Gaza first

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About half a year ago, I and several colleagues spent two hours conversing and dining with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. One of the questions we asked him concerned his options in the event the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations failed–or for that matter, if it succeeded but Israel refused to honor it.

"I’m going to answer you in deliberately vague sentences," Abbas replied, with a twinkle in his eye. Of course, most politicians sometimes prefer to offer vague replies to troublesome questions. But few admit it. Abbas proceeded to list a broad spectrum of options for post-UN action, ranging from a third, non-violent intifada to his own resignation. Somewhere in that list was the option of dismantling the Palestinian Authority.

Was Abbas "deliberately vague" because he calculated that this gave him a certain tactical advantage in dealing with Israel, or because he himself did not know what to do? Six months later, my sense is that then, as now, he really doesn’t know what to do next.

One of the striking aspects of the current discussion of Palestinian post-UN options is that it remains vague and continues to span a broad spectrum of possibilities. No doubt this is one of the factors that reduces the credibility of Palestinian talk of dismantling the PA: at the time of writing, the PLO is also still pushing two UN options (Security Council and General Assembly), Abbas is negotiating with Hamas to set a date in May for new elections in which he ostensibly does not plan to run, and of course there is still the talk of a new intifada.

Yet, despite the credibility problem–or perhaps precisely because of the evidence of Palestinian indecisiveness–Israel and the international community should take seriously the possibility that the Palestinian leadership will decide, willy-nilly, to dismantle the PA. Sometime in the coming months, the list of contributing factors and circumstances could become overwhelming. It could include the almost certain failure at the Security Council, the perception that General Assembly recognition as an observer state has become a "non-event", and recognition that, after the UNESCO triumph provoked financial disaster for that UN agency, it’s pointless to seek membership in additional agencies. In parallel, Abbas will likely fail to move ahead on the reconciliation track with Hamas, whether on an agreed election agenda or on anything else.

Further afield, there is the ongoing chaos of Arab revolutions surrounding us, the total absence of American peace process leadership, and of course the ongoing settlement and Jewish-nationalist agenda of the Netanyahu government. At some point, it might indeed seem logical for Palestinians to judge that, since autonomy had failed to produce a state, it should simply be dismantled and the status quo ante invoked.

A second intriguing aspect of a discussion of dismantling the PA is not how and why it would happen, but how everyone concerned would respond. Significant right-wing pro-settler sectors of the Netanyahu government would probably react the same way to dismantling the PA as they would respond to any step that could be construed to end the Oslo agreement, including UN recognition of a full-fledged Palestinian state: by demanding Israeli annexation of around 50 percent of the West Bank, including the settlement blocs, the Jordan Valley and even many of the isolated mountain-heartland settlements.

Regardless of how much influence Israel’s reactionary right would be able to exercise within the government, one thing is certain: virtually all political streams in Israel would seek at any cost to avoid reoccupying the West Bank. This follows the pattern exhibited with the withdrawals from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip: despite the perceived failures of these moves, very few in Israel advocate returning and reoccupying, to the extent that in 2006 Israel preferred a problematic international force in southern Lebanon to reoccupation by the Israel Defense Forces.

Under present international circumstances, with the United States in an election year, the European Union in financial chaos and the Arab world in genuine turmoil, the rest of the world would probably offer little by way of substantive response to the crisis created by a Palestinian move to dismantle the PA. In this sense, Palestinian timing would have to be judged as inauspicious.

Finally, one additional key reaction has to be factored in. Hamas in Gaza, which in any case is enhancing its strategic position on the coattails of the rising Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, would draw strength from the dismantling of the PA. In effect, it would emerge as an independent Palestinian mini-state and the only Palestinian political entity around: the ultimate "Gaza first" strategy.

That’s something the PLO leadership in Ramallah should ponder before opting to dissolve the PA.

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