Is the Palestinian Authority really a 'fig leaf' for Israeli occupation?

That's the charge of Yossi Beilin, Israeli architect of the Oslo accords. In an interview with the Monitor, he defends his recent call for the PA to be dissolved – 19 years after he helped set it up.

Oded Balilty/AP/File
Yossi Beilin, pictured in Tel Aviv in this November 2003 file photo, the Israeli architect of the Oslo accords.

Seated at her desk beneath pictures of two smiling leaders, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the late founding father Yasser Arafat, principal Shadia Shaheen asserts that her high school plays a part in the building of a future Palestinian state.

''To build a state, you must start with the person,'' she says during a break at the al-Bireh Secondary School for Girls.'' We teach the pupils how to be sound citizens, how to serve their country, how to be a democratic person, how to express their opinions, and the importance of not being violent.'' she says.

The school, under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority ministry of education, is part of a sprawling but weak government set up in keeping with the 1993 Oslo Accords. Under the self-rule agreement with Israel, the PA was established to include an executive branch, legislature, and an array of security agencies and ministries – including, at present, health, social affairs, finance, justice, agriculture, transport, and tourism.

Launched with great fanfare, the fledgling institutions of statehood face mounting questions about their utility 19 years later, with a Palestinian state nowhere in sight and peace negotiations in a deep freeze. Many support the PA as an important exercise in self-government for Palestinians. But even some of its strongest erstwhile supporters have joined the chorus of those who criticize it as a façade of self-rule behind which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can continue to expand Israel's hold on the West Bank while avoiding international opprobrium and the full costs of Israeli occupation.

The solution? Disband the PA and jolt the international community into reviving peace diplomacy toward a two-state solution, argues Yossi Beilin, the Israeli architect of Oslo.

''It is an electric-shock treatment because no one can ignore it," says Mr. Beilin in an interview. "If you come to Israel and say, 'Hey, the vacation is over, you can't benefit from me unilaterally, you cannot prolong Oslo forever, that it's over, than that is something. Even Obama will have to wake up.''

Mr. Beilin, who was Abbas's partner in the secret talks leading up to Oslo, called on the Palestinian leader in an open letter last month to dismantle the PA and return the residents of the West Bank to direct and full Israeli occupation. For the sake of Palestinians, ''and for the sake of peace, you cannot let this farce continue,'' he wrote.

Oslo was designed as an interim arrangement to last for five years, until a final status agreement could be reached covering the thorniest conflict issues including refugees, Jerusalem, and borders by 1999, Beilin recalls. He says the Oslo agreement was meant to be a mere ''corridor'' to a permanent peace solution but has turned into a permanent arrangement, or "living room." He blames Israeli and Palestinian hard-liners anxious to avoid a territorial compromise.

''Both myself and [Abbas] are in many ways the parents of Oslo," he says. "But we never meant to have this kind of 'Oslo forever' situation.''

Skeptics: Abbas isn't revolutionary enough to dissolve PA

The idea of dismantling the PA is originally a Palestinian one. Beginning in 2003, it was advocated by Ali Jarbawi, then a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank and now the PA planning minister, as a means of challenging Israel's character as a Jewish state by forcing it to resume responsibility over a growing Palestinian population.

However, it has traditionally touched off considerable resistance among Palestinians who would lose their jobs and positions and those who question what would come in its stead. The PA employs 180,000 people and supports more than 1 million, if one includes relatives of employees.

But it also has prominent Palestinian adherents. About the same time Beilin wrote his letter, former PA premier and Oslo negotiator Ahmed Qurei raised eyebrows by endorsing consideration of abandoning the idea of self-rule leading to a two-state solution in favor of a strategy of one state for Palestinians and Israelis, something that implies the dissolution of the PA.

According to Beilin and media reports, Abbas included a veiled threat to dismantle the PA in a letter he recently wrote to Netanyahu outlining his grievances over Israeli policies. If there were no peace breakthrough, Palestinians ''would seek the full and complete implementation of international law as it pertains to the powers and responsibility of Israel as the occupying power in all of the occupied Palestinian territories'' media reports quoted the letter as saying.

Palestinian officials declined the Monitor's request for comment. However, Abbas denied he is considering dismantling the PA, telling the al-Ayyam daily newspaper recently that such a step ''is out of the question.''

Palestinian analysts say it would be out of character for Abbas to dismantle the PA. ''He is a technocrat, he is not Yasser Arafat, he is not revolutionary in his thinking. It's not just that he's cautious, it's that he doesn't have an alternative,'' says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. ''There is no vision for a new chapter in the struggle.''

Good for Netanyahu?

Beilin says his main motive in wanting to shake up the status quo is that continued Israeli rule over the Palestinians cannot be reconciled with his vision for his country. ''For me I want a state that demographically has a stable Jewish majority but still is very democratic and very liberal and is accepted by the world,'' he says.

''Today what we have is a run-down autonomy which none of us meant to be,'' he says. ''The longer it exists, the longer it enables those against a solution on the Palestinian side and on the Israeli side to win the day. This is the best-case situation for someone like Netanyahu.''

Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, takes issue with Beilin's criticisms of Netanyahu, saying ''the reason for the current impasse is the decision by the PA to boycott the negotiations. We've continually called for the resumption of peace talks, saying all core issues can be on the table.'' Abbas has demanded that Israel freeze settlement construction as a precondition for talks, while Netanyahu insists the resumption must be unconditional.

Mr. Regev also dismisses talk of dissolution as a tactic to threaten Israel. ''We don't think it's being seriously considered by anyone," he says. "When it arises, it's a tool in a game of brinksmanship."

Warnings of another intifada

Both Israelis and Palestinians are warning against Beilin's new stance, saying it could spawn instability that would be harmful to both sides.

''The moment the Authority is cancelled, it means that for at least a period there will be chaos until the state of Israel organizes to meet the new situation,'' says Gen. Gadi Zohar (reserves), former chief military administrator for the West Bank and Gaza. ''The clear consequence of this move will be a falling apart among the Palestinians, that will be turned against the occupation. There will be a third intifada.''

In the education ministry, officials see all their work of recent years coming to naught if the PA is abolished. Achievements have included raising enrollment to 97 percent, establishing a Palestinian curriculum in place of the Jordanian and Egyptian ones that were used before Oslo, building schools in remote areas, and raising the standard of the teachers, according to assistant deputy minister Basri Salih.

"In our national curriculum, you'll find a lot of mention of the Palestinian identity, especially the positive elements in our struggle,'' he says. ''We keep the national symbols such as the flag as a very important component. We invested so much in order to raise up the feeling of being proud of our national identity.''

At the school, principal Shaheen says dissolving the authority would mean ''going backwards.''

''It would cause chaos on the ground and you don't know where that would lead,'' she says. Shaheen was a math teacher in Kuwait when Iraqi troops invaded in 1990. She recalls that the Iraqi occupation authorities asked her to remain in her post, but she refused. ''I didn't want to teach under Saddam Hussein, I didn't want to be part of the occupation. And if the authority is dissolved, I will also leave my work.''

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