“The donors will not be ready to keep funding Palestinian state-building much longer”. Three weeks had passed since this statement from Norwegian Foreign Minister, Espen Barth Eide, was published in the Jerusalem Post. The statement is especially significant ahead of this week’s meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee of the donor countries to the Palestinian Authority (PA), chaired by Norway, and taking place alongside the UN General Assembly in New York.
The headline, however, didn’t shock many in Israel. In fact, it’s likely that there are not many decision makers, let alone ordinary citizens, who have even heard of Mr. Eide’s statement. There was good reason to be patient about it. After all there were holidays around the corner, a potential war with Syria, the return of children back to school, and the bitter and nostalgic recount of the Yom Kippur war in virtually every media channel in Israel. The holidays have almost passed, and still there was silence. This might end up being the familiar and eerie silence before the storm, which could in turn become one of the greatest crises to hurt Israel’s economy, security, and perhaps even our independence.
A week after Eide’s statement, another paper published a similar warning from a delegation of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF noted a slow in growth, soaring unemployment rates, large deficits, and once again a considerable chance that international aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) would cease in the future. By now one would have expected Minister Naftali Bennet to call the Norwegians “a hemorrhoid on the fringes of Europe”, or the Chair of the Defense and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to demand Israel cuts off all ties to the IMF. None of that happened. Neither did it trigger much interest among ministers, MKs, and civil society organizations of the Center-Left bloc. Even the PLO’s veteran Hanan Ashrawi responded with relative calm in an interview to Xinhua, the Chinese news agency.
Here is therefore an opportunity to ring the Norwegian bells again, and explain why they matter. It’s true that reports from the World Bank, IMF and the McKenzie & Company consulting firm have all given praise to state-building efforts by Palestinian former Prime Minister Fayyad, and asserted that a contiguous Palestinian state has all that it takes to function as a a viable economy, but at present the PA is completely dependent on foreign aid. In that sense, the European, American, and Arab tax payer is largely responsible for the perpetuation of the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians. This status quo is comfortable to many on both sides of the conflict. Sometimes there are limited raids and military operations, at most there is cooperation on security between the Shin Bet (Israel’s Secret Service) and the Mukhaberat (the Palestinian counterpart). Sometimes there are peace talks, sometimes not. The noises of an occasional rocket from Gaza’s Hamas hitting an open field near Sderot or of crops in Palestinian fields incinerated by “Price Tag” gangs are rare, and muffled by the blooming metropolitans of Tel Aviv and Ramallah.
If that’s a fair depiction of the status-quo, which the international community’s dollar helps sustain, what would the end of that aid look like? So long as the Two State solution isn’t implemented, this should concern Israelis of all political trends, as much as to Palestinians. Without foreign aid, the PA will collapse. Without Palestinian authority, Israeli authority would have to be reenacted instead. For the Palestinians, it means a farewell bid to statehood. No longer would they govern themselves, and all their people’s blood that was shed for independence was in vain.
For Israel, it means taking over all the civil responsibilities that it used to have prior to the Oslo Accords. That would include providing health services, education, and infrastructure to about 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as retaking over all direct policing and security control. Currently it is the donor states that help fund all of these needs through the PA. Norway is just one country that gives more than $50,000,000 to the Palestinians every year. That’s just a fraction of the $1.2 billion that have been pledged to the PA this year by the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee of the donor countries. Think of what the Israeli budget would look like as those foreign dollars and Euros are replaced with the shekel.
This setback would be dire for Israelis of all political trends. The center-left and the pragmatic right believe in giving peace a chance based on “Two States for Two Peoples”.
Without a Palestinian state to be found in the horizon, and without a PA in the present, naturalization for everyone west of the Jordan would end up obliterating the Jewish State. 2.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank along with 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel would meet some 6 million Jews. Just do the math and imagine the Knesset then. This is what Muammar Gadaffi hoped would become the State of Israstine. This is why former Prime Minister Olmert said that without a Palestinian state, “Israel is finished”.
However, the dissolution of the PA should concern the far right. When extremists oppose a Palestinian state, they surely don’t want Israel to have to replace the PA. Without Palestinians to cooperate with it, there is no basis for plan by Naftali Bennet to isolate Palestinians in scattered cantons throughout the West Bank, or for Danny Danon’s plans for autonomy without statehood. In fact, as long as the PA isn’t becoming a viable state on the 67 borders (with land swaps), it is realizing the vision of far right: holding onto as much territory, while as having to deal with as little Palestinians as possible. In summary, if the Two State solution isn’t realized soon, an end to foreign aid is surely an option. Its alternative would be terribly discordant for Palestinians and Jews, nationalists and liberals alike.
The question arises, though, how serious the Norwegian threat is? What are the chances for the donor states to leave the PA to crumble down, and place its millions under Israeli authority again? There is no doubt that the Europeans are losing patience. The firm decision of the EU commission to restrict EU funding only to Israeli companies and institutions operating in the pre-1967 borders is a manifestation of that. Even the U.S. began using hitherto unheard tones, such as the statement from former CIA Director Patraeus on Israel “gradually turning from an asset to the U.S. to a burden” (in the words of our own former Mossad Director, Meir Dagan). The PA was set up as an interim non-state entity.
Palestinians too are getting impatient. The dependency on foreign aid took out tens of thousands to demonstrate last year for social justice all over the West Bank, and frequently left hundreds of thousands of civil servants – including teachers, doctors, bureaucrats, and armed security men – without a salary at the end of the month, when pledges for donations weren’t kept. The donations-driven Ramallah economic boom doesn’t quite trickle down. It’s not just a matter of attitude. The PA’s deteriorating legitimacy is objective. The Oslo Process set it up to expire after five years. While that interim arrangement has recently marked its 20th anniversary. No one can seriously believe foreign money will continue to flow in ad-infinitum, or that Palestinians – surrounded by Arab neighbors who rise up for change – will tolerate living in a political limbo forever.
The way out of this is clear, and for a change the window of opportunity is open. Talks between Israel and the Palestinian
leadership are under almost undivided attention of State Secretary Kerry. Hardly anything is leaked from the tightly sealed doors of the negotiations room, but the sentiment is sleepy and skeptic. The Norwegian Foreign Minister reminded us that political indecision will not be sustained indefinitely by an open-check from the international community. These bells should serve as an effective wake-up call to both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
Tal Harris is executive director of OneVoice Israel. The OneVoice movement leads parallel grassroots efforts in Israel and in Palestine toward the solution of two states for two peoples.