Why America and Israel Need the Palestinian Authority in Gaza
And how the Biden administration can convince the Israeli government to make it happen.
A few hours after meeting with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on December 18 and days after receiving National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, both of whom reportedly strongly emphasized the need for the Israeli government to create a political horizon for Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to X (the social media platform formerly known as Twitter) with a concise public response to his American interlocutors. “I will not allow us to replace Hamastan with Fatahstan,” he posted, in what was an unmistakable rebuke to the U.S. insistence that there be some role for the Palestinian Authority in post-conflict Gaza.
It's the latest salvo in a dispute that has been intensifying for weeks and has become all-too reminiscent of the 2015 argument between the U.S. and Israel over the Iran nuclear deal. Unlike the Iran deal, which was ultimately an irreconcilable difference, the question of returning the PA to Gaza is one that can probably be bridged. But it will require some shifts in American tactics and may not be fully resolvable until Netanyahu has moved on to his inevitable fate as a former prime minister.
The U.S. quickly came to the same conclusion as nearly every other actor in the region with a stake in Gaza’s future: a PA role in the coastal strip will be a necessary part of any durable solution that ensures the removal of Hamas from governing power. While the PA’s flaws are legion and well-known, it is the only non-Hamas Palestinian actor with any governing capabilities and experience, semi-functioning institutions, and security credentials. The parties who are bandied about as candidates to stabilize and rebuild Gaza—Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia—have no interest in throwing money at a problem that has no visible solution, which is why the PA is being spoken about in a positive way for the first time in years.
For Israelis, however, the situation is more complicated. The country has yet to move past October 7, and trust in any Palestinian actor is low. Many see no real distinction between Hamas and Fatah, particularly in the wake of Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to publicly condemn the October 7 attacks. Long-standing Israeli complaints about PA prisoner and “martyr” payments and incitement have been magnified. Recent polling showing 72 percent of Palestinians supporting Hamas’ decision to carry out its assault lends credence to Israeli arguments that PA control of Gaza would not lead to significantly different results. In this environment, Netanyahu’s hard line against the PA and against two states is not out of line with Israeli sentiment, and he is attempting to use this positioning to hold on to his right-wing base and make a larger case that only he can thwart Palestinian statehood going forward.
In order to break this logjam, the Biden administration will need to be more intentional and targeted in its messaging about the PA and its future—both in its private discussions with the Israeli government and in its public statements. First, a distinction must be drawn between the West Bank, which has been under unbroken PA control, and Gaza, which has not, in order to dispel the notion that Hamas and the PA are the same and should be treated similarly. Gaza has been a consistent launch pad for rockets at Israel since Hamas’ 2007 takeover, while the West Bank has not presented a similar threat while under PA control over the same period.
Moreover, the 18,500 workers from Gaza who began entering Israel less than three years ago are now widely viewed as having provided Hamas with intelligence about the Israeli southern communities where they worked prior to October 7. Yet Israel has not faced anything remotely similar with the approximately 150,000 Palestinians from the West Bank who work inside of Israel and Israeli settlements daily and have for decades. In fact, of the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of individual West Bank Palestinians who have entered Israel with work permits since 2015, only fourteen have committed terrorist attacks against Israelis. Some of this should indeed be attributed to the IDF presence inside the West Bank, which is one critical distinction between the West Bank and pre-October 7 Gaza, but it also must be attributed to the fact that the PA has not and does not embrace the same nihilistic armed resistance approach that Hamas does.
Second, the Biden administration should use this moment of crisis as an opportunity to reshape Israel’s relationship with the PA by pushing through reforms long sought by Israeli governments. Israel is not inclined to trust a PA that still unapologetically makes prisoner and so-called “martyr” payments tied to the length of prison sentences, or one that broadcasts unbridled incitement on its airwaves and its school textbooks. The U.S. has cut off the PA financially as a result of this behavior as well, and the U.S. should lead a coalition of regional actors who are willing to bolster the PA financially only in return for a set of concrete and benchmarked reforms on incitement issues and with external and independent monitoring. While governance and transparency reforms are also badly needed, these are secondary Israeli concerns. In order for Israel to shift its attitude towards the PA, its leaders and people must be convinced that the PA is not creating security threats—irrespective of whether it is corrupt or poorly run. Netanyahu and his top advisers have left the door open to such a move in comments ruling out the PA in its current form, and this proposition must be tested.
Third, the Biden administration should get regional actors like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to weigh in more decisively on their visions for Gaza, which uniformly include the PA. The Israeli government is gambling on Arab states being unwilling to countenance a humanitarian disaster in Gaza or having the chaos spill beyond Gaza’s borders, and as a result they’ll ultimately enter Gaza after the war to help clean up the mess. The states that Israel is counting upon, however, have little interest or incentive to do so absent changes in Israeli policy and an Israeli openness to work with the PA. If Arab states—particularly the Abu Dhabi and Riyadh—set out their visions for PA involvement in Gaza, and do so in an unambiguous way, that will move the Israeli needle, even if reluctantly.
Finally, getting the Israeli government to give ground on the PA may unfortunately be a matter of time and come at the end of a war of attrition. As the difficulties of administering post-war Gaza become more evident once the high intensity phase of the fighting ends and as the costs pile ever higher, Israel may be left with no choice but to drop its objections to the PA and cease standing in the way of a solution that has PA involvement. If one year from now Israel has not been able to extricate itself from Gaza, bears the humanitarian costs of providing for Palestinian residents of Gaza largely on its own, made no progress in building a homegrown Gazan administration, and seen that states in the region are sticking by their pledges not to assume Israel’s burden on themselves without Israeli concessions, the Israeli government will have little choice but to shift direction—no matter who is at the helm.
The Israeli government is out on a limb by itself with regard to the PA. The Biden administration should do everything it can to get Netanyahu to climb back before the limb collapses. The only way for Israel to avoid owning Gaza and all of its problems by itself depends on the Israeli government figuring out what type of Palestinian Authority it can live with rather than vetoing its involvement entirely.