I am always guided by inertia. In choosing a thesis topic for Spy School I have ended up combining my supervisor's own academic interest in semi-presidentialism with my own general interest in Palestine to produce a thesis topic based around semi-presidentialism in Palestine. In terms of thesis questions, I will be asking whether the Palestinian Authority's semi-presidential regime is a significant cause of its current collapse; my answer will probably be "no".
Just to recap, semi-presidentialism is what you have when a directly elected president faces off against a premier responsible to a parliamentary assembly. Depending on which definition you are rolling with, the president might need to have considerable powers, or they might not. My supervisor, who could stake a good claim to being Mr Semi-Presidentialism, favours a procedural definition whereby the president merely needs to be popularly elected for a regime to be semi-presidential.
Some people do not like semi-presidentialism. Either it turns into a de facto presidential regime (with empirical research suggesting that presidential regimes tend towards rubbishness) or else the dual authority problem (a directly elected president facing off against a premier responsible to a directly elected parliament) exacerbates political tensions and leads to gridlock, political paralysis, or worse. In newly democratising regimes where the norms of democratic behaviour have not been internalised, there is the fear that tensions between the president and premier will be resolved in a non-constitutional manner (see recent events in Ukraine)
And so to Palestine. One interesting thing about the Palestinian Authority is that its continued existence currently looks very shaky, with a real likelihood that it will no longer exist by the time I have completed my thesis. This may or may not be a bad thing for the Palestinians, but it is great for me, as it means I will not have to make any awkward predictions about the regime's future. The PA has had a semi-presidential setup for the last couple of years and there has been escalating tension between the president and prime minister's parties, spilling over into armed conflict. So you could argue that that semi-presidentialism has been a cause of instability there. You would however probably be wrong to see it as a major factor. Instead, three things are more salient. Firstly, the political parties are armed, with their cadres quite willing to turn their guns on each other should things get nasty. Secondly, the PA is weakly institutionalised; while it has a notionally impressive security apparatus, the various security agencies are largely autonomous from the political elite and are in any case controlled by placemen of the Fatah party who are resistant to being moved. Thirdly, the PA is largely dependent on external sources of funding, but its donors have an animus towards the Hamas party; thus, since Hamas entered the government, the PA has been starved of funds, leading to a collapse in its administrative capability and much sulkiness by unpaid security personnel inclined to blame their personal travails on the Hamas administration.
Some counterfactuals are maybe interesting as a way of considering whether different institutional setups would see different outcomes following the Hamas victory in last year's legislature elections. Firstly, consider if the PA had a purely presidential regime. Hamas gaining a majority in the legislature would not cause serious problems for President Abbas, as he would retain control of executive functions in a political entity that does not do much in the way of passing laws. Abbas would probably be able to play the situation to his advantage, playing the PHEAR TEH ISLAMIST card to the international community to justify cracking down on his political enemies and postponing anything approximating to free presidential elections to the distant future for fear that this would see Hamas take over the PA; he would probably receive a pat on the back if he staged an autogolpe and shut down the parliament. Maybe the Israelis would throw Abbas a few scraps to make him look good compared to his internal challengers, but as Abbas' role is to be their Palestinian gang-boss he should not expect too much. Abbas might or might not face a revolt from Hamas down the line, but given their ambivalence about the PA in the first place they might not challenge for its ownership. So this is still possibly the highest scoring outcome for the Palestinians – although it is bedtime for democracy and they find themselves with a regime plainly subservient to the Israelis, they are maybe spared the chronic internal strife they face in the real world.
Secondly, imagine the PA had an entirely parliamentary regime. When Hamas unexpectedly wins the 2006 elections, things happen pretty much as they do with us – they form a government, the international community pulls the plug, the mukhabarat bosses resist being brought under Hamas control and start kicking up over not being paid, the armed parties start trading pot-shots, and the PA collapses into civil war.
Whichever way you set up the institutions, the outcome for the PA seems a bit poor. If I was them, I would want to play a different game.