A United Nations official deeply involved in Middle East peacemaking warned in an interview this week that Israel’s decision to withhold funds from President Mahmoud Abbas’s government could end up toppling the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, with potentially severe consequences for not just the Palestinians but also Israel.
Robert Serry, the U.N. secretary-general’s envoy in the region, also said Israel needs to take seriously the possibility that Abbas might dismantle the Palestinian Authority on his own initiative, leaving Israel on the hook for the day-to-day needs of more than 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank.
Either scenario could quickly lead to chaos in the West Bank and new violence against Israel after nearly five years of relative calm. There could also be political repercussions for the United States, Israel’s main ally and defender.
Serry spoke to The Daily Beast after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government suspended the transfer of millions in tax revenue Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, funds the Palestinians use to pay the salaries of policemen, security officers, and other civil servants.
“It is very difficult to see how the Palestinian Authority can financially survive in a situation where for any protracted period the … transfers can really be cut off. That will indeed very soon have dire financial consequences,” Serry said in the interview.
He said Israel should be particularly concerned about salaries being withheld from officials involved in security coordination with the Jewish state, a collaboration that has helped prevent suicide bombings and other cross-border attacks.
“Think about all those security people who are the backbone of the achievements,” Serry said. “If these people can’t be paid … what consequences can that have on their morale in terms of the very difficult and sensitive job they are doing?”
Almost half of the Palestinian Authority’s roughly $3 billion budget comes from the taxes Israel collects on its behalf, mostly at Israeli ports and border crossings. Israel’s decision to withhold the funds comes in response to the Palestinian bid for membership with the U.N., which Netanyahu views as an attempt to circumvent peace negotiations.
While the U.N. Security Council has yet to take up the Palestinian membership request, one U.N. agency, UNESCO, has already granted Palestinians state status by a vote of 107 to 14 this week, prompting both Israeli and American condemnation.
An official in Netanyahu’s office who refused to be named said the government was still considering whether the suspension in revenue transfers would be temporary or long term. The U.S. has also penalized the Palestinians, cutting nearly $200 million in aid to Abbas’s government.
“The Palestinians unfortunately refuse to negotiate, refuse to engage, and have adopted a strategy of trying to isolate Israel in international institutions,” the Israeli official said. “This is the core reason for the current impasse in the peace talks.”
Serry, who was a career Dutch diplomat before taking up the U.N. post in Jerusalem in 2007, said he worries that further U.N. votes will prompt increasingly harsh Israeli measures. Washington has pledged to use its veto power at the Security Council, if necessary, to scuttle Palestinian membership. But Palestinians plan to then take their case to the General Assembly, where a large majority is guaranteed.
In his regular meetings with Palestinian officials, Serry says he’s hearing more frustration than ever about Israeli settlement expansion and more talk about the Palestinian Authority—set up after the 1993 Oslo accords as a temporary governing body—having run its course.
“You hear it now practically from all advisers of Abbas. And I’m aware, I’m not naive, that they all use it as a threat. But when parties are involved in a poker game like this and [their bluff] is called, sometimes these things may become a self-fulfilling prophesy.”
Several officials in Ramallah said in interviews that the idea of dismantling the Palestinian Authority had been raised in closed meetings. But most believed it was unlikely to happen.
“There are some people who are talking about this as an option. It has been in circulation for a while. We don’t want to be there just as a cover for Israel,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a former Palestinian negotiator who takes part in leadership meetings. “We have committees to look into all these options.”
The official in Netanyahu’s office said Palestinian leaders routinely threaten to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and expressed surprise that anyone would take it seriously.
But Serry said events had reached a critical point in the West Bank and cautioned that a collapse would leave Israel accountable.
“The Israelis shouldn’t expect us to again finance the consequences of what may happen ... If this happens, Israel will again bear the full consequences of being the occupier. It will be their responsibility then to take care of [Palestinian] education, health, and these kinds of things.”