After the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last spring, the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas had a short list of options: (1) start a new, violent intifada, (2) resume negotiations on Israel’s terms (without any preconditions), or (3) move the Palestinian cause forward at the United Nations and other international bodies.
For a host of reasons, Abbas has chosen the third option. At the end of December, the Palestinian President submitted a resolution to the United Nations Security Council that set a Dec. 31, 2017 deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. The resolution was one vote shy of being approved, but Abbas has vowed to go back to the Security Council until it receives the required nine of fifteen votes (which could happen, as many countries rotate as non-permanent members of the body). Shortly after the resolution’s defeat, Abbas signed the Rome Statute, making the Palestinians eligible to charge Israelis with war crimes in the International Criminal Court (ICC).
What brought Abbas to this point? One can begin answering this question by taking a look at the first two options, which are simply unfeasible for the Ramallah-based leader. Regarding the first, it is fairly clear that Abbas opposes an all-out violent intifada against Israel, as he believes taking this route would only bring about a massive Israeli retaliation that would wreak havoc on the lives of millions of Palestinians. It simply would not achieve an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state.
The second option – to negotiate with Israel with no preconditions – would be political suicide for Abbas. Public opinion polls of Palestinians have shown wide disapproval of the Palestinian Authority negotiating with Israel without any preconditions, such as a settlements freeze or the release of Palestinian prisoners. Abbas would seriously risk losing any remaining relevance and legitimacy he has among the Palestinian people: he is in the tenth year of a four-year term and in the eyes of most Palestinians, he has not brought his people any closer to ending the Israeli occupation and achieving statehood.
Conversely, opinion polls have found widespread support among the Palestinian public for going to international bodies. This is a very important context through which to view the Palestinian moves at the U.N. and the ICC: of all the options on the table for the Palestinian Authority, this is-–domestically-–the only tenable one. To do nothing would only further erode Abbas’ legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian public.
Beyond that, there are also some strategic considerations for Abbas. In addition to being swayed by the Palestinian street, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have lost considerable faith in the traditional model of American-led bilateral negotiations with the Israelis. In the Palestinian view, they have been negotiating for twenty years and the prospect of an independent Palestinian state has only grown more distant. Therefore, Abbas has decided to try to “internationalize” the conflict by bringing the Palestinian case to international bodies and institutions. However, a complete pivot away from America will likely only hurt his people-–and Abbas knows this. Hence he faces the tricky balancing act of not pushing the Americans too far away while at the same time giving Palestinians confidence in his leadership by doing just that.
Yet the greater irony here is that the moves in both the U.N. and the ICC will likely not change anything on the ground in the foreseeable future. Despite the United States initially showing some rare ambiguity on whether or not it would veto the Palestinian proposal at the Security Council (America usually makes clear its opposition to resolutions regarded by Israel as being against the Jewish state’s interests), it has become apparent that the U.S. will veto any resolution that sets a deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Since the original intent of the Palestinian resolution was to set an internationally-agreed upon end date for the occupation, a resolution with no timetable would essentially be meaningless.
In addition, going to the ICC carries more risks. On the one hand, the Palestinians could gain some leverage against Israel if the ICC indicts Israeli politicians and military figures on charges of war crimes. This could make it impossible for Israeli leaders to travel to many countries that accept the jurisdiction of the ICC and would arrest any convicted Israelis on their soil. This would be a major diplomatic blow to Israel. On the other hand, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority know that Israel could counter their move by bringing its own charges against high-ranking Palestinian officials (and terrorist groups like Hamas) to the ICC.
Finally, it must be remembered that investigations conducted by the ICC have historically either dragged on for years before issuing a verdict, and oftentimes investigations never go beyond an initial phase of “preliminary examinations.” If the Palestinians have indeed taken this into consideration and their goal is to simply pressure Israel into making concessions (perhaps at the negotiating table at some point in the future), the risk becomes greater: it is anybody’s guess as to how Israel will respond to mounting international pressure at the U.N. and ICC.
It may be asked why the three options above are Abbas’s only choices. A fourth option, floated by some, would be for President Abbas to spearhead a non-violent uprising consisting of massive protests and demonstrations at flashpoint locations in the West Bank. Such areas may include land near parts of Israel’s security barrier that is seen by Palestinians as encroaching on private Palestinian property or village territories (smaller demonstrations already occur regularly at some of these locales), on land Israel has announced it will be using for settlements and at the sites of particularly contentious Israeli checkpoints.
Reasons why Abbas has not done this remain largely speculative, but a good guess might be that Abbas is concerned that the protests would turn violent and spiral into a new intifada, much like the Second Intifada of 2000 to 2005. Abbas knows that could lead to the massive Israeli retaliation that he worries would only make daily life for Palestinians worse.
Furthermore, Abbas is aware that he would be held responsible by Israel for any violent escalation. It was only some twelve years ago that Abbas, as a senior figure in the Palestinian Authority, saw Israeli forces destroy much of then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah-–leaving Arafat with very limited space in which to take refuge-–in retaliation for the violent intifada Israel believed Arafat was instrumental in fomenting. Abbas certainly does not want this to happen again.
A diplomatic spree at the U.N.-–and even a bid at the ICC-–simply carries much less risk of backfiring in such dramatic proportions. Therefore, with all these factors considered, the U.N. and ICC route is the only option left for Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
Two developments to look out for, however, are Secretary of State John Kerry’s continued efforts to revive peace talks and the outcome of the upcoming Israeli elections on March 17. Kerry has not given up on getting the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. This seems rather unlikely with the present Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, which refuses to release more prisoners or freeze settlements as a precondition and does not seem to be in any rush to negotiate. Yet if a new government headed by Labor party leader Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni is elected, we may see some crafty maneuvering by Israel in order to get back to the table with the Palestinians.
Both Herzog and Livni believe it is in Israel’s vital interest to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians and may be willing to freeze settlements, release prisoners or make other significant gestures to get the Palestinian Authority to negotiate. Abbas, for his part, has historically been willing to negotiate if the right incentives are offered. Furthermore, Abbas is not officially eligible to submit a case to the ICC until April 1, 2015 (when Palestine officially becomes an ICC member)-–coincidentally just two weeks after the Israeli elections. If a more conciliatory Israeli government emerges from those elections that makes concrete gestures to Abbas, it is not completely unfathomable that Abbas would postpone bringing a case to the court.
Regarding America’s Secretary of State, one must not underestimate the tenacity of John Kerry. Bent on finding a peaceful solution to the conflict as he is, it would not be out of character for Kerry to try multiple techniques in order to get the parties back to the table. He may yet pull something new out of his sleeve in order to bring this about. What exactly this would be likely depends on how the ICC bid unfolds and the outcome of the Israeli elections–multiplying the already numerous factors to take into consideration.