The issue of the tax funds continues to rock the Palestinian Authority (PA). Two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the green light to unfreeze the funds withheld in January 2015, less than a third to cover PA debts to Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that he would refuse to accept the money and turn instead to the International Criminal Court (ICC). During an April 5 speech in Ramallah, he said, "We are returning the money. Either they give it to us in full or we go to arbitration or to the court (ICC). We will not accept anything else."
Immediately after the refusal, PA employees were notified that in light of the financial situation, their salaries would be slashed by 40%. This elicited great agitation among the staff, including security forces and civil servants, all of whom have been only partially paid in the past four months. They're angry that at this stage, the PA is only threatening Israel with filing a complaint with the ICC — a process that could take a very long time, while they remain without a means to provide for their families and pay off debts.
A Palestinian security official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that he held candid talks with his subordinates, who are grappling with serious financial situations. He told them that Abbas talked with all the members of the Fatah leadership, promising them that a supreme effort would be made to resolve the salary issues as soon as possible “without having to beg Israel,” as he put it. Indeed, a temporary solution has been found. During his tour of the Gulf states, Abbas apparently won a $100 million loan from Qatar, allowing him to pay the remainder of the salaries that were cut. That is, until the next crisis comes along.
But this is not where the affair ends, and the turmoil in the PA has not entirely dissipated. Senior Fatah members are unequivocally demanding that Abbas treat Israel the way the latter treats the PA and repay it “by the same token” — namely, by employing sanctions. The most significant area that could affect relations between Israel and the Authority is security coordination, which the president once labeled sacred and untouchable, despite the differences of opinion and tensions with Israel.
Fatah senior Jibril Rajoub is leading the persuasion attempts within the Fatah leadership with the hope of creating a uniform front to pressure Abbas. Having publicly addressed the issue after the Israeli freeze of the PA’s tax funds, he later retracted his statement, probably on the orders of the president. Yet in closed forums, reports an insider who wished to remain anonymous, he once again explained that only by losing this coordination will Israel understand that the Palestinians, too, have a response to the threats and that they, too, have an effective weapon and punitive measures to counter Israel’s unpredictable moves.
Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian security coordination continues, the crisis and derailment of the peace talks notwithstanding. A Palestinian security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that if the Israeli public knew only a tenth of the things that the security coordination yielded and what security issues were resolved quietly, the Israelis would have long ago changed their opinion of the PA in general and of the president in particular. He said, “Your prime minister says that there is no partner on the Palestinian side, although he knows exactly what the partners are doing in terms of security. But we keep silent because we can’t talk about it. And the same goes for the members of the Palestinian Preventive Security and those coordinating with Israel, who might be deemed traitors.”
The president is in no hurry to stop the coordination, lest it generate a renewed wave of violence that could snowball and threaten not only Israel but also the situation and the standing of the PA.
Meanwhile, with the Qatari loan and on the assumption that PA employees will be paid in full in the coming days, the pressure on Abbas should slightly decrease. But the issue of using the security coordination as a Palestinian sanction against Israel has gathered many supporters among senior officials and other leaders. Al-Monitor has learned that even the chief of the negotiation team with Israel, Saeb Erekat, believes that punitive measures against Israel should be adopted.
In an April 4 interview with Palestine TV, Erekat provoked a storm in Israel by comparing Netanyahu with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In addition to being populist and hyperbolic, Erekat’s statement was made at the height of the salary crisis and was probably aimed at abating the internal Palestinian criticism leveled at the PA and its stance on Israel. Yet the tone Erekat and other senior officials have been using against Israel and Netanyahu can also explain their militant sentiment and ardent desire to fight back against the prime minister’s policy. So far, Abbas stands like a bulwark, trying to repel the calls by his associates for a war against Israel, which, in turn, claims he is not a partner for talks.
How long will the security coordination between Israel and the Authority hold out? It depends on many factors. Nevertheless, it is clear that the continuation of the security cooperation is of paramount importance to both sides. The Israeli leadership, particularly the prime minister, is scornful and dismissive of Abbas. Punitive sanctions are easily employed to placate public opinion in Israel — the freezing of the tax funds following the Palestinian appeal to the ICC and their subsequent unfreezing right after the elections being a case in point. Taking the security coordination for granted and considering it as separate from other Israeli decisions could bring about its demise. The heavy pressure being wielded on the Palestinian president on all fronts might bear fruit, to the point where Abbas might stop considering it sacred.
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