ISRAEL-PALESTINE: So what! And then?
Christian Berger

June 6, 2006

It has been a long-held belief by many observers of the Middle East conflict that if the Palestinian Authority (PA) did not exist already we would have to invent it. Now that the PA seems to be moving closer to a possible collapse, is this still the case?

Financial deprivation caused by the lack of access to funds - the larger part of PA-owned taxes and other revenues is being withheld by Israel and direct international financial assistance is either stopped or not getting through because banks fear legal repercussions in the US - may well be the reason for the PA not being any longer in a position to carry out its functions.

The notion of a possible collapse is symptomatic of much bigger problems that endanger the peace process and the eventual implementation of the two-state solution. Is this not the legacy of an unresolved conflict, a "ceasefire" that never turned into peace? Are we witnessing the transformation of a protracted conflict into a frozen conflict?

Peace-building theory aside, the real question is: what do the parties and the international community want to see happening in the Middle East in the long run? Is it the implementation of the two-state solution? Is it something else? Will it be something else by sheer default? Only when we have an answer to this fundamental question will we know the value of the PA, and begin to understand the consequences of a collapsing PA.

Do we actually still need the PA? Is it not a last remnant of the discredited Oslo-process? The PA has been the most important provider of key services to Palestinians but has also been the governing body - the authority - in the Palestinian territory.

Some may think that it has performed badly; nevertheless, this is the first time that Palestinians have been responsible for a wide range of governmental affairs. They have been the interlocutor for the international community and efforts have been made to coordinate donor activities against the needs of the Palestinian people as expressed in the various development and reform plans drawn up by the PA.

Again, some will say that it was not enough or that it was badly implemented. The point is, however, that the PA as an institution has been performing an important job in governance and state-building.

In recent years, the PA as an institution has also achieved remarkable progress in financial transparency and accountability. With the collapse of the PA these achievements will be lost. Setting up different accounts, not any longer using the Single Treasury Account, channeling funds via routes that are less transparent - are all potentially a step backwards, with all its security implications.

Who will pursue the task of institution-building and preparing for statehood? The end of the PA will be the signal that Palestinian public institutions and the political aspiration of statehood are no longer, or at least not for the foreseeable future, feasible. It will be an admission of failure.

The real dilemma is that the collapse of the PA, including its civil service and security components, is seen by many as a way of removing the PA''s political echelon from power. This would mean, however, that yet again more importance is being attributed to the incumbents of an institution than to the institution itself.

At the same time, the majority of Palestinians believe that their government should act responsibly; after all, that is the reason that they elected it. But this means that the Hamas-led government, like any other responsible government, will have to end violence, uphold law and order and abide by agreements that the previous government concluded with Israel or with the international community.

If the PA collapses what will replace it? Will we see the return of the Civil Administration? Given Israel''s current policy of disengagement, this is not a likely scenario. Will the international community move in?

There are attempts underway to maintain key services, but this is only a temporary and limited approach to alleviate hardship for the Palestinian people. Will Arab neighbors take over? Again, not a likely scenario.

If the PA disappears, perhaps we can start all over again, and do it the right way by addressing the causes of the conflict and by helping build democratic and well-functioning institutions rather than supporting individuals.

Yes, we can go back to the drawing board, try to reinvent the PA or something similar that will exercise government-like functions for Palestinians and serve as interlocutor with Israel and the international community.

We may find, however, that the political environment has changed, that the proverbial window of opportunity is closed. And we will have to admit that 12 years of efforts to build Palestinian institutions were wasted and, far worse, that too many people died in a political experiment that has gone wrong.

Christian Berger served in the Middle East for a number of years for the UN and the EU. His latest assignment was EU representative on the team of Quartet Special Envoy James Wolfensohn. He is currently responsible for crisis management and conflict prevention in the European Commission. Acknowledgement to bitterlemons-international.org