Moderate Arab countries are growing increasingly concerned that the Palestinian Authority may collapse, according to diplomats and observers. Countries such as Egypt and Jordan openly worry that the demise of the P.A., coupled with the perceived American disengagement in an election year and the Israeli government preparing to take unilateral steps in the territories, could pave the way for a Hamas power grab.
“I never saw the P.A. in such disarray,” said Edward Abbington, a lobbyist for the P.A. in Washington. “They are close to collapsing and the Arab states like Egypt and Jordan are very concerned about the long-term implications and especially the rise of Hamas… They are frustrated that the P.A. does not do more.”
The reality seems to be sinking in among Palestinians, too.
General Aharon Ze’evi Farkash, the head of Israeli military intelligence, told the Cabinet this week that Arafat realizes that the current situation weakens the hegemony of his Fatah party to the benefit of Hamas.
In order to reassert authority, Ze’evi said, Arafat recently ordered P.A. police officers to return to the streets of Palestinian cities. But that effort was immediately damaged by the fact that the suicide bomber who killed 11 civilians on a bus in Jerusalem last week turned out to be a P.A. policeman from Bethlehem.
In addition, Palestinian officials have expressed bitterness that Israel had agreed to release Palestinian prisoners in a recent deal with Hezbollah, after having refused to do so several months ago when then-Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen requested such a gesture. One observer said that this was perceived as a blow to the P.A. in the Palestinian street.
Several Palestinian intellectuals and political advisers have written articles recently blaming the P.A. for its lackadaisical attitude.
In a piece published in the London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, former Arafat adviser Imad Shakur blasted the P.A. chairman for his lack of leadership and demanded that he take immediate and dramatic steps to reestablish law and order in the Palestinian territories.
Arafat has been urged by Egyptian officials in recent weeks to deal with the creeping anarchy in the territories. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and intelligence minister Omar Sulaiman went to Jerusalem and Ramallah several times in recent weeks, reportedly chiding Arafat for not asserting himself, according to Alex Fishman, a security columnist for the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot.
Cairo has been hosting inter-Palestinian talks for months, hoping to achieve a ceasefire, with little success.
Jordan is especially worried that a P.A. collapse and the construction of the security fence could cause a major exodus of Palestinians to the Hashemite kingdom. Such concerns help explain why Amman has been at the forefront of the legal battle to bring the fence issue to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, incurring the wrath of Ariel Sharon.
Amman has also urged Arab countries to renew their commitment to the two-year-old Saudi initiative at an upcoming Arab League meeting in Tunisia. That plan calls for full Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories.
There is talk of introducing more specific language to entice a more positive response from Jerusalem, be it on the issue of refugees, security guarantees or a clear condemnation of suicide bombings.
A Western diplomat said that there had been discussions between some key European and Arab countries to find a way to ensure there will be a credible interlocutor on the Palestinian side.
Observers said a clear indication that Arab commitment to the P.A. is declining could be seen in the reduction of financial pledges.
“There is a perception of an absence of authority,” said a United Nations official. “International funding of the P.A. is stretched thin and this could mean the end of the P.A.”
For example, Arab states have been more and more reluctant to respond to emergency appeals for funds from the U.N. agency dealing with Palestinian refugees.
Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Ala is said to be planning a fundraising tour to Europe, an observer said.
Some doves expressed concern about the prospect of a dissembling of the P.A.
“After three and a half years of intifada, the P.A.’s capacity to govern is extremely limited,” said Lewis Roth, the vice-executive director of Americans for Peace Now, pointing to Israeli operations and constant denunciations of the P.A., donor fatigue and traditional incompetence as the main factors.
Israeli officials reject the notion that they are the main culprits behind the P.A.’s decay, claiming that Arafat had made a strategic mistake by not rejecting terror and by crippling efforts to reform the P.A.
Roth claims that the situation is reverting to the pre-Oslo days when there was no “central address for the Palestinians and you have security deals cut at a very local level.”
An Israeli official acknowledged the existence of a power vacuum and the possibility that it could be filled by Hamas.
“You don’t need to be a genius to figure out that once the central governing body decides not to govern, then someone else is going to fill the vacuum,” the official said, adding that the Palestinians had reached a situation in which Hamas is now a “direct threat to the P.A.”
The official repeated the Jordanian concerns over a deeply unstable Palestinian state that would endanger both neighboring states.
“The problem, of course, goes beyond that the emerging Palestine has all the signs of a failed state, so we could very well be in for a neighbor which looks more like Somalia than Jordan,” he said. “And it would be worse than Somalia, because of its inherent seeds of perpetual instability –– i.e., continuing the never-ending struggle over the final borders of the British mandate.”