My general rule is that I don’t form any firm opinions of Middle Eastern developments without reading Gershom Gorenberg’s take on it. So amidst the hand-wringing and shrugs accompanying the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, I’ve been waiting for Gorenberg. He’s now filed an informative—and alarming—report at the Prospect.
The next shoe to drop, he suggests, is a cutoff of both Israeli tax collections and U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority. That could breed catastrophe:
Israel is already signaling that it also knows how to play brinkmanship. The government has stopped ministerial-level contacts with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and announced it will stop transferring the tax revenues it collects for the PA. The U.S. Congress, some of whose members treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if they represented the parties of Israel’s hard right, could freeze the American aid that also helps hold up the PA.
If the money stops flowing, the result could exceed what either Abbas or Netanyahu wants. The real Palestinian Authority, not the virtual State of Palestine, provides civil government in Palestinian cities and towns. It runs the schools and clinics (the PA, as part of the civilized world, has national health care). It has police and security services that cooperate with Israel in preventing terror, a reflection of the Abbas regime’s commitment to reach independence by diplomacy rather than violence.
A sharp drop in funding could lead to the collapse of the PA. In February, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a Ramallah think-tank headed by prominent political scientist Khalil Shikaki, published a “Day After” report by 30 experts on what could happen if the PA shuts down. “Armed militias are likely to take the law into their own hand the report warns. Israel might be forced to resume direct rule over the Palestinian population, which would likely respond with a “mixture of civil disobedience and large-scale violence.” In place of today’s Palestinian majority for a two-state outcome, “support for the one-state solution will gain momentum among Palestinians.”
This isn’t Abbas’s goal. Palestine asked for and gained observer-state status in the United Nations as a state existing side by side with Israel. A single state isn’t a solution; it’s a plan for two national communities to keep fighting. If the Palestinian political balance—and the international consensus—shifts toward the one-state illusion, Israel and the Palestinians will together pay the price of brinkmanship.
Ah well, says conventional wisdom, the United States can’t want an agreement more than the Israelis and Palestinians, so it’s time for Kerry to quit. This is nonsense. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict turns violent again, Washington will face one more Middle East crisis for which it has no answer. A new round of Arab-Israeli fighting will weaken the American position in the entire region.
Realpolitik, not altruism, dictates that the administration push harder rather than walking away. Kerry’s “poof” comment may be part of the push, a warning to Netanyahu that Israel won’t be able to explain the collapse of talks as Palestinian intransigence and escape the consequences. Will it work? Who knows. Right now everyone involved is nervously flying into the unknown.
Gorenburg thinks Kerry’s throwing-up-his-hands comments after the talks collapsed was a warning to the parties—particularly the Netanyahu government, which let pressure from within the right wing of its coalition prevent a promised prisoner release—to stop sabotaging his efforts. So unless things get out of control, the Secretary of State will be back in the region before long. But he also makes it clear the situation is now on the brink, with true disaster an ever-ready possibility.
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