Will Palestinian UN Diplomacy Bear Fruit?

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This week UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the state of Palestine will become party to the International Criminal Court on April 1. The move comes after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas submitted a formal bid to join the ICC in hopes of putting more pressure on Israel and the United States. A week earlier, the Palestinians had asked for a UN Security Council vote, which failed to pass, demanding the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories within the next three years. This recent flurry of diplomatic activity has both its detractors and supporters, with most observers happy to see the Israeli government put under pressure. Even in Israel, there are those who believe the current Israeli policy is not sustainable and that sooner or later the patience of the international community and, more importantly, of the United States will run out.

Announcing the approval of the Palestinian bid for ICC membership, Palestinian news agency Wafa added that the ICC membership would enable Palestinians “to sue Israel for war crimes committed during the latest 51-day offensive on the Gaza Strip….Joining the world’s permanent war crimes tribunal means Palestinians could refer specific Israeli actions to the prosecutor and request that they be investigated. Local sources said PA’s focus would be the illegal Israeli settlement-building in the occupied West Bank and a military offensive last summer that killed more than 2,160 Palestinians in the blockaded Gaza Strip.”

The ICC petition, as noted, came after the failed Palestinian attempt to get a UNSC resolution mandating the end of the Israeli rule in the Occupied Territories. There are some, like Jordan Times’ Hasan Abu Nimah, who believe the Palestinian strategy at the UNSC was flawed:  “What eventually transpired after the much acclaimed Arab-backed Palestinian diplomatic effort was neither a good text refused, nor a bad text approved, but a bad text refused. The Palestinian Authority presented a very diluted position, casting away Palestinian rights like ballast from a sinking ship, yet were unable to avoid defeat….Let us hope that the late PA decision to accede to a number of international organizations is serious. Let us hope that it does not, once more, evolve within the same tactical game of mild pressure in the hope of some empathy…. If the stalemate continues, indeed the deterioration, it is likely that in 2015 the momentum will continue to shift towards renewed forms of Palestinian struggle, including resistance, and of the international movement to boycott Israel as an apartheid state.”

Regardless of the reaction to the UNSC vote, few in the region doubt the wisdom of the bid to join the ICC. Maan News’ Aaron Magid believes that PA President Mahmoud Abbas should be congratulated for choosing a non-violent path to resolve the longstanding conflict: “Criticism against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority is mounting after his United Nations Security Council Resolution and bid to join the International Criminal Court….Joining the International Criminal Court and potentially seeing Israeli commanders on trial abroad may be one of the only ways to jolt Israelis out of their apathy. Since Abbas opposes violence, what other leverage does he have to push Israeli leaders and the public to finally take Palestinian demands seriously?…Abbas should be applauded — not criticized — for pursuing a non-violent course by joining the ICC, even if it causes American and Israeli discomfort.”

A recent Khaleej Times editorial also expresses its support for the PA’s pursuit of ICC membership, suggesting that the US can’t go on vetoing Palestinian statehood: “Intoxicated with the power of veto, the United States stalled a resolution demanding an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories within the next three years….The obstruction from the US and Australia just furthered the bias that is inherent while addressing historical territorial disputes, especially in one of the most volatile regions of the world, and lack of leadership capability to lead from the front…..The reaction from the Palestinian leadership, however, is apt and justified. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, says he is all set to sign the Rome Statute, adhering to the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court….Though the proactive Palestinian diplomacy received a setback at the Security Council, this is the time for the leadership to walk the talk and win over more and more recognitions from states and governments that still trail behind. Vetoes cannot obstruct the path of statehood in the long run.”

One of the long-running arguments in favor of joining the ICC, echoed by a Saudi Gazette editorial, is that of deterrence, i.e. under the threat of having its citizens brought before the Court, Israel might be more restrained in its actions against the Palestinian population: “President Mahmoud Abbas started proceedings to join the International Criminal Court, in which he could charge Israel with war crimes. This new approach, while it could lead to the prosecution of Israeli officials for war crimes, also risks severe sanctions from Washington and Tel Aviv. Still, the move might be worth the risk. The ICC can prosecute and punish those responsible for serious crimes. The court can erase the immunity Israel has afforded its soldiers and officers. There is no doubt this will fundamentally change the way Israel carries out its occupation….the primary motivation and virtue of club membership is deterrence. If the ICC has jurisdiction over war crimes, who, other than Israel, could argue against Palestinian membership?”

Commenting on the new diplomatic strategy pursued by the Palestinian leadership, some observers have noted that the effort is “Eroding Israeli intransigence….The old year ended with an old story – the UN Security Council’s refusal to act against Israel despite the acknowledged illegality of its occupation of Palestinian territory and its construction of fortress settlements on land seized from local people…. The strategy that Abbas and his advisers have taken avoids having a single wave of Palestinian demands breaking over the UN – dramatic in itself but almost certain to lose impact as the surprise drains away. Instead, Palestinian diplomats are embarked upon a campaign of political erosion against the granite cliff of rejection thrown up by Washington and Israel.”

Which is why Israeli commentators, like Yedioth Ahronoth’s Alon Pinkas who served as Israel’s consul-general in New York, fear that while Israel is winning the battle, it risks losing the war: “While the rejection of the Palestinian appeal to the Security Council this week does contain a diplomatic achievement, the question is where is it leading – and isn’t it just a case of delaying the inevitable? As long as there is no peace process with real intentions – or as long as, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman repeatedly says, Israel fails to initiate but is only gets dragged – Israel is simply engaging in a rearguard battle against a tired and grumbling world which is losing interest and patience….In light of the expected American veto and according to the Palestinian pattern of behavior in the international arena – being perceived as weak victims who need the world’s support for their distress – the Palestinians lost this diplomatic battle, but not the war.”

The problem of course is that with the continued refusal of Israel to genuinely work toward an acceptable long-term solution, the U.S. will continue to use the threat of its veto power to shield Israel from unfriendly UNSC resolutions which, according to an Oman Tribune editorial, will sooner or later lead to greater US isolation: “The growing US isolationism was once again on display during the recent UN Security Council vote on independent Palestinian state….The resolution was a reiteration of the Palestinian position that status quo is not acceptable….Now the Palestinian leadership is threatening to push for membership in more international multilateral organizations that could vitiate the atmosphere even further. Therefore, it is time the US leadership revisited its unconditional support to the divisive Israeli position. It should realize that its credentials as an honest broker are in question with its highly partisan position and failure to go beyond lip service is costing its reputation dear. Its isolation on the world stage will only grow.”

And for Eitan Haber, another contributor for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, this concern is real enough that he worries with the cost of U.S. obstruction piling up, the United States might eventually find that it has become unbearable even for the world’s lone superpower: “Although history does not usually repeat itself, recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders is the heart’s desire of many countries in the world, not just the Arab states. The US will veto such a resolution, but if the relations between Washington and Jerusalem continue to deteriorate, we may one day face an American president who makes decisions which contradict the opinions of Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett and Orit Strock.”

Putting U.S. and Israeli intransigence aside, the Gulf Times editorial staff believes that no real progress will take place with regards to the status of the Occupied Territories until the Palestinian factions agree to come together: “In another major challenge for Abbas, Hamas said yesterday it was ‘totally opposed’ to his plans to re-submit to the UN Security Council a resolution on ending Israel’s occupation which failed last week….On January 2, the Palestinian leadership decided to refile a draft resolution setting a deadline for reaching a final peace deal and ending the occupation. The draft had failed to pass a vote in the Security Council on December 30.However, on January 1 the makeup of the 15-member council changed with the addition of five new non-permanent members – Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain and Venezuela – some of which are perceived as having a more pro-Palestinian stance. But for any new initiative to succeed, Palestinian reconciliation is vital. Arab attempts to bring the Palestinian groups together assume much importance in this context.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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