The organization, which oversees the West Bank, says it will consider helping run Gaza after the war — if Washington pushes for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli one.
The Palestinian Authority has told the Biden administration that it is open to a governance role in post-Hamas Gaza if the United States commits to a full-fledged two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a top official of its parent, the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The official, Hussein al-Sheikh, the P.L.O.’s secretary general, said he had told Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken last week that the Palestinian Authority sought “a commitment from the U.S. administration, with a comprehensive political decision that would include the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”
Speaking to The New York Times on Tuesday in Ramallah, the West Bank city where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered, Mr. al-Sheikh said that Palestinian leaders were looking for “a serious American initiative that would force Israel to abide by it, to commit to it.” He added, “This current U.S. administration is capable of doing that.”
His message is both a relief and a challenge to the White House, which has been groping for a path out of the worst violence in decades between Israel and Hamas, the extremist group that controls Gaza. American officials say the Palestinian Authority must play a central role in Gaza after Israel completes its military mission to destroy Hamas, which the authorities say killed 1,400 civilians and soldiers in its Oct. 7 attacks.
The Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank, has signaled that it is willing to take on a such a role. But it is making its participation contingent on a commitment by President Biden to plunge into a diplomatic challenge that has eluded several of his predecessors: an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to create two sovereign states, living side by side in peace.
Such a deal, Mr. al-Sheikh said, would have to settle core issues that have stymied peacemakers for three decades: Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank, where more than 700,000 Jewish settlers now live, and the political status of East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians regard as their capital.
Mr. al-Sheikh said he had no confidence that the current Israeli government, which has pushed to annex large parts of the West Bank, would agree to those terms. “Where is the partner on the Israeli side?” he asked.
Even if Israeli troops eradicate Hamas, the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority as the group’s successor in Gaza is far from assured. Hamas militants ousted it from power in the enclave in 2007, and in the years since, the Authority has languished in the West Bank, dogged by charges of corruption, weakness and a lack of accountability.
Mr. al-Sheikh personifies such problems. Despite being viewed as a potential successor to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority’s 87-year-old president, he is not popular with the public in his job overseeing day-to-day relations between Palestinians and the Israeli military, which have become increasingly fractious since the war broke out.
In his interview with The Times, Mr. al-Sheikh acknowledged the combustible nature of the region after last month’s attacks and the Israeli military response, a war that has killed 10,000 Palestinians, according to the Gazan health authorities.
“Without a comprehensive political initiative from the U.S.,” he said, a postwar Gaza would be “a fertile soil for radicalism.”
For his part, Mr. Biden has publicly embraced a Palestinian state as a remedy for the crisis. “There has to be a vision of what comes next,” he said recently of the war between Israel and Hamas. “In our view, it has to be a two-state solution.”
But he has yet to lay out a road map for getting there and, until now, has done little to suggest that his administration will invest in such a project.
Mr. Biden did not follow through on a campaign pledge to reopen the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, ordered closed. He did not reopen the American consulate in Jerusalem, which served Palestinians and was also closed by Mr. Trump. And unlike several of Mr. Biden’s predecessors, he has not named a Middle East envoy.
Until the Hamas attacks, the Middle East peace process ranked comparatively low on the list of White House foreign-policy priorities, after geopolitical rivalries like China and Russia. But the explosion of war between Israel and Hamas has catapulted the issue back to the top of the list.
On his tour of the region in the past week, Mr. Blinken, who had flown from Israel to Jordan, doubled back to meet with Mr. Abbas and Mr. al-Sheikh. He praised the Palestinian Authority for trying to keep order in the West Bank, where tensions have soared between Palestinians and Israeli settlers, some of whom are armed and have attacked their neighbors.
On Wednesday, at a meeting of foreign ministers in Tokyo, Mr. Blinken described what he called “elements to get a sustained peace,” chiefly the unification of Gaza with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.
“These must include the Palestinian people’s voices and aspirations at the center of post-crisis governance in Gaza,” he said. “It must include Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.”
But Israel may fall out with the United States on that approach. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested this week that his country would maintain a security role in Gaza even after the war ends, because “we’ve seen what happens when we don’t have it.”
Mr. al-Sheikh said he did not believe that any peace deal was possible with Mr. Netanyahu, or his government, which includes far-right and ultranationalist ministers who favor Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.
Mr. Netanyahu, he said, was seizing on the Hamas attacks to drive Palestinians out of Gaza, likening the situation to what the Palestinians call the “nakba,” or catastrophe, the mass displacement of Palestinians before and after Israel’s creation in 1948.
“The strategic goal of this war is to displace the Palestinian people,” he said. “They want to separate Gaza entirely from the West Bank.”
In today’s inflamed atmosphere, Mr. al-Sheikh said, the Palestinian Authority’s plea for calm is unpopular with its people, who are enraged by the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza war and yearn for vengeance.
“Palestinians do not accept this stance right now,” he said. “People may not understand my position today, but they will tomorrow.”
“I’m not Hamas,” Mr. al-Sheikh concluded. “I represent the Palestinian people.”