Israel’s new government, widely seen as the most far-right in its history, has wasted no time ramping up pressure on the Palestinian Authority. The latest volley of travel restrictions against top officials, financial pressure and construction freezes are not new in themselves. But viewed in the context of statements by members of the new cabinet, they could mark a departure from years of policy. Since the Oslo Accords, Israel has relied on the PA as a proxy to keep the West Bank calm on its behalf. By contrast, members of the government that took office in late December consider any Palestinian national entity as an affront to Israel’s sovereign, “exclusive right” to all of the biblical “Land of Israel.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power coincided with a Palestinian push for the International Court of Justice to examine Israel’s decades-long occupation. Just a day after the new government took office, the United Nations General Assembly voted to request the court for an advisory opinion on the legality of the occupation, including settlement and annexation of territory, and altering the demographic composition of Jerusalem.
The Israeli government’s response was swift. Describing the Palestinian initiative as “political and legal war against the State of Israel”, it promptly revoked the travel permit of PA Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki, and said it would appropriate tax money that Israel collects on behalf of the PA, to redistribute it to Israeli Jewish families that have had members killed by Palestinians.
It also banned all Palestinian construction in the 60 percent of the West Bank designated under the Oslo Accords as being under full Israeli military and administrative control, where Palestinian building is already severely restricted. Finally Israel ramped up its attacks on Palestinian rights NGOs (the previous administration had designated six of them as terrorist organizations in October).
In a rare interview with Israeli daily Haaretz, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh warned that the latest measures would “promptly lead” to the PA’s collapse.
On their face, such measures differ little from steps taken by every other Israeli government of the past 20-30 years to pressure the PA, which is little more than a Palestinian administrative entity and entirely dependent on the occupying power. Israeli policy toward the PA is rather schizophrenic, pulled between the competing impulses to prop up the PA for pragmatic reasons or punish it for political ones; appearing tough on the Palestinians in general is always a good bet in Israeli electoral politics. Keeping the PA weak and dependent also works to Israel’s advantage as it further expands its illegal settlements and their associated infrastructure in the occupied territories.
Despite this, past governments, including those led by Netanyahu, have long relied on the PA, viewing it as an integral pillar of Israeli rule in the occupied territories. The PA offers the world the perception of political separation between the two peoples, and administers Palestinian population centers so that Israel no longer has to. The PA’s establishment in 1994 thus relieved Israel of much of the financial and administrative burden of dealing with a large occupied population.
For Netanyahu, in particular, this is crucial to “managing” the conflict with the Palestinians, as opposed to attempting to resolve it—even though he ironically opposed the peace process that brought the Palestinian government into existence. Despite their anti-PA rhetoric in public, many Israeli politicians generally respect the view of their security establishment: the PA is doing critical work on behalf of Israel and should therefore be kept afloat.
PA officials have gone along with this bargain, much to the vexation of most Palestinians, because of the material benefits and influence they derive from the authority’s survival. This arrangement, in which the PA poses no real challenge to Israel and even helps prevent Palestinian resistance, is the primary reason for the PA’s rock-bottom popularity with its own public.
But in contrast to this nearly three-decade-old arrangement, today’s crop of far-right Israeli leaders beg to differ. For example, when Israel’s new Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich was asked by a journalist whether the new sanctions could force the PA’s collapse, he responded: “As long as the Palestinian Authority encourages terror and is an enemy, I have no interest for it to continue to exist.”
Much has been made about the extreme right-wing nature of the new Israeli government, which brought into power fascistic and theocratic elements of Israel’s Religious Zionist movement. Even some rightwing critics have lamented the inclusion of controversial figures like Itamar Ben Gvir and Smotrich, fearing that their hyper-nationalist and Jewish supremacist ideologies constitute a radical turn in the direction of Israeli politics. Certainly, their inclusion poses a serious challenge to more secular and liberal elements of Israeli society, minorities, the press and especially the judiciary, which has become a prime target for providing even the smallest check on Israel’s otherwise majoritarian politics.
Such concerns mean little for Palestinians, who have endured decades of military occupation and settler colonialism. But for them, the threat posed by this new government is more a matter of intensity than kind. Even if the violence and dispossession Palestinians experience every day is likely to go from exceedingly bad to even worse, it is unlikely to be fundamentally different.
The one exception to this could be the stance of the new government, or at least elements of it, towards the PA, something that could drastically alter the situation on the ground.
Take Smotrich as an example again. In a 2017 paper entitled Israel’s Decisive Plan, he laid out his vision for the annexation of the West Bank, in which there would be no need for even a governing entity like the PA, let alone an independent state. Palestinians living “under the wings of the Jewish State” will be given a choice: either stay as residents without equal rights, or abandon their homes and leave the country. One Israeli journalist termed this a “surrender-or-transfer ultimatum.”
Again, in the worldview of Smotrich and others who emerged from the settler movement, the “exclusive right” of the Jewish people to the entire land eclipses any other concern. He and his undemocratic peers pay little attention to the potential consequences in their distorted version of reality. “Israeli sovereignty can be applied to all areas of Judea and Samaria [ie the West Bank] without granting the Arabs living there the right to vote for the Knesset on the first day and still remain a democracy. Not perfect, but democracy,” Smotrich writes, dismissing accusations of apartheid.
This mentality, that of a generation of settler-politicians from the “New Right,” makes the prospect of Israel formally annexing the West Bank more likely than ever before.
On the day before he took office, Netanyahu tweeted the guiding principles of his new government: “The Jewish people have an exclusive an inalienable right to all areas of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop settlement in all parts the Land of Israel—in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, Judea and Samaria.”
The government has not explicitly laid out plans to formally annex the West Bank, a move that would be sure to spark global uproar especially as Russia continues its war in Ukraine. Yet Netanyahu’s latest administration has already taken unprecedented steps forward in line with this goal.
The arm of the Israeli military that administered much of the West Bank has been placed under the purview of civilians at the Defense Ministry, a subtle step towards annexation because it implies that Israel is extending its civilian control over occupied territory. Meanwhile, entire ministries such as Defense and Public-cum-National Security have been reorganized in a way that allows Smotrich and Ben Gvir, respectively, to play a greater role in the governance and policing of both Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the occupied territories—roles they carefully negotiated during weeks of coalition talks.
The decision to strip the PA’s foreign minister of his travel permit is a demonstration of the power that Israel exercises over even the most powerful Palestinians in the occupied territories. Although the latest measures against the PA are unlikely to bring it crashing down, it is clear that powerful figures in the new Israeli government have a vision they now have a chance to implement.
The PA is not a part of it.
Yet beyond the bluster, any move towards annexation or to sweep away the PA poses difficult questions for Israel: Is it prepared to rule over the territories directly again, as Smotrich implies? Is it prepared to take on the costs it has avoided since 1994? How would Israeli direct rule look, from a Palestinian perspective? And if the PA does collapse, what will follow among Palestinians?
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.