By Yossi Beilin
The Palestinian Authority was supposed to cease existing on May 4, 1999, the date a final status agreement was to take effect. Of course, that never happened. In the absence of any alternative agreement, the PA could remain in existence until final status is agreed or, indeed, until the end of time (whichever comes first. . .).
This situation is a far cry from what was anticipated when it was decided, in 1993, not to opt for an immediate final status agreement. Instead, we followed the Camp David agreements and the Madrid conference that ratified them and opted for a five-year interim agreement during which a temporary Palestinian entity was to have come into existence. We did not at the time determine what would happen if that entity did not produce a permanent status agreement. But it was obvious then as it is now that the Palestinians would not acquiesce in the temporary becoming permanent, with their authority limited and only 40 percent of the West Bank under their rule. It is also obvious that the government of Israel has no incentive whatsoever to move to permanent status with its well-known demands in terms of territory, the partition of Jerusalem and a symbolic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.
It is against this backdrop that some Palestinians argue that the authors of Oslo deliberately created an agreement designed to allow Israel a long interval for continuing to build settlements and controlling the territory. This is of course ridiculous. Yet it is not surprising that such theories of intrigue are making the rounds after so many long years of frustration.
The idea of dismantling the PA and “returning the keys” of occupation to Israel is not new. It has been broached for several years now by a few Palestinian leaders led by Saeb Erekat. The argument is that this is the only real punishment the Palestinians can inflict on Israel. It would be a perfectly legal step, totally non-violent, and would force Israel to fund the occupation of the entire West Bank and to restore the bureaucratic structure that ruled the territories until 18 years ago. It would also generate greater international pressure on Israel to truly end the occupation and would deny Israel the possibility of arguing that the vast majority of Palestinians live under Palestinian autonomy and not Israeli occupation.
The reason this idea has not been implemented to date is that its immediate effect would be a sharp and possibly mortal blow to the Palestinians themselves. Tens of thousands of PA officials would find themselves abruptly out of work. The donor nations would cease their funding. The Palestinian leadership would lose its special status. And while obviously this would be a highly problematic situation for Israel, which would search long and hard for a response, the price paid by the Palestinians is liable to be even heavier.
Still, today more than ever, the Palestinians are undoubtedly examining the option of dismantling the PA. These days, I hear about this possibility more and more frequently from people who opposed it in the past. Someone who has rejected the option of violence and has failed at the option of diplomacy is liable, in despair, to turn to an option that will hurt Israel even if Palestinians pay a heavy price. All or most of the Palestinian bureaucracy obviously opposes the idea. A proposal recently heard to dismantle the PA but leave its security forces in place was rejected by the latter on the grounds that it would turn them into a recycled Southern Lebanese Army (that collaborated with Israel prior to the May 2000 withdrawal). One way or another, in view of the mood prevailing among the Palestinian leadership, I would not entirely rule out the possibility that it might dismantle the PA.
What would Israel do? Obviously, one possibility is to take back the keys, rebuild the military government and civil administration in the territories, and employ thousands of civilians to run the system — just like in the years between the Six-Day War and the Oslo accords. I find it hard to believe the government of Israel would be prepared to move in this direction in view of the international reaction it would provoke.
A second possibility is to compel the Palestinians to engage in self-rule in a way similar to the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005: withdraw from the West Bank without an agreement to a border considered reasonable by the Netanyahu-Lieberman government. Insofar as this border was delineated some time ago — the fence erected by the Sharon government — I wouldn’t be surprised if the current government preferred to withdraw unilaterally to the fence line that annexes eight percent of the West Bank to Israel and does not touch Jerusalem.
That would be as stupid as the withdrawal from Gaza. All the wounds would continue to bleed and no security understandings would exist. But it would be preferable to remaining in the West Bank.
Of course, there’s a third option: reaching a comprehensive peace agreement. But when it comes to the current Israeli government, the likelihood of that happening is close to zero.
Yossi Beilin, a former minister of justice, currently chairs the Geneva initiative and is president of Beilink. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.