Five years after western governments sought to turn the West Bank into a model of statehood for Palestinians, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) that runs it is being cast adrift — possibly with dramatic consequences.

The cafes of Ramallah have been bereft of chattering aid workers from the West since the American administration withdrew its support in the wake of President Mahmoud Abbas’s bid for full statehood at the UN in late 2011. As a result, Abbas may solicit political and material help from elsewhere.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, always ambivalent about the merits of Palestinian statehood on the West Bank (let alone Gaza), seems to have cooled on the idea; many of his coalition partners have always seen it as a threat to their vision of a Greater Israel extending east to the Jordan river.

Whereas he once promised to build an “economic peace” with Palestinians, now he threatens economic sanctions against them, intermittently withholding the customs revenues that Israel collects on Palestine’s behalf, which, with foreign donor aid, make up 80 per cent of the PNA’s budget. Europe, with its own economic crisis, has drastically cut its aid. America’s Congress, to punish Abbas for his UN bid, has withheld two-thirds of its $600 million (Dh2.20 billion) annual support programme.

Even before the UN bid, the PNA was short of cash. Its prime minister, Salam Fayyad, once the darling of western donors, is threatening hefty tax increases on businesses, hitherto his biggest backer, and may slash the PNA’s payroll. The PNA’s security forces may struggle to contain the protests that could erupt.

Brotherhood’s rise

As the PNA’s fortunes in the West Bank have waned, those of Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, have waxed. After Hamas won a Palestinian election in 2006, America and Israel, with broad western endorsement, sought to stifle the place, to display the benefits that would accrue to the West Bankers by cooperating with Israel. But Gazans withstood the siege, partly by burrowing tunnels to Egypt.

With Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood friends in Egypt on the rise, Gaza is looking a lot more prosperous. “We’re the ones now under siege,” says the owner of Che Che, a hubbly-bubbly cafe in Ramallah. With the region’s winds blowing the Islamists’ way, Abbas may be tiring of trying to persuade the West to give him a state. The Americans are still bent on vetoing any early bid. Abbas has refused to resume negotiations with Netanyahu until Israel stops expanding colonies in the West Bank.

In September the mediating Quartet (comprising the US, Russia, the UN and the EU), gave Israelis and Palestinians three months to submit maps for a two-state deal. The Palestinians have complied but the Israelis argue that the clock starts ticking only once the two sides actually meet.

So Abbas is earnestly pondering the prospect of conciliating Hamas and reuniting the two halves of his severed realm. In Cairo on December 22, he presided over a meeting of a ‘temporary leadership forum’, a new body of a dozen factions, including Hamas, which will steer the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Palestinians’ paramount decision-making body that until now has resolutely excluded Hamas, largely because it has rejected the PLO’s decision to recognise Israel. Hamas and Fatah, bitter enemies for many years, are still not close to a full rapprochement. And Israeli and western governments might withhold even more cash from the PNA if Hamas were to join it while still failing unequivocally to recognise Israel or to disavow violence.

Peaceful resistance

But Hamas leader Khalid Mesha’al looks keener to reach out to Abbas — and to make emollient noises about Israel. He recently agreed with Abbas that “the current phase [of policy towards Israel] be confined solely to peaceful resistance acceptable to the international community”.

Some Hamas people have aired the idea of dropping the name Hamas, an acronym for “the Islamic Resistance Movement”, rebranding it as the less jihadist-sounding Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood. After all, says a Hamas leader in Gaza, “we never left it”.

Hamas’ ideological shift is partly because of geography — and events elsewhere. The group clearly thinks it sensible to edge out of the shadow of the beleaguered Syrian regime, its main sponsor, and become more friendly with Egypt’s new order, where the Brotherhood is on the rise.

Three-quarters of Hamas’ people are said to have left turbulent Damascus. Hamas has quietly opened a fledgling office in Cairo. The next Hamas-Fatah meeting is to take place in Jordan, whose king banished Mesha’al in 1999. Hamas has infuriated its other big sponsor, Iran, with the news that Gaza’s prime minister, Esmail Haniya, on his first foreign tour in four years, may hobnob with some of Iran’s sworn enemies.

Abbas and Mesha’al have agreed on a new election commission to prepare for Palestinian elections in 2012. But unity is still far off. Western governments are still loth to see Abbas dish Fayyad, a longstanding precondition of Hamas for agreeing to team up in a unity government. Moreover, Israel could make life even more unpleasant for West Bankers if the PNA were to include Hamas. All the same, a dramatic shift in the Palestinians’ political centre of gravity is in the offing.

–The Economist