3 Reasons Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Won't Follow Through on His Threat to Disband the PA


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been warning the world, and more specifically the United States and Israel, that the lack of negotiations and conflict resolution will lead him to dissolve the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), effectively inviting Israel to reoccupy major Palestinian centers in the West Bank. Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo peace process and the hero of the Israeli peace camp, has publicly called on Abbas to “End this Farce.” Beilin argues that the dissolution of the Oslo structure, built according to agreements signed in 1993 and 1996, will ironically be the best hope for peace, incentivizing Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians.

This rhetoric has been espoused by the PNA for the past three years. In 2010, Abbas proclaimed vehemently: "I won't accept to keep the negotiations with Israel, if the latter resumes construction of settlement," adding that, "I won't accept to keep being the president of an authority that is not existent. Practically, there is no authority, because I have to ask Israel's permission for leaving or coming to Ramallah." 

These warnings have been dropped from a letter designated to Israel's Prime Minister Netenyahu on President Obama’s behest. But to be more precise, Abbas cannot and will not dissolve the PNA. Why? There are several important factors: 

First is the Palestinian Authority's role as a source of income for an overwhelming number of Palestinians. The PNA has successfully built a pseudo-state with large numbers of employees, security service personal, and an inflated bureaucracy. The PNA spends roughly $1.6 billion yearly in payrolls. The United Nations Relief and Work agency, as well as the PNA, constitute the biggest employers in the territory, with government expenditure estimated at 16% of total GDP in the West Bank. The economic role of the PNA can not be overstated; any dissolution of such an organization might backfire in the face of Fatah as a political party, and will weaken its already shaky legitimacy. Any dissolution will also need serious discussion on how to feed, and provide for, an increasingly young population.

Second, the loyalty of the security agencies is questionable in Abbas’ purported scenario. There are more than 35,000 security employees in the West Bank alone, organized around six security agencies, with a total spending of about $600 million constituting about 40% of all payroll expenditure; total security expenditure is approximated at around $950 million. Any dissolution of the PNA, without dissolving the security agencies is solely symbolic, and effectively useless. These security agencies while loyal to Abbas do indeed have their own interests. The new ban on several websites beholden to the ex-Preventive security chief in Gaza, Mohammad Dahlan, highlights the inner conflicts within Abbas’s entourage. If Abbas decides to dissolve the PNA without American tacit support, these agencies might revolt or reduce the move to a mere symbolism, similar to the Palestinian bid in the United Nations.  

Third, the Palestinian polity is highly divided across factional lines, more importantly, the Fatah-Hamas mini civil war, and the continuous geographic and political split. The dissolution of the West Bank authority is also the dissolution of Fatah’s authority in that confined territory. Rationally, Fatah’s interest is in maintaining control over the West Bank, not in eroding that control by enabling other political parties to exploit the power vacuum for their own factional gain.

The rhetoric should be seen within the context of increasingly vehement criticism of Abbas' pursuit of endless negotiations, and the louder voices demanding the dissolution of the PNA within the domestic political scene. It also should be seen as another futile ploy on the part of the largely powerless Palestinian Authority to garner attention amidst fears of the dissipation of the conflict from the international agenda, as result of the Arab Spring and upcoming election in the United States; as well as Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate with President Abbas and freeze settlement building.