stated they were dissatisfied with PA Chairman Abu Mazen’s performance, and 74% want him to resign. The poll also indicates that had elections been held for the presidency of the PA, Hamas candidate Ismail Haniyeh would have defeated Abu Mazen by 58% to 35%, respectively, and in the Palestinian parliamentary elections Hamas would have won a majority against Fatah, by 38% to 35% respectively.
Another alarming indication is the results of the last student union elections at Birzeit University held in May 2022 where Hamas won handily. This result is perceived as meaningful at the national level and demonstrates the popularity of Hamas as well as the sense of disappointment with Fatah and the Fatah-led PA. The results shocked Fatah leaders: Some Fatah branches and offices closed their doors, and local leaders spoke about the need to reconsider the political options. Many consider the Hamas achievement at Birzeit as a turning point.
Meanwhile, Hamas has demonstrated its competence since May 2021, by openly seeking to establish a deterrent equation vis-à-vis Israel by including East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Arab citizens of Israel in its new rules of the game, in addition to the Gaza Strip itself. Indeed, Hamas has positioned itself as the defender of Jerusalem and as a valid alternative to Fatah in leading the PA. With the latter, rather than the PLO (to which Hamas does not belong) in the leading role determining the future of the Palestinian people, the Hamas leadership in Gaza has become the center of gravity of the Palestinian system.
Hamas’s rising popularity, which has crossed Gaza’s borders and reached the West Bank and the streets of Israeli Arab towns, is being used to sustain the pressure on both Israel and the PA, without descending into another all-out round of fighting in Gaza itself. Hamas is using the current terror campaign facing Israel since March 2022 to advance its strategic position in the Palestinian arena. Hamas leverages the sensitivity of Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount compound), improves its organizational capacities among the Palestinian Jerusalemites, and has demonstrated impressive capabilities in setting the national and regional agenda. It has derailed some of Israel’s diplomatic achievements and destabilized the entire system by using Jerusalem in a well-organized cognitive campaign as a generator for recruiting and motivating the masses.
All this locks the PA itself ever deeper into the conceptual failure, which has stemmed from misidentifying global and regional trends. This was demonstrated recently when Jibril Rajoub—a key Fatah figure—paid a visit to Damascus seeking President Assad’s support. Meanwhile, Hamas leaders—with a nod to Iran—have expressed support for the Houthis in Yemen. This conduct is a slap in the face of Arab leaders belonging to the pragmatic Sunni camp, which they perceive as an act of treason that undermines any progress in their relations with both the PA or its alternatives.
The PA, which failed to read the global and regional map and continued to adhere to the internationalization strategy while deepening the rift and disconnect with Israel and the US, has also failed to change its ways regarding the other reasons that have led to its failure. As a result, the Palestinian economy has continued to falter and its dependence on the Israeli economy is still complete; civil society has remained paralyzed and persecuted; and state institutions continue to be characterized largely by dysfunction saturated with corruption and nepotism. In fact, when Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad tried to end the Palestinian dependence on Israel, working to strengthen the institutional foundations of the PA during his tenure in 2007–2013, he was eventually ousted by Abu Mazen and the veteran Palestinian leadership.
The recent moves of the PLO Chairman and PA President Abu Mazen, such as postponing the elections that were supposed to take place in May 2021, his decision to appoint the PLO Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh as the PLO head of negotiations with Israel, and his unwillingness to comply with the demands of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and the DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine) regarding the conditions for convening the Palestinian National Council of the PLO further deepen the paralysis in the Palestinian system. The recent reconciliation moves in Algeria have also raised eyebrows, as the rift with Hamas has not been healed but rather has widened.
Abu Mazen’s willingness to hold meetings with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, as well as approve meetings of senior PA leaders with other Israeli ministers, does not basically change the PA’s gloomy outlook. In practice, these attempts are perceived as an attempt by Abu Mazen to cling to the horns of the altar and ensure his survival with Israeli assistance: in effect, opting—as does Israel—for conflict management. Not surprisingly, Abu Mazen’s moves are depicted by Hamas and his political rivals, as well as by many in the Palestinian public, as despicable cooperation with the occupier further feed Hamas’s efforts to leverage the Jerusalem question as a tool of delegitimizing such “collaboration.”
All this lends gravity to the fact that Abu Mazen has failed to establish agreed-upon mechanisms for the day after his departure. A bitter rivalry between Fatah officials who see themselves as worthy to step into his shoes therefore promises a difficult and probably violent struggle for succession, further exacerbating tensions with both Hamas and Israel. In fact, Abu Mazen’s departure from the Palestinian arena voluntarily or out of necessity, under natural circumstances, is no longer very far away, but there is no reason or hope for a real change of direction. The destination—nowhere, toward collapse or at best fragile conflict management—has long been marked, and the PA is walking toward it with its eyes closed. We will not be able to determine with certainty what the fate of the PA will be when it gets there: whether it collapses into the arms of Israel; whether it continues to exist and operate as it has since its inception, having a complex interaction with the Israeli military and intelligence services; or whether the West Bank will disintegrate into small and autonomous entities.
In any case, the historic failure of the PA and its leadership has become a painful paradox for the Palestinian people. In fact, the PA, which was established as a platform for the realization of independence and the establishment of a Palestinian state, has over the years become a platform that keeps the Palestinian people in limbo. The price is, of course, paid first and foremost by the Palestinian people. But the PA’s slide to nowhere can lead to sudden and disruptive “non-linear” developments—which may take a toll on Israel and its neighbors—and this will also affect regional security and stability.
Hence, Israel—which now counts, for the purposes of conflict management, mainly on the (somewhat improved) Palestinian security forces under Majed Faraj and on the existing pattern of security cooperation—must calculate its steps wisely and plan ahead for all eventualities. Israeli leaders must bear in mind that they may have very limited impact on the coming succession struggle, and if any player comes to being perceived as having been backed by Israel (say, if Marwan Barghouti would be released from jail so he can contend), that player would become all the more motivated to prove in action that he is no stooge. In terms of both intelligence collection and analysis, as well as operational capability, Israel needs to be ready to act in a timely manner in such a way as to minimize the potential for harm.