Does Netanyahu want a weakening, or a total collapse, of the PA?

Written by on January 13, 2023

While the recent sanctions imposed on the Palestinians by the new Israeli government are seen by some Palestinians as a disaster, others are optimistic and say the extremist government’s actions facilitate the Palestinian diplomatic efforts in the international community.

The sanctions and other measures did not come as a complete surprise to the leaders of the Palestinian Authority. In fact, shortly after the results of the November 1 elections, which saw far-right parties rise to power, several Palestinian officials in Ramallah said that they have no doubt that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power would place the Palestinians and Israel on a collision course.

The Palestinian officials, however, did not expect the government to implement the platforms and agendas of its coalition members (especially those of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich) as quickly as it has.

First came Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound (Temple Mount). The Palestinians anticipated that Ben-Gvir would make such a visit, but they did not expect that to be his first order of business after being sworn in as minister.

NATIONAL SECURITY Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visits the Temple Mount, on Tuesday. (credit: National Security Ministry)

Palestinians bolstered by diplomatic reaction to new government

Although they were unable to stop him from touring the Mount, the Palestinians are nevertheless bolstered by the strong reactions elicited from the international community, including some Arab countries, to the “unprecedented and dangerous” visit.

They see the condemnations issued by several countries, as well as the special session held by the United Nations Security Council on the controversial 13-minute visit, as yet another victory for the massive Palestinian diplomatic and legal offensive against Israel in the international arena.

The real triumph in this offensive was in late December 2022, when the UN General Assembly voted in favor of a Palestinian resolution calling for a legal opinion from the International Court of Justice regarding “Israel’s prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of Palestinian territory.”

According to PA presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh, the vote “proved that the entire world was on the side of the Palestinians and their indisputable historical rights.” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh noted that the vote was “exceptionally significant” because of its timing, which coincided with the swearing-in of the government.

This week, a Palestinian official exulted that the outcry over the “provocation” of Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount actually strengthened the Palestinians’ efforts to persuade the international community that the Israeli government is seeking to change the “historical status quo” at the holy site by dividing it in time and space between Muslim and Jewish worshipers.

“The fact that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan condemned Ben-Gvir’s storming of the al-Aqsa Mosque premises is extremely important,” the official noted. “These are Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel. They issued a yellow card to the new Israeli government. We’re hoping the next step would be a red card.”

According to another Palestinian official, the leaders of these four Arab countries are undoubtedly worried about the growing frustration among the general Arab populace in response to Israeli measures at the Temple Mount in particular and Jerusalem overall.

“The Arab leaders will find it increasingly difficult to remain silent in the face of the ongoing Israeli attempts to alter the status quo at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and Judaize Jerusalem,” this official observed, “The least they can do is recall their ambassadors to Israel to avoid an eruption of tensions and violence in their countries. The [Arab] leaders know that there is a limit to the Arab street’s patience.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah is feeling the heat

One leader who is already feeling the heat is Jordan’s King Abdullah, who enjoys the prestigious title of “custodian of the Islamic and christian holy sites in Jerusalem.”

During a stormy session of the Jordanian Parliament, some lawmakers employed antisemitic and derogatory remarks in response to Ben-Gvir’s visit, while others renewed their call for severing all ties with Israel.

Jordanian MP Khalil Attiyeh called Ben-Gvir a “coward” and a “pig.” MP Mohammed al-Shatnawi said the Jews are one of the most cowardly nations in the world, adding that the Jordanians are prepared to become “martyrs” for the sake of Jerusalem and the holy places. MP Yanal Fraihat said that the “sons of apes and pigs” must know that the Jordanians and Palestinians will soon react to the visit with bullets.

“Ben-Gvir’s storming of the al-Aqsa Mosque is a prelude for the success of the Palestinian demand for an official and popular Arab stance to confront the occupying state in general and its new right-wing extremist government in particular,” remarked Palestinian columnist Akram Abdel Majid. “We hope the next step will be ending the Palestinian division [between the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the PA-controlled West Bank].”

Some Palestinians demand tougher measures by PA

WHILE DEFIANT Palestinian officials have pledged to pursue the diplomatic and legal campaign against Israel, some Palestinians argue that the Ramallah-based leadership must take tougher measures to counter the Israeli “punitive measures.”

“We need to move from reaction to action,” said Ziad Abu Zayyad, a veteran Palestinian journalist and former PA cabinet minister. “Among the actions: stopping any contact with Israeli officials, collecting all VIP cards from their holders and erecting checkpoints at the entrances to Palestinian cities and towns to prevent the entry of any Israeli products or goods.”

Abu Zayyad asserted that the Israeli measures against the Palestinians should incentivize the PA and Hamas to end their dispute and achieve national unity. He added that the Israeli sanctions provide “a rare opportunity to reverse the normalization process between Israel and some Arab countries.”

Another senior official, Tayseer Khaled, urged the Palestinian leadership to respond to the sanctions by walking away from the agreements signed with Israel, first and foremost the Paris Protocol, an agreement signed in 1994 to govern Palestinian economic relations with Israel. Khaled called for a complete Palestinian boycott of Israeli goods.

Other Palestinians believe that the PA leadership should take even more drastic measures, not only discontinuing its security coordination with Israeli forces, but ending the crackdown on supporters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members in the West Bank.

A group called The Follow-Up Committee of the National and Islamic Forces in the Gaza Strip, an alliance of various terrorist groups led by Hamas, held an emergency meeting this week to discuss the repercussions of the Israeli “escalation” against the Palestinians.

After the meeting, the committee urged the Palestinian leadership to change its policies toward Israel and implement resolutions of the PLO Central Council that call for halting the security coordination, revoking Palestinian recognition of Israel, and canceling all agreements, including the Oslo Accords. The committee also called on all Palestinians to “move to the phase of a comprehensive intifada [uprising]” against Israel.

Hamas and other Palestinian extremist groups believe that the PA’s decision to continue the diplomatic and legal battle against Israel is insufficient. These groups want to see the PA leadership openly support all forms of resistance against Israel. This is their precondition for achieving national unity and ending the split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

PA officials hesitant to engage in all-out confrontation with Israel

AT THIS stage, however, the PA officials do not seem enthusiastic about the idea of openly endorsing terrorism or engaging in an all-out confrontation with Israel. Moreover, they ruled out the possibility that the Palestinian leadership would go as far as ending the security coordination or rescinding the signed agreements with Israel.

They pointed out that PA President Mahmoud Abbas continues to believe that the best and most effective way to counter Israel is through diplomatic and legal initiatives in the international arena. Abbas, they added, still believes that international pressure would stop the Israeli government from implementing some of its “disastrous” policies.

In that regard, the UN agencies, the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice and other forums have been particularly useful as respectable venues of retribution, while unofficially stepping up West Bank “popular resistance” groups like the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the ruling Fatah faction, has been valuable in boosting morale at home.

On several occasions, Abbas has expressed opposition to the use of an official “armed resistance” against Israel. He and some Palestinian officials believe that terrorist attacks against Israel make the Palestinians lose the sympathy of the international community. They further believe that terrorism plays into the hands of those Israelis who maintain that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side. Terrorism, they especially note, would also provide the government with an opportunity to intensify its security measures against the Palestinians.

IT’S HARD to assess the extent of the damage the Israeli sanctions will cause the PA. In the past, withholding tax revenues did not result in the collapse of the PA. Nor did the former Donald Trump administration’s decision to cut off financial aid to the Palestinians bring about the downfall of the PA or force it to change its policies.

Admittedly, the Israeli and US measures aggravated the financial crisis for the Palestinians, but the PA managed to weather the storm, thanks primarily to the Biden administration’s decision to resume financial aid to the Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership also benefited from the relatively moderate approach of the Israeli security and political establishment under the previous government headed by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.

Abbas and his entourage are now beginning to realize that the honeymoon with Israel has ended. Nevertheless, they are still pinning hope on the Biden administration and other international parties to exert pressure on Israel to prevent it from crossing the redlines.

The feeling in Ramallah is that the presence of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich in the government will actually facilitate the Palestinians’ mission to alienate Israel in the media and increase the pressure from the international community on the Netanyahu government.

The Israeli decision to seize and withhold Palestinian funds appears, for now, to be the most painful of the current punishments for Ramallah. The Palestinians, naturally, are significantly less worried about the confiscation of VIP cards from a number of officials or even the decision to freeze construction in Area C, where they are anyway not waiting for Israeli permission to build homes.

A number of Palestinian officials who spoke to The Jerusalem Post in the past few days confided that they are still trying to ascertain the Israeli government’s ultimate goal.

They admitted that they are uncertain whether the government is seeking to undermine the PA or to bring about its total collapse.

But the officials were all in agreement that the actions and rhetoric of the Netanyahu government will exacerbate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, and most likely lead to an outburst of large-scale violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They also agreed that the Palestinians’ diplomatic and legal campaign against Israel has a greater chance of success given the nature of the right-wing coalition in Israel.

“The actions of the extremist government in Israel are a clear indication that we are headed toward an explosion,” said a senior official with the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Of course, the sanctions will hurt us, but on the other hand they will increase our chances of winning worldwide support and sympathy.”

The Israelis, the official added, “need to understand that weakening the Palestinian Authority is the biggest gift to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iran. They need to understand that getting rid of the Palestinian Authority means that Israel will have to return to the Palestinian cities and towns and run the schools and hospitals and collect the garbage there. They also need to understand that halting the security coordination would be bad for both the Palestinian Authority and Israel.”

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