The Catch-22 of the West Bank


Israel has a vexing problem. Under the uneasy status quo in place between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the PA has responsibility for oversight of portions of the West Bank, including responsibility for security issues, while Israel watches close by. But the PA under President Mahmoud Abbas is fragile and ready to collapse, prompting fear that a political collapse will be followed quickly by the crumbling of the PA’s security services who are charged with keeping order, coordinating with the Israeli army and helping to protect Israelis nearby.

Over the past several weeks there has been an uptick in unrest and violence in the West Bank, including attacks on Israelis living there. This has led to Israeli military operations in areas under Palestinian control, with killings and arrests of suspected Palestinian terrorists. Those incursions — which are unquestionably necessary to protect lives and root out terror activity — are seen as having a problematic ripple effect: The incursions weaken the already tottering PA, which leads to a weakening of its security services, which allows more anti-Israel violence, which increases Israeli security interventions in territory that is supposed to be overseen by the PA. In order to stop the PA’s slide, Israel has to stop intervening. But Israel needs to intervene in order to protect itself and its citizenry.

A classic Catch-22.

All of this comes as the Israeli government is effectively frozen, as the country counts down to elections in November. Prime Minister Yair Lapid wants to avoid taking any actions that opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu might exploit. That is the case even though the construct of PA control in portions of the West Bank was established by Netanyahu’s government when he was prime minister.

Although Israel seems resigned to not doing much to address the festering West Bank problems before the elections, it doesn’t appear that the U.S. is comfortable with that. It is for that reason that during her recent visit to the region, Barbara Leaf, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, met with Israeli and Palestinian officials and emphasized the U.S. interest in strengthening cooperation with Israel and the Palestinian Authority and improving the quality of life for the Palestinian people, along with re-emphasis of the Administration’s continued support for a two-state solution. Leaf reportedly encouraged Israeli leadership to take steps to stabilize the Palestinian Authority. She also urged the PA not to pursue a bid for full membership at the United Nations Security Council but didn’t get to make that pitch to Abbas himself. Abbas refused to meet with Leaf — citing his “busy schedule.”

Where does this lead? We’re not sure. But the status quo is fraught with risk. And it is unquestionably in Israel’s best interests to deal with the issues now rather than allowing things to deteriorate further. Besides, what’s the point of waiting for what is projected to be another inconclusive election in November?

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