When Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned last Saturday, fed up with political attacks from President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, a number of observers worried that it marked “the beginning of the end of the PA.” Western governments viewed Fayyad as indispensible, the only uncorrupted figure both aligned with Western interests and sufficiently independent of Fatah to check its unelected rule in the West Bank.
Although Fayyad was unpopular -- his party received just 2.4 percent of the vote in the 2006 legislative election -- he was a capable technocrat and successfully administered the scattered West Bank municipalities. Fayyad was also friendly with the International Monetary Fund, where he formerly served as representative to the PA, and was valued in Washington primarily because of his reputation for transparency, his efforts at reforming the PA security forces, and his close cooperation with Israel. Fayyad was not responsible for the PA’s overall strategy; instead, decisions over whether to fight, file suit against, negotiate, or cooperate with Israel lay with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and its chairman, Abbas. Still, the vocal support Fayyad received from Israel and the United States was enough to discredit him among Palestinians -- a dilemma familiar to Abbas as well.
Like Fayyad, Abbas was once an unelected prime minister brought into office with U.S. backing but with little public support or street cred. He was the first appointee to the newly created position of prime minister, which Washington hoped would weaken PA President Yasir Arafat’s rule. Abbas’ testy relationship with Arafat is strikingly similar to Fayyad’s recent conflict with Abbas. Abbas clashed with the distrustful president, and the Fatah party, which mobilized protests against him and branded him a puppet of Israel and the United States -- ultimately forcing him to resign the post.
Both Fayyad and Abbas learned that Western officials valued them not in spite of their poor relations with the two largest Palestinian political parties but because of them. In his final speech as prime minister, Abbas decried Israel and the United States for misleading him and making false promises. Similarly, more than anyone else, it was Fayyad’s Israeli and U.S. champions who betrayed him. His resignation was in no small part because of punitive financial measures that the United States and Israel recently took against the PA, which Fatah then used to whip up protests against Fayyad’s economic policies. The United States and Israel also punished Fayyad for Abbas’ decision to apply for an upgrade in status at the UN General Assembly in November 2012, and failed to show the Palestinian people that Fayyad’s program of close cooperation with Israel and the United States would advance them toward independence.
Whoever replaces Fayyad, especially if he or she is not on good terms with Fatah, will have to manage the same inverse relationship between domestic and Western support. Fatah may be weak, but it can still undermine opponents, as Fayyad’s resignation illustrates. The next prime minister will also face the tricky task of securing the Israeli tax transfers and Western aid on which the PA depends. In the end, the prime minister was just a scapegoat for the deeper problems of the Palestinian government -- mainly, the political malaise induced by the PLO’s indecisiveness.
Now the PLO can pursue one of two broad strategies: confrontation or cooperation. On the one hand, PA leaders could pursue a domestically popular but potentially dangerous strategy of challenging Israel more aggressively. This approach could involve more assertively encouraging popular protest (and risking violence); disregarding U.S. and European preferences to exclude Hamas from the Palestinian government and moving toward reconciliation; or taking steps toward internationalizing the conflict, for example by becoming a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and attempting to bring cases against Israel. Any of these moves would put pressure on a complacent Israel and the feckless international community to reassess the status quo. But this approach might also spur Israeli retaliation and large reductions in foreign aid.
On the other hand, Palestinian leaders could opt to cooperate more with Israel and Western powers. This strategy might include returning to the incremental, confidence-building steps on which the Oslo process was based. The PA might consider entering talks without Israeli commitments to freeze all settlement construction or to agree to the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations. It could also launch discussions on arrangements -- such as the establishment of a state with provisional borders -- that fall short of a conflict-ending agreement but would give the Palestinians more territory, sovereignty, and international recognition. But Abbas fears that these steps would take pressure off Israel to agree to a final settlement, open him to severe domestic criticism, and further weaken the legitimacy of the PLO and Fatah. The resignation of Fayyad is no doubt a reminder for him of the perils of cooperating too closely with the West.
Faced with two unappealing options, Palestinian leaders have tried to stand on a less perilous middle ground, threatening to inch slowly toward confrontation through steps not large enough to risk substantial costs but too small to win much domestic favor. They have offered mild support for popular protests; made overtures about reconciling with Hamas, and joining international agencies that might challenge Israel; and refused to negotiate with Israel without a settlement freeze and commitment to the 1967 borders, while still holding “exploratory meetings” and secret talks.
Fence-straddling has its own costs. The PA has essentially chosen not to choose, and, in so doing, continued its slow enervation, leaving Palestinians increasingly dissatisfied and allowing greater room for other events and actors to shape the conflict. Indeed, much of the protest activity in recent months -- from hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners to demonstrations against the Palestinian government and Israeli settlers -- has attempted to fill this leadership void and jump-start a stalled national movement. Calls for bolder steps toward confrontation will only grow in the absence of a clearly articulated strategy.
The PLO’s indecision allows the public to pull it -- gradually and grudgingly -- toward conflict. This could put Abbas in the worst of all positions, bearing the potential costs of confrontation without receiving any of the benefits, particularly in public support, of ratcheting up the fight. Likewise, by refusing to adopt a strategy of greater cooperation, it is forgoing the potential benefits of doing so, such as having prisoners released from Israeli jails, acquiring weapons for PA security forces, regularly receiving tax transfers and foreign aid, gaining greater international sympathy, enduring fewer Israeli incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas, and expanding PA jurisdiction in the West Bank. The current approach leaves no one happy.
Furthermore, there is little reason for West Bank leaders to be so hesitant about committing to one of these strategic directions. Appealing to the ICC, for example, might provoke some backlash, but the PA will collapse only in the highly improbable event that the United States, European countries, and Israel decide to oppose it. Instead, all three parties believe that the PA’s relatively intransigent but peaceful leadership is much more attractive than any of the alternatives. This has been illustrated repeatedly; Israeli and Palestinian leaders have negotiated with one another by pointing a gun at the PA’s head, but both sides know that the other will not actually pull the trigger. Most recently, in November 2012, Israeli leaders spoke of forcing a PA collapse if Abbas pursued an upgrade in Palestine’s status at the UN General Assembly. Abbas did just this and, not surprisingly, the Israeli threats turned out to be empty. The following month, Abbas threatened PA dismantlement following a plan to expand Israeli settlements around Jerusalem, but this talk also turned out to be hot air.
Similarly, the strategy of increasing cooperation with Israel and Western donors would prompt some domestic criticism but nothing that would bring down the government. In January 2012, objections to the PLO’s direct talks with Israel barely reached a murmur. And if Palestinian leaders agreed to have a state on provisional borders, they might be greeted with much less domestic opposition than they expect. In effect, Palestinians are already living within a state, as decreed by the UN General Assembly, with provisional borders, as set by the Oslo Accords. And the de jure creation of a state with provisional borders is unlikely to remove what little pressure Israel now faces to reach a final agreement. In the absence of a peace accord, protests against land confiscations and the separation barrier, efforts to sanction and boycott Israel, and international objections to settlement construction, home demolitions, displacements, and restrictions on movement will only continue.
Finally, indignation against “negotiations for the sake of negotiations” -- as many Palestinians have come to view talks -- hides the costs of inaction. Recently, as Palestinian leaders refused to enter direct talks, Israel has advanced settlement construction in the West Bank, consolidated control over East Jerusalem, and further isolated Gaza from the West Bank. The PLO gained nothing in return. If it had come to the table, it might not have been able to slow Israel’s advancements, but likely would have gained some concessions.
Admittedly, PA leaders are not exclusively to blame for the current standstill. Most are merely responding to the contradictory demands of their constituents. West Bankers seem to want to have it both ways: to wage a more effective resistance to the Israeli occupation but without reducing living standards or suffering the effects of another intifada.
The West Bank leadership has not been clear with its people -- and possibly even with itself -- that these two objectives are at odds with each other. But the public has made its preferences known by protesting vociferously against stalled salary payments and increases in the cost of living while expressing muted criticism of negotiations in Amman, security cooperation with Israel, and the PA’s ambivalence toward popular protests. For the time being, the Palestinians will muddle along, now without Fayyad to blame for the choices they are not making.
*Nathan Thrall is a Jerusalem-based Senior Analyst with the Middle East & North Africa Program of the International Crisis Group. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books.