How Israel's far right is engineering the Palestinian Authority's collapse

Illustration - Analysis - PA collapse
7 min read
18 January, 2023

Palestinians are caught between two camps in the Israeli political mainstream. One wants the Palestinian Authority (PA) alive but perpetually weakened, paralysed, and exhausted to near collapse, but without ever allowing it to cease to exist. The other fundamentally wants to see its destruction.

The balance of power in Israel’s current government seems tipped to the latter camp, and Palestinian and Israeli experts warn it could spell disaster.

After less than two weeks in office, Israel’s far-right government approved a series of punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority that exacerbated its already acute financial crises.

Last week, Israel’s Finance Minister and notorious supremacist theocrat, Bezalel Smotrich, signed a decree to confiscate nearly $40 million from the tax revenue that Israel collects from the Palestinian Authority and redirect it to Israeli families of “terror victims”.

"Successive Israeli governments have had both a strategic interest in the PA's existence, which serves Israel politically, and a strategic interest in keeping the PA weak"

The move purportedly came in retaliation to a UN resolution seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legality of Israel’s prolonged occupation.

Since 2018, Israel has already been annually withholding $180 million from the PA’s tax revenues as punishment for paying stipends to the families of Palestinians killed or imprisoned by Israel. The spokesman for the PA presidency, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, called such actions "piracy and the theft of the Palestinian people's money".

When warned that the latest measures could bring about the collapse of the PA, Smotrich replied that he has “no interest for [the PA] to continue to exist,” labelling it “an enemy” and accusing it of “encouraging terror”. This was followed by a barrage of warnings, including from the PA Prime Minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, that the PA is closer to collapse than ever.

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The latest warnings about the PA’s likely demise evoke a sense of deja-vu. It has been an almost constant theme over the last decade.

In November, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet cautioned Prime Minister-Elect Benjamin Netanyahu about the dangers of the “PA’s imminent collapse”. In 2019, the prominent Israeli Institute, the Reut, issued a similar warning.

Such warnings date back as far as 2011, when the Center for American Progress warned against of the PA’s imminent downfall after Israel and the US sought to punish it for its UN membership bid.

The reason for this repetitive cycle of warnings is that Israel has always wanted the PA to be alive but weakened so that it wouldn’t have the energy or resources to advocate for Palestinian rights and lead the Palestinian struggle.

Palestinian officers walk in front of a poster as preparations are made for the inauguration of the newly finished mausoleum over the grave of Yasser Arafat in the grounds of the Palestinian Authority's Muqataa headquarters in Ramallah in 2007. [Getty]

Perpetually on the brink

“The PA was only meant to be a transitional entity in the Oslo Accords’ interim period to lead Palestinians to an independent state free from occupation by 1999,” Wasel Abu Yousef, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, told The New Arab.

“However, Israel prolonged the PA’s existence as a mere service provider to the Palestinians without allowing it to lead the liberation project. Hence, Israel has a strategic interest in undermining and weakening the PA.”

Retired Israeli Brigadier General Ephraim Sneh, who previously served as a Knesset member, minister of health and transportation, and deputy minister of defence, believes that even Netanyahu doesn’t want the PA to stop existing, but that he “doesn’t want the PA to be strong,” adding that “the more you strengthen the PA, the closer you get to the national goal of a state”.

Sneh told The New Arab that “Netanyahu had 13 years to [collapse the PA], but he didn’t do it”.

"They [the Israeli far-right] go beyond the traditional camp that wants the PA weak but not to triumph over it. They want full triumph"

According to him, the PA is of strategic importance to Israel’s security, and its demise would lead to “more chaos" in the West Bank. Therefore, Netanyahu is keen to maintain the PA’s survival while simultaneously weakening it.

“The president of the PA is ideologically against violence and terrorism, and he paid a price for his position about it. So [Smotrich’s] story of the ‘terror-supporting PA’ is nonsense,” he told The New Arab.

A former top PA official shares a similar assessment, arguing that Israel is keen to keep the PA alive, but exhausted and perpetually on the brink of collapse.

Speaking to The New Arab on the condition of anonymity, he said that not just Netanyahu, but the entire Israeli political establishment, “would under no circumstances allow the PA to be strong enough to lead its project for independence and sovereignty”.

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He added that successive Israeli governments have had both a “strategic interest” in the PA’s existence, which “serves Israel politically,” and a strategic interest in “keeping the PA weak”.

He explained that the mere existence of the PA allows Israel to deflect criticism for its prolonged occupation and system of discrimination against Palestinians. “There is a political value in having a Palestinian entity under occupation. It gives Israel, albeit not to a very persuasive extent, an argument that it is not an apartheid state because Palestinians have self-rule.”

The Israeli far-right's dream of dismantling the PA

The composition of the new Israeli government, however, changes this equation dramatically. While Netanyahu wants the PA weak but alive, his National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Smotrich “consider the PA an enemy and want to destroy it,” Sneh said.

“Their entire concept of Israeli-Palestinian relations is a zero-sum game. If something is good for the Palestinians, it is necessarily bad for the Israelis. That is why they would like to destroy the authority.”

Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, and Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, attend a rally with supporters in the southern Israeli city of Sderot on 26 October 2022. [Getty]

Sneh added that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir “don’t have enough imagination, but they know it’s bad for the Palestinians, so they are pushing [the PA] to the edge”.

The former top PA official agrees, saying “these two ideologically believe that a Palestinian entity, no matter how weak, is unacceptable. They go beyond the traditional camp that wants the PA weak but not to triumph over it. They want full triumph”.

Jamal Zakout, a former Chief Advisor to the PA Prime Minister, is also of the same opinion.

“Smotrich, who is now in charge of the Palestinian economy, Israeli settlements, and the so-called ‘civil administration’ in the occupied territories, is the founder of the extremist organisation Regavim that is dedicated to promoting settlements and erasing the Palestinian presence in the West Bank,” he told The New Arab.

"Repeated warnings from Israeli officials about the 'chaos' and 'disaster' which could ensue after the PA's collapse ring hollow for Israeli far-right ministers. On the contrary, such chaos is precisely what Smotrich and Ben-Gvir want"

“Him and the terror-supporting Kahanist Ben-Gvir are now holding the steering wheel vis-à-vis Israeli policies on the future of the land and the Palestinians on it.”

Zakout said he believes the two far-right ministers will work to “eradicate the Palestinian presence in the West Bank by tightening control over it and annexing it to Israel,” while confining Palestinians to “isolated cantons” and leaving them with “only one option, which is forcing them to leave”.

Abu Yousef said that an alternative Israeli policy option for the PA is a form of limited municipal or tribal self-rule in Palestinian areas, isolated from each other.

Repeated warnings from Israeli officials about the ‘chaos’ and ‘disaster’ which could ensue after the PA’s collapse ring hollow for Israeli far-right ministers. On the contrary, Sneh believes such chaos is precisely what Smotrich and Ben-Gvir want.

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"They want more violence, they want deterioration, they want an exacerbation of violence because politically it serves them,” Sneh explained. “If it wasn’t for May 2021 [when escalations erupted in Jerusalem, Gaza and inside Israel], Ben Gvir wouldn’t have 14 mandates in the Israeli Knesset today.”

What observers are carefully watching out for is whether the balance of power will be tipped towards Netanyahu or his Kahanist partners. Sneh is pessimistic, saying Netanyahu is “now in their hands, and whatever they demand, he does”.

The ongoing corruption trials of Israel’s prime minister, coupled with the fact that a majority of Israelis are dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of the coalition deals and measures to weaken the judiciary, makes it difficult for him to risk the collapse of his extremist coalition and pursue another round of elections.

This leaves Palestinians between the hammer and the anvil; a perpetually and increasingly weakened PA, or a dismantled one.

Muhammad Shehada is a Palestinian writer and analyst from Gaza and the EU Affairs Manager at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.

Follow him on Twitter: @muhammadshehad2