The Problem of Legitimacy for the Palestinian Authority

On June 13, scores of Palestinian protesters gathered to demand change in Palestinian policies toward Gaza and were brutally repressed by the security services. This time, however, these protests were not taking place in Gaza along the fence with Israel but rather in Ramallah, and the forces repressing them were Palestinian and not Israeli. The showdown in Manara Square between Palestinian demonstrators and the Palestinian Authority’s security forces highlights a long simmering tension that is likely to become more pronounced in the years to come, one that may play a significant role in shaping the future of Palestinian politics and leadership.

The protesters demanded an end to Palestinian Authority (PA) economic sanctions on Gaza, which were contributing significantly to the already difficult conditions of Palestinians living in the besieged strip. Two central components to these punitive measures have had the most damaging impact. The first is a dispute between the two Palestinian governing authorities, the PA in Ramallah and the Hamas government in Gaza, over payment for imported Israeli and Egyptian fuel used to generate electricity, and this has exacerbated an ongoing power crisis. The second is a pay cut applied to the wages of Fatah-affiliated individuals in Gaza who had once worked as civil servants for the PA in Ramallah. With the economic situation stagnant in Gaza due to a profoundly weakened local market and an unreachable external market, the reduction in wages from Ramallah meant that one of the few remaining steady sources of income for Gazans had now been reduced.

The PA was supposed to be the vehicle designated to lead the Palestinians in their transition to statehood.

It is worth noting, however, that these recent decisions, as severely damaging as they might have been, cannot be solely blamed for the popular discontent with the Palestinian Authority. Instead, they constitute merely the most recent episode in a long-standing theme angering Palestinians, namely, the PA’s security relationship with Israel.

At its outset, the PA was supposed to be the vehicle designated to lead the Palestinians in their transition to statehood—basically, it was meant as a government-in-waiting ready to take over once a final peace agreement with Israel would be signed. This required Palestinians to take a leap of faith, putting their trust not only in Washington, which was mediating the peace process, but also in Israel, their historic oppressor. To that end, Israel would have to come to terms with the Palestinian Authority and afford it autonomy and independence to govern. In any such situation, it would be easy for cynicism to creep in, especially given the history between Israelis and Palestinians and the role of the United States.

Despite warranted skepticism, there was a degree of cautious optimism in the early 1990s at the outset of the process. Over time, however, as the idea of Palestinian statehood was buried under Israeli settlements and as nearly three decades of failed peace processing had gone by, skepticism quickly gave way to deep cynicism. Yet while a deep lack of faith in the process took hold, the structures that the process created—including the PA and its security collaboration with Israel—persisted. As Palestinians could no longer envision the PA helping them transition to independence from Israeli rule, they instead watched anxiously as their government continued to collaborate with Israel on security matters.

PA forces are required to facilitate Israeli raids into Palestinian towns and villages.

The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority’s policies toward the Gaza Strip should be seen through this lens. While Palestinians in Gaza have been suffering from the Israeli siege since 2007 and demanding their basic rights, the Ramallah-based authority is piling on additional sanctions and failing to effectively challenge Israel’s policies. Protesters and those following the Manara Square demonstrations on social media pointed out that the PA police used greater force against Palestinian demonstrators than they ever did against Israeli military units routinely invading Palestinian homes in the middle of the night to conduct village raids and arrests with brutal force.

Indeed, according to the peace process agreements that established the Palestinian Authority, PA forces were required to facilitate Israeli raids into Palestinian towns and villages and any obstruction was deemed a violation of the agreements. This not only put the Palestinian Authority, the putative vehicle toward independence, in a position of servitude for the Israeli forces but it also means the PA was willingly permitting human rights violations by Israeli forces despite having some capacity to resist them. Here lies the most significant challenge to Palestinian leadership in the present and future: it must find a way to navigate a catch-22 that can be called the legitimacy and sustainability dilemma.

The Legitimacy/Sustainability Dilemma

For decades, Washington has outwardly sought to pursue a peace process based on a few core principles, including that Israel’s security is a sacrosanct priority and that both sides to the conflict must come together to negotiate an agreement. The Israelis have been able to exploit this policy framework by using security conditions—which they retain a monopoly on defining—as excuses not to move forward on ending their military rule over the Palestinians. But this policy framework has been self-defeating as well for the demands it imposes on Palestinian leaders. To stay within the framework, the Palestinian Authority must accept the sanctity of Israeli security over the physical security of the very Palestinians living under military occupation—those whom the PA purports to represent at the negotiating table. This naturally leads Palestinians to question the utility and intentions of the PA, thus undercutting its very legitimacy. That legitimacy must be robust for any Palestinian leader to be able to negotiate a final status agreement, especially one that is expected to last and enjoy the support of the Palestinian people.

Fifty percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza believe the Palestinian Authority was a burden.

But as recently as this spring, polls showed that 50 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza believe the Palestinian Authority was a burden, and 73 percent agreed with the idea of ending security coordination with Israel. Despite such a high number supporting the end of security coordination, however, nearly two-thirds believed the PA would not implement the decision to do so. Time and again, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has threatened to end security coordination with Israel after an Israeli violation; however, they always failed to fulfill that threat and security coordination endures.

This policy remains in force because the Washington-led peace process framework historically prioritized Israeli security over successful negotiations and thus, the single most important criterion for Washington’s support of the Palestinian Authority is its willingness to coordinate security with Israel. Over the years, the United States has played a central role in supporting these security coordination efforts and recently, even as it has cut back on its support for the Palestinian Authority in other places due to the passage of laws like the Taylor Force Act, US financial support for building the PA’s security sector through training programs in Jordan remains part of the budget for the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. This Bureau holds that its mission is to assist “countries deliver justice and fairness by strengthening their police, courts, and corrections systems.”

The Palestinian Authority is also economically vulnerable today in several ways. Its ability to raise domestic revenue is limited as the economic prospects of people living under occupation are quite slim. External support from both Europe and other Arab states has dwindled. Looking at Gaza, Ramallah understands clearly the costs of attempting to resist Israel’s impositions. For these reasons, the economic costs of failing to remain within the Washington peace policy framework would not only hinder the PA’s ability to operate, but it would likely jeopardize its very survival.

Thus, in many ways, the Palestinian Authority is stuck in an inescapable holding pattern. Its legitimacy is diminishing as it continues to fail to confront Israeli occupation effectively. In fact, the PA is coordinating security with Israel to the point where Palestinians are taking to the streets; to them, the prospects of successfully negotiating autonomy or independence seem farther away than ever. With such a diminished legitimacy, the PA can only cling on to survival, which is becoming more difficult by the day.

Overcoming the Dilemma?

Many may recognize that the legitimacy and sustainability dilemma facing the PA is a result of Washington’s peace process policy, and while they concede its impact is problematic, they struggle to envision an alternative to the Palestinian Authority and caution against downplaying the PA’s achievements as an administrative body and its importance to the Palestinian people it serves. Still, while Palestinians in the West Bank’s Area A might understandably prefer to deal with other Palestinians, instead of the Israeli military, for local and civil administrative matters, there is no doubt that the PA’s original raison d’être as a vehicle toward independence has become defunct and counterproductive. As Palestinians are on the cusp of considering important questions about leadership transition in the future, the way their leaders can overcome this dilemma must become paramount. Further, those vying for Palestinian leadership should present their ideas for how to adhere to self-determination in contrast with being able to operate an amalgam of Palestinian municipalities.

The PA and the PLO have become harder to distinguish from each other over the years.

One way to do this would be to once again separate the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority. While there are formal institutional divisions still in place between both bodies, they have become harder to distinguish from each other over the years. The PLO is supposed to be the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people, but its interests are so closely enmeshed with those of the Palestinian Authority that its independence has become compromised. The PLO is therefore not able to effectively operate without being beholden to the PA.

Another route to consider would be building a new entity that either replaces or radically reforms the PLO, not only separating it from the PA but reinvigorating its institutions and making the body more representative of present-day Palestinian stakeholders. But regardless of how this is done, it would be of paramount importance to find a way to divide what effectively amounts to local Palestinian administration of select West Bank municipalities from the political representation of millions more stakeholders—those not only in the West Bank but in Gaza, Jerusalem, Israel, the refugee camps, and the Palestinian diaspora.

If the United States were interested in issues beyond just Israel’s security and makes a just and lasting peace agreement a priority, it should work with Palestinians to achieve the kinds of changes that can make that possible. For years, Washington has effectively tried to erode the Palestinians’ minimum demands further and further so that maximalist Israeli demands are met; in the process, it has helped undercut the legitimacy of the very leaders who would have to sign off on historic agreements. The United States would be more likely to secure a lasting agreement if it meets Palestinians where they are and if it is willing to support a Palestinian leadership that has the backing of the clear majority of its people. That might push the positions of the parties at the negotiating table even further apart, but for an agreement to be durable and lasting, the parties need to have the buy-in of the stakeholders they represent. This would undoubtedly be a harder peace to achieve, but it would be more likely to be a peace worth working for.