European Council on Foreign Relations

What ails the Palestinian Authority?

Go to the Middle East and North Africa programme's page

In recent days a disingenuous handwringing has emerged in the NYT about the fate and future of the Palestinian Authority (PA). 

There was this lament from Roger Cohen over the fate of Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority's beleaguered technocrat-turned-Prime Minister. Then there was an even more aggressive argument from one David Keyes of a fledgling human rights NGO, demanding PA donors cut their funding in criticism of its human rights record. As ever, it's important to consider the source - "Advancing Human Rights" was founded by Robert Bernstein, who launched this memorably misguided attack on Human Rights Watch in 2009, an organisation he helped found and one of the most prominent human rights organisations in the world, for having the audacity to criticise a democratic Israel's decades-long legacy of rights violations alongside the autocratic misdemeanours of the broader Middle East. 

It is no secret that the PA continues to find itself in dire straits, and for obvious reasons. Its financial sustainability is subject to the whims of an occupying power that can withhold tax revenues that constitute a third of PA income and a donor community that wearily bails it out.

Enter Salam Fayyad; since 2009 he has worked to restructure and streamline PA institutions to make them efficient service providers and to generate new private investment into the faltering Palestinian economy. Even these prospects have hit their limits; there is little an administration without economic sovereignty can do to manage its macroeconomic policies, and there's little meaning in economic survival in this political landscape. Fayyad was less a saviour (or, as Tom Friedman hilariously wrote, an inspiration for the Arab Spring) than a band-aid. With the Oslo framework that created the PA eroding, the PA leadership finds itself increasingly delegitimised (witness its impotence during and after the Pillars of Cloud IDF campaign against Gaza last November) and unable to deliver on Palestinian national aspirations (despite the fanfare of the Palestinian statehood bid).

A grim reality is that the PA survives because it continues to act as an effective guarantor of Israeli security, with levels of security cooperation between PA and Israeli security forces stronger than ever. This is perhaps the crux of the issue - that the PA manages to avoid too much rightly-deserved condemnation when suppressing dissent or harassing its own citizens because it suits the illusion of a status quo. Protests across the West Bank and Gaza over the past few days after the death of a Palestinian prisoner, allegedly by torture, underscore Israeli concerns about whether the PA can maintain control. With no final settlement and no real urgency to find one, no one should be surprised that the PA continues to limp along - nor should anyone lose sight of why this reality has emerged.

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