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2018 Annual Assessment

The past year has been rife with developments attesting to the instability of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leadership. At the center of these developments: the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and deteriorating U.S.-PA relations that intensified due to the embassy move to Jerusalem. Internal Palestinian discord has been complicated by yet another issue: 83-year-old Abu Mazen seems to be approaching the end of his term as PA president, and internal struggles are, accordingly, intensifying. The Palestinian leader suffers from health problems that have sent him to the hospital several times this year. His language has become less diplomatic and he is openly conveying his frustration. In an address to the Palestinian leadership (March 19, 2018) he called the U.S. ambassador to Israel a “son of a dog” and opened a Palestinian National Council meeting (April 30, 2018) by stating that Jewish moneylending and interest-charging are the causes of Jew hatred. During his presidency, Abu Mazen engaged in security coordination with Israel and helped ensure relative calm in Judea and Samaria. His departure may spark a succession crisis, or even compromise security cooperation with Israel.

The West Bank Palestinian public is disappointed with the PA and dubious of the present leadership’s ability to generate substantive change and end the Israeli occupation. This atmosphere of frustration – especially among the younger generation – formed the background for the “Intifada of the Individuals” (October 2015), which fuels occasional violent incidents, usually stabbing attacks.

Another reconciliation agreement, after a string of unfulfilled agreements between Fatah and Hamas, was signed with Egyptian mediation (October 12, 2017). The concluding announcement promised that the PA would start functioning in the Gaza Strip no later than December 1, 2017. Israel responded that it would not conduct diplomatic negotiations with a Palestinian government that included Hamas. U.S. envoy Jason Greenblatt stated (October 19, 2017) that any Palestinian government would have to comply with the Quartet terms: refraining from violence, recognizing Israel, and accepting the earlier agreements, including disarming of terrorists and commitment to peace negotiations.

However, despite the festive announcements, PA assumption of responsibility in the Gaza Strip went unrealized, as did Abu Mazen’s promise that, at the end of the reconciliation period, Hamas weapons would be subjected to PA supervision. Hamas, which wanted the PA to shoulder the burden of addressing the economic crisis in Gaza, declared that it would not disarm. Its intentions were signaled by a Hamas delegation to Teheran, two weeks after the reconciliation agreement was signed, to ensure Iran’s continued aid. Another indication of the reconciliation’s actual chance of success was an assassination attempt on PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and PA intelligence head Majid Faraj, during a visit to Gaza. Abu Mazen attributed the assassination attempt to Hamas.

After his decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem (December 2017), the Palestinians regarded President Trump as completely biased in Israel’s favor. Abu Mazen announced that the United States had disqualified itself as a fair broker of negotiations with Israel. Accordingly, the Palestinians boycotted a White House-initiated international conference on the Gaza crisis (March 13, 2018). The Palestinian leadership decided to freeze official talks with Washington and has declined any discussion of a diplomatic plan. Trump warned the Palestinians, in response, that refusing to advance toward negotiations would cost them American support. He tweeted: “We pay the Palestinians hundreds of millions of dollars a year and get no appreciation or respect […] But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”21 Cancellation or reduction of American aid would pose a major economic problem for the PA, as U.S. aid accounts for the largest share – $350 million – of the PA’s total annual foreign aid which, according to PA reports, amounts to $775 million. Indeed, during the first half of 2018 the U.S. froze 65 million dollars of its regular contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). On March 23, 2018, the Taylor Force Act was passed, making American aid to the PA conditional on the cessation of stipends to families of terrorists sentenced to prison terms in Israel. (Similarly, the Knesset passed a law in early July of this year mandating the deduction from tax revenues transferred by Israel to the PA of the amounts paid by the PA to convicted terrorists or to the families of those killed while carrying out attacks.22) On August 24, 2018, The State Department announced a cut of more than $200 million in aid for the Palestinian. The announcement sparked harsh PA reactions, claiming that the U.S abandoned her historic commitment to pursue peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

There is a growing sense among Palestinians that the two-state solution is becoming untenable. This, in turn, strengthens those calling for abandonment of the independent-state idea in favor of equal rights within a single state. Abu Mazen mentioned this scenario in his address to the UN General Assembly (September 20, 2017): “If the two-state solution were to be destroyed due to the creation of a one-state reality […] neither you, nor we, will have any other choice but to continue the struggle and demand full, equal rights for all inhabitants of historic Palestine.”