With President Mahmoud Abbas at the age of 82 and reportedly in poor health, the Palestinian Authority may be in need of a new leader in the near future. However, without a succession plan, Abbas’s death or resignation could trigger a crisis within the PA. If mishandled, the situation may endanger Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and lead to an escalation of violence in the West Bank. On the other hand, a smooth transition would not only preserve security ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but could also present an opportunity for legitimate change in Palestinian politics and a breakthrough in the stagnant peace process.
America and the international community should prepare for the next Palestinian leader by setting two conditions for that individual and for the Palestinian Authority as a whole. The first is to accept the Quartet Principles, as no Palestinian leader can retain international legitimacy without accepting these parameters, which include recognition of Israel, rejection of violence, and adherence to past agreements. The second condition may not be as obvious, but it is no less important: The United States and the international community should push future Palestinian leadership to be more committed to building state institutions and creating a more democratic system.These objectives are critical to the economic viability of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hardline Israeli officials, such as Diaspora Affairs and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who oppose a two-state solution, often reference a future Palestine’s potential to become a failed state and the attendant security threat to Israel. Due to high levels of corruption and a lack of state institutions, the Palestinian Authority would be a relatively weak governing body that might be vulnerable to collapse or be overrun by non-state military actors. While officials like Bennet would probably still reject a sovereign Palestine on ideological grounds, building state institutions and increasing financial transparency would weaken the annexationists’ cause while building the case for a two-state solution.
Palestinian divisions and authoritarianism also hinder the prospects for a viable, independent Palestinian state. After the assassination attempt on PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah by Hamas operatives, President Mahmoud Abbas implemented punitive measures against his rivals in the Gaza Strip. Abbas cut the salaries of 60,000 PA employees in Gaza by 50 percent and limited electricity supplies, which has only further contributed to the humanitarian crisis. While there certainly are other factors exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, such as the Israeli and Egyptian blockades, the Palestinians will not be able to rehabilitate Gaza so long as they remain divided and use heavy-handed tactics at the expense of Gazans’ living standards. By implementing reforms to create a more open society, the Palestinians may be able focus more on immediate issues like the economy and standard of living.
Concentrating on democratic reforms and state-building can also better prepare Palestinians for a peace agreement with Israel. Regardless of how moderate a Palestinian leader is, without popular legitimacy, they will not be able to force their people to accept the painful and necessary sacrifices for a more peaceful future.
Mahmoud Abbas once showed signs of moderation and a genuine willingness to make peace with Israel. During the 2003 Aqaba Summit, Abbas spoke out against the violence of the Second Intifada, even though the bloodletting boasted strong support on the Palestinian street. Additionally, Abbas has likely acknowledged that the return of millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel is not realistic and many Israeli security officials have praised Abbas for helping Israel prevent attacks stemming from the West Bank.
Yet, despite these signs of moderation, Abbas has failed to deliver a peace agreement with Israel and has made increasingly brazen anti-Semitic statements, calling into question his potential as a peace partner. In January, he stated that the Jewish people have no historical ties to the Israel, which he views as nothing more than a colonial project. Then, in May, he remarked that the Holocaust was the natural product of Jewish “financial activities.” Such statements are indeed a reflection of the prevalence of anti-Semitism within Palestinian society, but they are also a sign that Abbas does not have the ability to persuade his people to make peace with Israel. Because he is autocratic and corrupt, Abbas makes such inflammatory comments to compensate for his lack of popularity. If, however, a Palestinian leader were able to develop a relatively free and prosperous society, the Palestinians might see that leader in a better light and they would thus have more flexibility to convince their people that making peace with Israel and the Jews would not be an act of weakness, but rather a necessity for a more peaceful future.
The United States can seek to influence the next Palestinian leader and the Palestinian Authority to head in this direction, but not in the way the Trump Administration is currently going about it. Though America cannot continue to give unconditional aid to the PA as long as it remains corrupt and incites violence, freezing aid to the Palestinians, as the Trump administration has done, is not a wise alternative. This is because cutting U.S. assistance altogether risks the collapse of Palestinian institutions, a security vacuum in the Palestinian Territories, and an increasingly defiant populace. Instead, as Jonathan Schanzer suggests in his book, State of Failure, American aid should be made conditional and based on reinforcement. For example, if the PA does not meet U.S. requirements for state-building, improving financial transparency, and implementing democratic reforms over a certain number of years, rather than cut aid, America would subtract aid to the PA in the following years. In doing so, the United States would be incrementally pressuring the Palestinian Authority rather than suddenly pulling out the rug from under it.
Israelis need a peace partner that is not only genuine, but a strong one as well. Israel can accommodate the Palestinians with its own steps which preserve the prospects for two states, such as the transfer of additional areas to Palestinian Authority control, but the PA will have to play its part as well. That starts with grooming a leader with real vision and a commitment to building a sustainable country.