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For its own sake, Israel must keep the Palestinian Authority alive

By: Shaul Arieli, Ha'aretz



It's a mistake to view Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' announcement that he will not run in the next Palestinian Authority elections as simply a ritual designed to apply pressure on the international community and Israel. Even if, as anticipated, the elections don't take place in January and Abbas remains in office for now, he is liable in the future to make good on his threat to quit and thereby place Israel in a position fundamentally similar to the one obtaining in Gaza before Operation Cast Lead, but with much more serious ramifications.

In Cast Lead Israel decided to leave control of the Gaza Strip in the hands of Hamas, understanding that the only alternative was resumption of Israeli rule there, with all its disastrous implications.

The disintegration of the PA would perhaps generate a storm of exultant "we told you so"s from right-wingers, but it would also obligate Israel to reassume responsibility for ruling over the lives of more than two million Palestinians in the West Bank.
In the absence of a suitable candidate to succeed Abbas (assuming that Marwan Barghouti, who has declared that he will contest the election, could not do so from his Israeli prison cell), the breakup of the PA is not an unreasonable scenario.

The disintegration of the PA could coincide with a decision by Fatah to commit to reconciliation with Hamas, which would be accompanied by the end of the Dayton plan to build a Palestinian military infrastructure, and especially an end to security coordination with Israel.
It could also end the Fayyad plan for creating institutions of a future Palestinian state, the release of Hamas prisoners held in the West Bank and the renewal of popular protest.

The dismantling of the PA would be tantamount to a public admission by the Palestine Liberation Organization of the failure of the diplomatic route. Even if Fatah, which has been losing ground on the Palestinian street, doesn't declare it publicly, it would have to adopt the call by the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to freeze efforts to come to an agreement with Israel, "at least for a certain period of time, and to embrace jihad, resistance and popular action of all kinds."

Hamas would become "the only game in town" by virtue of its success in bringing an end to the Israeli presence in Gaza and would commit to doing the same in the West Bank.

As things stand, Abbas and his Fatah colleagues will refrain from challenging Hamas in democratic elections. Abbas' political organizing, which planned to rely on the anti-Hamas nationalist camp, will not win if it only comes out against the organization's social platform, whose radical Islamic signature is already visible in the Gaza Strip. It will require political reinforcement.

In his speech, Abbas left an opening to Israel and the United States to regain its composure and act to prevent the scenario from becoming a reality. The initiative over a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state also leaves such an opening, taking into consideration that it is a plan that can indeed be carried out.

Its complexity, however, and the risks that it carries on the Palestinian side as well will, in all probability, lead to the postponement of a declaration and the possibility of resuming negotiations before an independent state becomes a reality.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who time and again speaks of the need to make a distinction between Gaza and the West Bank, must act to make this concept a reality and to again give the West Bank Palestinians the sense that there is benefit in a diplomatic solution.

Israel must create the conditions that will in the short run enable the realization of the Fayyad plan to build a Palestinian state "from the bottom up" and in the long run the resumption of negotiations with an agreed agenda and time frame for completing negotiations on a final-status arrangement.

The writer is a member of the board of directors of the Council for Peace and Security and one of the architects of the Geneva Initiative.