This article was originally published in Foreign Policy on February 11, 2016.
Ramallah — The message from the top Palestinian leadership, delivered with more than a hint of panic and desperation, seems to be this: You’ll miss us when we’re gone.
That sentiment came from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who gathered a group of Israeli journalists in Ramallah last month to remind them that he was their last best hope for a negotiated settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. His intelligence chief, Majid Faraj, also gave a rare interview to warn — perhaps inaccurately — that the Islamic State could one day seize power in the occupied territories.
And there was the longtime Palestinian diplomat who wondered on live television whether his people would have to “hijack your planes” again to get the West interested in the Palestinian cause. It was a lament, not a threat. “You always wait for things to reach boiling point and explode, causing you harm, before you intervene to end the crimes and violations,” said Nabil Shaath, addressing the Western world.
It’s not a major Israeli military offensive in the West Bank or a new round of settlements that the Palestinian leadership fears, it’s a continuation of the slowly fraying status. The United States and Europe are preoccupied with the disaster in Syria; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a quaint distraction. Four months of near-daily Palestinian stabbing and shooting attacks — the Third Intifada, as some call it — have simply become a grim part of the everyday routine.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) was created by the 1993 Oslo Accords as an interim measure, a five-year stepping stone on the path to statehood. Decades later, the diplomatic track is in a persistent vegetative state — and the PA seems to have little purpose beyond security cooperation with Israel. “Let’s be honest. The peace process is as stuck as I’ve ever seen it,” said one longtime European diplomat.
The PA, in other words, has nothing left to offer Palestinians, nearly half of whom want to dissolve the body, according to a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. The PA can’t claim to represent the desires of the Palestinian electorate — Abbas’s own term as president expired seven years ago. More troubling, to officials on both sides, is the handful of Palestinian police officers who have recently gone rogue and turned their guns against Israeli soldiers, a trend they fear will accelerate at a time of drift and stagnation.
Most of the attacks are conducted by civilian “lone wolves,” young people armed with kitchen knives or screwdrivers. Israeli politicians have accused Abbas of inciting the violence. While Abbas has met with the families of several attackers, the Israeli army says he has largely toned down the rhetoric on state media and in his speeches. And yet, his security forces seem largely powerless to contain the violence.
“If we lose security coordination, it would be a lose-lose, for Abu Mazen, and for us also of course,” said Eitan Dangot, a former Israeli military governor in the occupied territories, using Abbas’s nom de guerre. “There are so many weak points. It’s been a successful process. But it’s weakening.”
Abbas took a gamble over the past few years by internationalizing the conflict, hoping to bring global pressure on Israel and thus shore up his standing at home. He won Palestine an upgraded status at the United Nations and joined the International Criminal Court (ICC), but both victories were largely symbolic. The ICC will take years to bring legal action against Israel, if it ever does, and Palestine has done little with its non-member observer state status at the United Nations except sign dozens of treaties.
Abbas’s aides insist that these diplomatic moves nonetheless gave Palestine global legitimacy as a state. “It has a value, because it means that the presence of a single Israeli Jeep in Ramallah is an international incident, that it’s something disputed,” said Husam Zumlot, a foreign-policy adviser to Abbas. “So it has a value above joining these stupid treaties.”
The Israeli army seems strangely undeterred by Palestine’s signature on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Indeed, troops even briefly shut the entire city of Ramallah to non-residents earlier this month after a nearby shooting attack.
Now Abbas wants to discard the old model of U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel in favor of wider negotiations. “Like a P5+1 for Palestine,” as one aide describes it, referring to the six-member coalition that brokered an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.
The idea has some support on the Israeli side. Yair Lapid, a centrist lawmaker who hopes to be the next prime minister, wants a regional conference over the Arab-Israeli conflict, likening it to the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen — maybe an unfortunate comparison, since that war has become a bloody quagmire. The head of the Labor Party and the parliamentary opposition, Isaac Herzog, likes it too.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not ruled out a conference, it is hard to imagine him offering many concessions without breaking up his fragile right-wing coalition. Nor are world powers terribly interested. President Barack Obama does not plan to spend his final year in office pushing for a peace agreement; a State Department spokesman said on Saturday that Secretary of State John Kerry has “no plan” for renewed talks.
So how can the Palestinian leadership regain the initiative? In interviews over the past few years, Abbas’s aides could never articulate a Plan B — a strategy for moving forward if the U.N. gambit failed. They still can’t, though Abbas may never need one: The president will turn 81 in March, and there are abundant rumors about his poor health.
He has nonetheless refused to anoint a successor. So a silent primary is playing out in Ramallah, with a list of candidates that is bewilderingly long and indicative of the weaknesses of the Palestinian political class. There is Rami Hamdallah, the colorless prime minister; Mohammad Dahlan, a former Fatah strongman who has not set foot in the West Bank for a decade; and Jibril Rajoub, the football association chief who infuriated many Palestinians last year when he dropped his bid to suspend Israel from FIFA.
Abbas has become increasingly paranoid, moving to clip the wings of various challengers. He fired Yasser Abed Rabbo, a onetime advisor-turned-adversary, and froze the assets of an NGO founded by Salam Fayyad, accusing the technocratic ex-prime minister of financial improprieties. One of his few remaining confidantes (and possible successors) is Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator best known for turning in a letter of resignation every year or two.
“Anyone who tries to predict the next president’s name isn’t being serious,” said Dangot. “We don’t see a single leader in Fatah who has worked hard to build a reputation.”
Perhaps the most intriguing is Faraj, the intelligence chief, who is as reclusive as Erekat is garrulous. He granted his first on-the-record interview only last month, to Defense News, a Washington-based trade publication. Unsurprisingly, it focused on security issues: Faraj said that his forces helped to foil some 200 attacks in recent months against Israelis. His counterparts in the Israeli army reportedly trust him.
Two weeks after Faraj’s interview was published, though, a Palestinian police officer opened fire on Israeli soldiers outside of Ramallah, wounding three of them. The attack, which was not carried out by one of his men, was the third by members of the security services.
The numbers of attacks against Israelis by Palestinian officers are still small — they make up less than 2 percent of the attacks since October. A senior Palestinian security official said that overall cooperation with Israel was still “in good health,” and that most officers were still personally loyal to Abbas. But he warned that their loyalty would not last.
“They’re still going to work every day, but it’s embarrassing and confusing for the security services, because the idea was to bring the Palestinian people to statehood,” he said. “This kind of relationship with the Israeli side is not progressing at all.”
The joke in Ramallah — not a new one, admittedly — is that Abbas’s replacement will be Yoav “Poly” Mordechai, the Israeli general who currently serves as military governor in the occupied territories. If Abbas does not personally shut down the PA, aides warn, the central committee will do it after his death or resignation.
Yet a collapse could just as well come from rank-and-file police officers. A few more attacks would erode the trust built up over the past decade, undermining what Israel sees as one of the key reasons for the PA’s existence. Add the diplomatic stalemate and a looming succession struggle to that, and the Palestinian leadership has good reason to contemplate its political mortality.
“Honestly, I’m surprised we still have a president, an authority, police in the streets,” said Zumlot. “What is the legitimacy for these institutions?”