Holding onto Hope: Palestinian Authority Institution-Building in the Post-Oslo Era Peace Process

 The 1993 Oslo Accords, which marked Israel’s recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the formation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA/PA) as an interim self-governing body for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were hailed by many as a watershed moment in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In the years after Oslo, the prospect of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and establishing a Palestinian state looked promising Ahmed Qurei, a former Speaker for the Palestinian Legislative Council and one of the key PLO negotiators at Oslo and later at the 2000 Camp David Summit, optimistically proclaimed that Palestine had “transferred from a revolution to a state” with the agreement and process established at Oslo.[1] Just as auspiciously, political scientist Nathan Brown has argued that the PNA was not the start of the Palestinian state-building process, but instead knitted together an array of long-standing, diverse and overlapping institutions under one authority.[2]

For the first time, the Oslo Accords established an Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic track distinct from the long-standing Arab-Israeli one, and facilitated at least partial Israeli redeployment from some areas in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet, despite the claim that Israeli transfer of responsibility to the Palestinian Authority (PA) would set in motion the creation of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, Israel has since reneged on many of Oslo’s provisions and obstructed the PA’s ability to carry out its given functions by regulating revenue streams and maintaining tight control over the Palestinian territories.

However, this paper argues that it is not merely Israeli intransigence but rather the indefinite continuation of the peace process initiated at Oslo, and the subsequent development of clientele and security-driven Palestinian institutions, that have impeded independent Palestinian state-building in the West Bank and Gaza. The ongoing peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has preempted the development of strong and independent Palestinian institutions as foundations for a Palestinian state. This has happened because the ability of the PA to maintain internal order, foster economic development, establish its authority over security and political matters and create an independent state is still obstructed by Oslo-established prioritization of Israeli security and interests over goals of PA capacity-building. Moreover, the PA itself remains dependent on the peace process with Israel to maintain its legitimacy and durability and has developed a semi-authoritarian, corruption-laden and personalized style of governance to maintain its monopoly on power. Nonetheless, it is important to note that it has developed this type of governance largely because it has been forced to work within the extremely confined bounds imposed upon it by the post-Oslo peace process.


Strange Bedfellows: The Relationship between Israel and the PA

There is no doubt that Israeli dominance over the peace process and occupation has substantially determined the context of Palestinian institution-building. While the agreement reached at Oslo between Israel and the PLO may have rescued the PLO, then headquartered in Tunis, from irrelevance and extinction, it effectively “formalize[d] aspects of asymmetric containment that had already been built up since the early 1990s and… extended these controls.”[3] As agreed at Oslo, Israel has maintained control over the collection of taxes levied on the Palestinians, the transfer of Palestinian duties and fiscal revenues to the PA, and the flow of foreign trade, goods and labor over the borders of the Palestinian territories.[4] Employment of West Bank and Gaza residents in Israel peaked at around 40 percent prior to the Oslo Accords, but by 1996 it fell to just 14 percent.[5] Israel has effectively used its oversight over the movement of labor and goods through the borders as a tool for securing Palestinian compliance in security issues.[6] In short, the PA’s economic viability and relationship with the outside world has been strictly regulated by Israel, often to the detriment of Palestinian civilians. Israeli control has led to the development of a “system of gates and gatekeepers” as well as a “system of petty corruption” and extortion between Israeli and Palestinian security officials.[7] From the beginning of the negotiations at Oslo, Israel was the sole determiner of the structure and functions that the PA would adopt.[8] The PLO was fading from the political arena in Tunis, bankrupt after supporting Iraq in the Gulf War and the subsequent loss of Saudi and Kuwaiti financial support, and alienated after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of its foremost patrons. It was too weak to extract concessions from Israel, and was forced to accept its subordinate position in the process in order to preserve its long-term political survival.[9]

Yet, accusations of overt PA complicity in the Israeli occupation abound. To a significant extent, the PA is accused of abetting the Israeli occupation by acting not as a protector of Palestinian rights and interests but instead as a guarantor for Israeli security.[10] As Barry Rubin explains, “To succeed in negotiations, the PA had to prove its ability to fulfill its commitments to Israel.”[11] Further, any Palestinian state that could potentially be created in the future must be able to maintain security within its own borders as consistent with Israel’s perceptions of security, enter arrangements that boost Israeli security and prevent external incursion.[12] Even more, all of these criteria must be fully met immediately upon the establishment of a Palestinian state; Palestinian security capacities cannot be developed gradually after independence because Israel would be unwilling to accept this.[13] Consequently, in order to move toward the prospect of achieving an independent Palestinian state, the PA must demonstrate that is willing and able to execute the “unenviable task of first ensuring security for Israel.” This includes cracking down on its own society in the West Bank and Gaza in an effort to prevent Palestinian violence against Israeli civilian and military targets.[14]

In fact, Israel constructed the post-Oslo transfer of authority from Israel to the PA under the logic that that PA could more efficiently and cheaply preserve Israel’s security than Israel itself could, as the PA would be compelled to stifle any anti-Israel sentiment in those heavily populated areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip under its control.[15] For example, in 1995, the PA formed security courts after two bombings in Gaza that killed seven Israeli soldiers with the purpose of punishing Palestinians trying to resist Israeli control. It then justified the establishment of the courts on the 1945 Emergency Regulations put in place by Great Britain during the Palestine Mandate period.[16]

Many academics and civil society activists, moreover, believe that the PNA has utilized its obligation to ensure Israel’s security as a façade for its militarization and control of the Palestinian population.[17] Because the PA is dependent upon ongoing negotiations with Israel in order to justify its legitimacy to the Palestinian people and is held “responsible for ensuring the security of Israel first and foremost” in order to revive the peace process, it lacks “a crucial legitimization function and makes it susceptible to accusations that it is colluding with the occupying power.”[18] The Palestinian Authority faces a severe lack of legitimacy in the eyes of those Palestinians in the West Bank (and formerly in Gaza) whom it claims to govern, largely because the PA depends not upon service delivery and a strong social contract with the population. It depends, instead, on external means of legitimization – mainly the need to maintain Israeli security, which are “not likely to be sustainable over the long term.[19]

There are also numerous arguments that the Palestinian Authority has stymied institutional and social development in the West Bank and Gaza through its semi-authoritarian suppression of internal political opposition, securitized control over the Palestinian civilian population, personalized patronage networks, and marginalization of civil society and old elites.

The Palestinian Authority, upon its establishment via the Oslo process in 1993, immediately sought to consolidate its new power over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, often through undemocratic means. It originally justified these with the need to establish a clear monopoly on power over Palestinian state-building, safeguard the peace process from derailment, and initiate the process of national reconstitution.[20] Glenn E. Robinson has argued that the PA, which was made in large part from the PLO in Tunis and its head Yassir Arafat (the “outside PLO”), sought to consolidate its power by co-opting, expelling from power, and marginalizing the Palestinian elite that had emerged in the 1980s and played an active role in the 1980s, including the First Intifada (the so-called “inside PLO”).[21] Because this “outside” elite possessed no direct connections to Palestinian civil society, its legitimacy was derived largely by centralizing power, “ruling by decree” and relying on the popularity of Yassir Arafat as long-standing head of the PLO and the Palestinian resistance movement. It used these factors to govern over a society with which it interacted very little, unlike the “inside” elite that it had displaced.[22] Palestinian politics were tied almost inextricably to Arafat, culminating in the emergence of personalized networks based on connections and loyalty.[23] All leaders of police and security forces reported directly to Arafat, and any attempts for redress required the intervention of Arafat himself, rendering institutional processes and rules to a subordinate status.[24] After the formation of the PA, the international donor community, with the encouragement of the PA, shifted its financial support from Palestinian NGOs and civil society organizations to the PA’s many ministries in order to build the strength of the central government.[25] This weakened the clout of grassroots Palestinian civil society and contributed to the growing power of top-down, centralized bureaucracy. Thus, it appears that PA-dominated politics centered on “the need of its rulers to effect social control over a society which they [did] not fully trust.”[26]


Ostracized by Oslo: The PA and the Protracted Peace Process

It is apparent that the PA has prioritized Israeli security over the safety of Palestinian society, adopted heavy-handed policies against its population to prevent Israeli retaliation, and operated via corruption and patronage. What is less clear, however, is that these outcomes were shaped to a considerable degree by the context set up by the Oslo Accords and the subsequently complex challenges the PA has been forced to confront in the Palestinian state-building process. In this light, the PA’s policies can be understood as survival strategies necessarily employed by the PA to preserve the remnants of the peace process and continue state-building efforts in spite of the sobering reality of not having a state.

As Rubin points out, the construction of a Palestinian state has proven particularly cumbersome and fragile compared to other cases of state-building because the PA remains caught in complex negotiations with Israel about how, when and if a Palestinian state will be created, and because the establishment of an independent Palestinian state requires building both political institutions and a society.[27] Because the Palestinian leadership views any disintegration of the peace process as a way for Israel to further consolidate its control over most of the Palestinian territories and prevent the development of a Palestinian state, the PA seeks to sustain a peace process, even if it is forced to accede to Israel’s priorities and demands. A collapse of the peace process would signify not merely a temporary obstacle in the state-building process, but rather the fatal breakdown of a possible sovereign Palestinian state.[28] Thus, to maintain the peace process in order to keep alive the prospect of a Palestinian state, the PA has had little choice but to promote Israeli security at the top of its agenda. Additionally, “the security-first route that Israel insisted on meant that if Palestinian state formation had to proceed at all, it would have to be achieved through the construction of a client state during the interim period and perhaps beyond,” and this was the “implicit but critical condition under which Israel agreed to enter the Oslo peace process.”[29]

In short, the PA adopted a client state model reliant on patronage, corruption and complicity with Israel because it was the only way to get Israel to participate in the negotiations at Oslo, thus resuscitating the prospect of a Palestinian state. The PA, moreover, hoped to gradually move away from its role as a client state of Israel toward a state with budding political and economic development functions.[30] PA-dominated politics have certainly sought to impose control over the Palestinian population by centralizing power, depending on patronage networks to govern, and undermining old and trusted elites. However, it is necessary to bear in mind, as Rubin argues, that the PA’s policies “were reinforced by the PA’s situation, which constantly forced it to maintain balances” between repression of elements of Palestinian society and tolerance and inclusion of opposition groups.[31]

The question the PA has been forced to grapple with, then, is not whether it should undertake state-building efforts or focus on putting an end to the Israeli occupation, but rather how it can support state-building in a way that recognizes on-the-ground conditions and the relatively little leverage it possesses in the negotiating arena.[32] The PA has kept the peace process alive in hopes of someday gaining a state, yet has duly engaged in state-building based on its understanding that it must develop a strong capacity to govern if it can ever convince Israel to someday end the occupation. In other words, the PA has chosen to use state-building as a means for seeking an end to the occupation.[33]

There are tensions between state-building and peace-building, however, such that the peace process started by Oslo has significantly undermined Palestinian institution-building. First, a lack of agreement on Oslo’s final status issues has posed a negative and unique challenge to Palestinian state-building because it has left the likelihood of a Palestinian state’s existence and the possible form of a future Palestinian state unclear.[34]

Second, because the possibility of a future Palestinian state is hostage to the peace process and thus continually hangs in the balance, state-building efforts can “remain too focused on the formal institutions of the state at the central level” such that there is an overreliance upon the state as the primary actor, and an overlooking of civil society and other non-state players.[35] As already discussed, this has been observed in the shift in international donor aid after the establishment of the PA away from Palestinian grassroots organizations and civil society into PA ministries’ coffers. A report from Palestine’s Contemporary Center for Studies and Policy Analysis points out that from the 1970s to 1994, Palestinian civil society organizations developed as direct antitheses to Israeli occupation, but after the establishment of the PA in 1994, Palestinian civil society grew weaker despite the advent of self-rule in the Palestinian territories. This paradox arose because the Oslo Peace Process and the subsequent establishment of the PA fueled a new competition between the PA and civil society organizations over scarce resources and limited power.[36] Moreover, the international donor community’s focus on funding PA operations over civil society initiatives highlights the commonly held belief that political stability, achievable only through the installation of a powerful central authority, is needed for success in the peace process.[37]

In any case, the ongoing peace process and the indefinite status of the Israeli occupation have pushed the PA to adopt a strategy of building formal state institutions and centralizing administrative power. This, in turn, has led to the top-down and highly technocratic institution-building which is distanced from political dynamics on the ground and from Palestinian society at large.[38] As a result, while PA officials emphasize the need to build durable institutions that may become the foundation of a future state, Palestinian society at large is preoccupied more with the growing authoritarianism and securitization of the PA than with faraway state-building efforts dependent upon a long-stagnant peace process.[39]

The peace process has also profoundly impacted the internal dynamics of Palestinian politics and has shaped the degree to which the PA has sought to co-opt, repress or tolerate other groups and parties. The post-Oslo peace process, as Robinson points out, painted Islamists in a corner by forcing them to choose whether they wished to participate in the political process created out of the Oslo framework, thereby giving legitimacy to a process they opposed, or decline participation and risk being shut out of important political decisions and beneficial patronage resources.[40] Arafat, for his part, sought to co-opt Hamas in an attempt to check the possible use of violence by Hamas against Israel and thus prevent Israeli retaliation against the PA and a collapse of the peace process.[41] This stance put Israel in a difficult position, as Israel wanted to curb Hamas without exerting too much pressure on the PA, such that the PA would be perceived as a passive Israeli puppet or that Israel would be seen as directly interfering in Palestinian internal politics.[42] Thus, the PA has not been simply a pawn for Israeli interests, even though it derives much of its legitimacy from Israel. Rather, it has been able to develop its own strategies for managing internal politics and state-building strategies even though it still faces a number of constraints through Israeli containment, a stalled peace process, and Oslo’s emphasis on safeguarding Israeli security above all other objectives.



The Oslo Accords and the advent of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process determined the context in which Palestinian state-building and institutional development would unfold. Through Oslo, the Palestinian Authority was formally established and granted the responsibility of safeguarding Israeli security while paving its own path toward the potential formation of an independent Palestinian state. While repression, distrust of Palestinian society, high securitization, patronage and corruption have negatively impacted the reputation of the PA and have created a deteriorating situation on the ground for many Palestinians, many of these tendencies were actively influenced by the fact that the PA was forced to work within the constraints imposed by the Oslo Accords, which emphasized Israeli security as well as control over violence and opposition within the Palestinian territories over the development of inclusive and transparent political institutions or economic initiatives for Palestinian society.

One of the most formidable yet vital challenges that lies ahead for the PA and Palestinian institution-building at large is bridging the gulf between state and society. The need to establish and maintain legitimacy among the public is crucial for the success of state-building. The PA currently faces accusations of illegitimacy stemming from its failure to fully integrate itself into the fabric of civil society and its placement of the narrow interests of powerful elites over the public good.[43] Since the Oslo Accords, Palestinian politics have attempted to formulate Palestinian policies, strategies and institutions as detached from the Palestinians’ struggle with Israel as possible. However, the Oslo Accords, through their establishment of the PA, the disproportionate weight given to Israeli considerations of security, and the displacement of Palestinian civil society and highly connected elites, inevitably exerted considerable influence over Palestinian state-building. Despite the fact that authoritarian tendencies and corruption-encumbered dealings within the PA threaten to eliminate what domestic legitimacy the PA possesses, the PA has undoubtedly catalyzed the Palestinian state-building process and increased the likelihood of a Palestinian state in the future in the face of a number of constraints imposed by the Israel throughout the post-Oslo peace process.


Courtney Bliler is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.



Brown, Nathan J. Palestinian Politics after the Oslo Accords: Resuming Arab Palestine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Print.

Ghanem, As’ad. Palestinian Politics after Arafat: A Failed National Movement. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. Print.

Hilal, Jami and Mushtaq Husain Khan. “State Formation under the PNA: Potential outcomes and their viability.” State Formation in Palestine: Viability and Governance during a social transformation. Eds. Mushtaq Husain Khan, George Giacaman and Inge Amundsen. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. Print.

Khan, Mushtaq Husain, George Giacaman and Inge Amundsen. State Formation in Palestine: Viability and Governance during a social transformation. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. Print.

Menocal, Alina Rocha. The Palestinian State-Building Agenda, Report Prepared for UNDP/PAPP, March 2011, 1-33. Web.

Menocal, Alina Rocha. “’State-building for peace’: navigating an arena of contradictions.” Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Briefing Paper 52 (August 2009): 1-4. Web.

Menocal, Alina Rocha. “’State-Building for Peace’ –A New Paradigm for International Engagement in Post-Conflict Fragile States?” European University Institute Working Papers, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies European Report on Development 2010/34. Italy: European Report on Development, 2010: 1-22. Web.

The RAND Palestinian State Study Team. Building a Successful Palestinian State. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2007. Print.

Robinson, Glenn E. Building a Palestinian State: The Incomplete Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Print.

Rubin, Barry. The Transformation of Palestinian Politics: from revolution to state-building. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.

Shikaki, Khalil. “The Peace Process, National Reconstruction, and the Transition to Democracy in Palestine.” The Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 25 No. 2 (Winter 1996): 5-20. Web.

“Strengthening the Political Participation of Palestinian Civil Society,” Policy Paper by the Contemporary Center for Studies and Policy Analysis (MEDAD) (August 2013): 1-5.



[1] Barry Rubin, The Transformation of Palestinian Politics: From Revolution to State-Building (United States: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1999), 1.

[2] Nathan J. Brown, Palestinian Politics after the Oslo Accords: Resuming Arab Palestine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 5.

[3] Jami Hilal and Mushtaq Husain Khan, “State Formation under the PNA: Potential outcomes and their viability,” State Formation in Palestine: Viability and governance during a social transformation, eds. Mushtaq Husain Khan, George Giacaman, and Inge Amundsen (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), 74.

[4] Ibid. 75.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 74.

[7] Ibid., 77.

[8] As’ad Ghanem, Palestinian Politics after Arafat: A Failed National Movement (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 31.

[9] Glenn E. Robinson, Building a Palestinian State: The Incomplete Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 176.

[10] Alina Rocha Menocal, The Palestinian State-Building Agenda, Report Prepared for UNDP/PAPP, March 2011, 11.

[11] Rubin, The Transformation of Palestinian Politics, 2.

[12] The RAND Palestinian State Study Team, Building a Successful Palestinian State (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2007), 4.

[13] Ibid., 4.

[14] Mushtaq Husain Khan, George Giacaman and Inge Amundsen, State Formation in Palestine: Viability and Governance during a social transformation (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), 1.

[15] Glenn E. Robinson, Building a Palestinian State, 189.

[16] Ibid., 176-177.

[17] Alina Rocha Menocal, The Palestinian State-Building Agenda, 11.

[18] Ibid., 11.

[19] Ibid., 11.

[20] Khalil Shikaki, “The Peace Process, National Reconstruction, and the Transition to Democracy in Palestine,” Journal of Palestine Studies 25 no. 2 (Winter 1996), 9. Web.

[21] Glenn E. Robinson, Building a Palestinian State, 176-177.

[22] Ibid., 187.

[23] Ibid., 187.

[24] Ibid., 187.

[25] Shikaki, “The Peace Process,” 9.

[26] Robinson, Building a Palestinian State, 188.

[27] Rubin, The Transformation of Palestinian Politics, 1.

[28] Rubin, The Transformation of Palestinian Politics, 3.

[29] Hilal and Khan, “State Formation under the PNA,” 112.

[30] Ibid., 111.

[31] Rubin, The Transformation of Palestinian Politics, 14.

[32] Menocal, The Palestinian State-Building Agenda, 11.

[33] Ibid., 11.

[34] Shikaki, “The Peace Process,” 8.

[35] Alina Rocha Menocal, “’State-building for peace’: navigating an arena of contradictions,” Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Briefing Paper 52 (August 2009), 3.

[36] “Strengthening the Political Participation of Palestinian Civil Society,” Policy Paper by the Contemporary Center for Studies and Policy Analysis (MEDAD) (August 2013): 1.

[37] Shikaki, “The Peace Process,” 9.

[38] Menocal, The Palestinian State-Building Agenda, 11.

[39] Ibid., 11.

[40] Robinson, Building a Palestinian State, 189.

[41] Rubin, The Transformation of Palestinian Politics, 13.

[42] Robinson, Building a Palestinian State, 189.

[43] Alina Rocha Menocal, “’State-Building for Peace’ –A New Paradigm for International Engagement in Post-Conflict Fragile States?” European University Institute Working Papers, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies European Report on Development 2010/34 (Italy: European Report on Development, 2010), 7.