PA’s collapse now seems a matter of when, not if

Israel now takes seriously the threat of an end to security cooperation. But that doesn’t mean it intends to meet the PA’s demands

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian protesters burn tires and hurl stones towards Israeli troops during clashes in Aboud village, near the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 5, 2015. (FLASH90)
Palestinian protesters burn tires and hurl stones towards Israeli troops during clashes in Aboud village, near the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 5, 2015. (FLASH90)

Highly placed Israeli politicians have been saying for months that the Palestinian Authority’s threat to stop security coordination was an empty one. The statement was made, time and again, including by senior ministers, that such a move would be “a suicidal act” for the PA and its president, Mahmoud Abbas.

But the proposal that Israel’s defense establishment recently made to the PA — that security responsibility for Ramallah and Jericho return exclusively to the PA, and that the Israeli army stop making arrests in those areas — shows just how seriously it is taking the threat.

The Israeli proposal was no mere whim. Representatives of all the relevant agencies — the army, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, and the Shin Bet security service — were at the meeting with PA officials at which the idea was presented.

The proposal itself, which was first reported by Haaretz, was also approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon — even though their own previous statements had indicated, any number of times, that they did not believe continued security coordination was in danger.

Clearly, Israeli defense officials see an end to the cooperation as both a real concern and a realistic scenario in light of the developments taking place on the ground.

As The Times of Israel reported on Monday, the Palestinian Authority turned down the proposal and instead demanded a clear timetable for the cessation of arrests not only in Ramallah and in Jericho but in all West Bank cities.

Why the rejection? And does the PA truly intend to stop security coordination if — as is almost certain — its demands are not met?

High-ranking Palestinian officials in Ramallah convey the sense that the PA has indeed become desperate enough to take such a measure — willing, like the biblical Samson with his Philistine foes, to go down along with Israel.

These officials cite the absence of a diplomatic peace process, ongoing construction in the settlements, the arrests that are still taking place every day in West Bank cities, the feeble economy, and a young generation that is becoming increasingly hostile toward the PA and Abbas. All this, they say, has created a situation in which the PA and its security agencies face two main prospects: collapse due to Israeli measures (or the lack thereof), or collapse due to measures taken by the PA itself.

“Of the two,” one senior PA official said, “I prefer the latter.”

Responding to the Israeli leadership’s skepticism, given that the PA has been making these kinds of threats for a long time, this official said, “We are not in the same situation anymore. Many things have changed here recently.”

On the ground, security coordination seems highly effective, and is hailed as such by the Israeli security establishment. The arrests of terrorists and the exchange of intelligence between the sides continue; the PA security agencies break up demonstrations. But while, on the Israeli side, criticism has mounted over the role of Abbas and his hierarchy in encouraging the ongoing wave of Palestinian terrorism, on the Palestinian side, too, there is mirror-image talk of a lack of trust and hope, and a consequent collapse in the PA’s credibility among its people. Frustration and despair are profound; the Palestinians no longer see any chance that their situation will improve in the foreseeable future.

With no prospect of progress toward statehood, the PA and Fatah leaderships worry that their security coordination with Israel leaves them perceived as collaborators — in much the same way as the Lebanese looked at the South Lebanon Army, under Gen. Antoine Lahad’s leadership, when it helped Israel maintain its south Lebanon “security zone” until the IDF pullout in 2000.

There is also concern, in the current atmosphere, that discipline within the security agencies will weaken; Hamas has been working hard to encourage PA security officials to turn their guns on Israel.

“The (PA’s) soldiers see what is happening around them,” said a close associate of Abbas. “They are very aware of the public’s response.”

Senior figures in the PA are well aware that Abbas and his hierarchy — and not just Israel — stand to suffer if the security cooperation ends. The partnership with Israel helps the PA counter Hamas and other opponents. An end to intelligence-sharing would prove deeply damaging — mutually so, given that the PA has prevented numerous terror attacks and plots against Israel, while Israel has exposed and prevented attacks on the PA. If an end to cooperation meant Israel did not allow Palestinian security troops to operate in certain areas, this could compromise the PA’s basic ability to govern. Again, this heightens a concern among high-ranking PA officials that they could find themselves in a situation where the PA collapses and they are accused of having collaborated with the enemy.

Some PA officials hold out the hope that Israel will yet consider ceasing military activity, gradually, in all West Bank. But given the widespread belief in Netanyahu’s coalition that the current terror wave would be much more bloody were it not for the ongoing IDF and Shin Bet operations in those cities, there is little to no chance of this happening.

Ultimately, both sides seem to be internalizing the fact that even amid the current bloodshed we are actually in a period of relative containment, relative calm, before the real storm: the cessation of security coordination, the collapse of the PA, a worsening of terror attacks, and quite a few other negative consequences.

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