The Palestinian leadership was set to meet this week for crucial talks on the future of the Palestinian Authority, whose existence is under threat after Israel cut off a key source of funds.
The Palestine Liberation Organization, recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and their ultimate decision-making body, will mull an array of urgent economic and political issues.
Of most immediate concern at the two-day meeting in Ramallah starting on Wednesday will be the financial crisis facing the PA.
For the past two months, Israel has withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue owed to the PA, the interim governing body which rules the West Bank, after the Palestinians moved to join the International Criminal Court to sue Israel for alleged war crimes.
The cash crunch has left the PA unable to pay 180,000 employees.
In another blow, a New York court last week found both the PLO and the PA liable for a series of terror attacks in Jerusalem, ordering them to pay damages of more than $650 million.
The mandate of the PA, which was set up through the Oslo Accords in 1994 as an interim self-governing authority, has long expired. And the presidential mandate of Mahmoud Abbas, who also serves as head of the PLO and the ruling Fatah movement, expired in 2009.
The Palestinian Legislative Council, or parliament, in which Hamas won a majority during the last elections in 2006, has not held a full session since 2007 when the Islamist movement forced its Fatah rivals out of Gaza.
Like in previous crises, the PA has threatened to halt security coordination with Israel in the West Bank, and even to dissolve itself, in a move which has sparked concern in both Washington and Europe.
Such a decision can only be taken by the 130 members of the PLO’s central council who meet this week in Ramallah.
Dismantling the PA?
“The PA cannot last in its current form — that is, without any real sovereignty — because on the ground, Israel keeps dividing up the land and (building) settlements,” warned Mohammad Shtayyeh, a former peace negotiator and senior member of Fatah, the dominant movement within the PLO.
Dismantling the PA would force Israel to send its forces back into all Palestinian towns and cities and take full responsibility for running civilian affairs and public services in the West Bank, which is home to 2.8 million people.
It would also have a major impact on Gaza despite Israel’s withdrawal in 2005.
Although the territory of 1.8 million people is technically managed by the Ramallah-based unity government, in practice most of the administration is still run by Hamas, which would not accept any Israeli involvement.
Before reaching a decision over its relations with Israel, the matter must be examined in depth by the PLO, said Ahmed Majdalani, one of the 18 members of the PLO’s executive committee, its most senior decision-making body.
Cooperation between both sides’ security forces in the West Bank and economic agreements may be reconsidered “despite strong pressure, especially from the Americans,” Majdalani warned.
In threatening to cut security cooperation, what the PLO wants is to “send a message to the international community to put pressure on Israel,” said Xavier Guignard, a political analyst based in Ramallah.
“It is saying: Israel is denying us 100 million euros of revenue each month, but it will cost the world much more dearly if we dissolve,” he said, referring to the inevitable security nightmare for Israel.
Ending security cooperation is “a threat that has often been brandished, but never carried through,” he said, adding: “We could still be surprised.”
Since the Palestinians won the rank of UN observer state in November 2012, Abbas has on occasion managed to wrong-foot observers, most recently with his move to formally join the International Criminal Court.
The Palestinians will file their first complaint against Israel on April 1, the date they formally become members.
Last year’s war in Gaza and the vast task of reconstruction, which has hardly begun, will also be on the agenda, alongside the Israeli blockade in place since 2006.
Last year’s floundering intra-Palestinian reconciliation agreement, which was supposed to end years of enmity between Hamas and Fatah, will also be discussed.
Formed in 1964, the PLO includes Fatah and other Palestinian factions but not Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
A decade later, it was recognized by the UN as “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”