The current Palestinian state of affairs resembles a critical case of schizophrenia. On the outside, the Palestinian leadership is actively positioning the Palestinian cause internationally. They’ve acquired membership in international organizations and are pursuing a tenacious endeavor to secure the international community’s official recognition of the State of Palestine. Internally, however, Palestinians are divided politically, disconnected from one another geographically, have little control over their land and resources and, most importantly, continue to operate under the auspices of the Oslo Accords, which make them highly dependent on Israeli inclinations.
The Palestinian leadership, leading the international effort for recognition as a state, is confined to areas defined as Area A under the Oslo Declaration of Principles of 1993 and Oslo II of September 28, 1995, and exists under an Israeli permit system. While the Hamas-led coup in Gaza in 2007 reduced the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) presence in Gaza to mere administrative assistance, the Hamas-PA divide not only divided Palestinians politically and geographically but had profound consequences — crippling PA institutions, most important among them the Palestinian Legislative Council (the parliament), which has been inactive since 2007 and causing the creation of two separate governments in Gaza and the West Bank.
Yet a considerable number of states have recognized the Palestinian Authority as a state. In 2012, Palestine was recognized as a non-member state of the United Nations General Assembly. On December 30, 2014, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) signed 20 international treaties, including the Treaty of Rome, which allows the Palestinians to be members of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The question is whether Palestinian diplomacy in the international arena can bridge the internal divide and empower the PA, or whether all attempts to achieve statehood will fail if the internal break is not mended. There is also the question of whether the Palestinian approach to internationalizing the conflict is part of a strategy or merely a tactic. If it is a strategy, by default or design, what are the chances for its success?
Understanding the History behind Signing 20 International Agreements
Such complex questions require full understanding of the history and the conditions leading to the Palestinian President’s decision to sign the twenty international agreements, as well as the dynamics and the motives for such a decision.
It is worth noting that the Palestinians have sought international recognition since 1974, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) launched a Ten-Point Plan calling for recognizing Palestinian resistance. And at the Palestinian National Council meeting in 1988, the PLO publicly accepted and called for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. The Palestinian Declaration of Independence, issued at the same session, was another milestone, as it clearly mentioned UN resolutions as the basis for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The peace process itself was initially launched in Madrid in 1991 in the form of multilateral talks, in the hope of an international intervention. With the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, however, the Palestinians abandoned the “internationalization of the conflict.”
And while the Oslo Accords helped the PLO establish a Palestinian Authority in Gaza and Jericho, and later in West Bank towns, the Palestinian leadership failed to complete the process of establishing statehood. After over a decade of bilateral talks, the PLO was unable to stop Israeli settlement expansion or establish effective control over all of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) through the PA.
Throughout the peace process, and with every stumbling block, the Palestinian leadership has threatened “internationalizing the conflict” — a threat that has been often perceived as a tactic, especially since it has been regularly used as a standard reaction to any pause in the peace talks with Israel, and often abandoned with every American intervention to revive the peace talks.
In 2009, however, it became quite evident to the Palestinian leadership that there was no Israeli interest in freezing settlements or negotiating a permanent solution. By then, the Palestinian Authority had also lost effective control of the Gaza Strip to its political rival, Hamas, which led a military coup against PA security forces (2007). Palestinian optimism from the election of Barak Obama as U.S. President, gradually faded, with every failed attempt by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to resume the peace process. The Palestinians informed Kerry several times that if bilateral talks with Israel fail they would go to international forums to acquire recognition as a state.
Becoming a UN Non-Member State and Signing the Treaty of Rome
In 2011 Abbas decided, against American advice, to go to the UN Security Council, knowing that the attempt would be countered by a U.S. veto. The Palestinians then persisted and obtained non-member state recognition at the UN General Assembly. Following the UNGA vote, Abbas commented that “recognition would allow the Palestinians to sue Israel at the International Criminal Court, noting that internationalizing the conflict is not merely political, but also legal.” Therefore, when on December 30, 2014, Abbas signed twenty international treaties, including the Treaty of Rome, it was simply another milestone in a long-term process that goes beyond a mere tactic to resume bilateral talks with Israel. Abbas’ signing of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court enables the ICC, in principle, to exercise its authority with regard to developments in the West Bank and Gaza, and allows any of the 160 signatories of the treaty to call on Israel to stand in court and to face charges of war crimes. Upon signing the treaty, Abbas also signed a letter allowing the ICC to backtrack to June 13, 2014, the date on which three Israelis were kidnapped in the West Bank, in order to allow an investigation into the Gaza war that followed. Within two weeks, the ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that she would launch a preliminary investigation into the Gaza war. In 2014, in an article in the Guardian, she had noted that recognition of Palestine as a non-member state of the UN General Assembly allows it to sign the Rome Statute.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described Abbas’ signing of the treaty as a “nuclear option”. Kerry had perhaps more insight into Palestinian minds than he himself realizes.
Abbas’ Last Option: Internationalizing the Conflict
Internationalizing the conflict is the last option for the Palestinian president. Abbas is not interested in an intifada or a military confrontation with Israel. On the contrary, PA security forces curb any attempt at such confrontation, especially since it would only serve its rival, Hamas, and can be easily crushed by Israel.
Abbas has also realized that more than a decade of negotiations have not stopped Israeli settlements and there is no current indication that Israeli is interested in a peace agreement, never mind a withdrawal from the occupied territories. Therefore, internationalizing the conflict could be the ‘nuclear option’, for the 80-year-old president who wishes to establish a legacy for putting Palestine on the world map, in a world little interested in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Internationalizing the conflict serves a number of interests for Palestinians. First and foremost, Israeli settlements in the West Bank impede the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Israeli land grab not only weakens the PA but also prevents geographic continuity and destroys the fabric of Palestinian society. All attempts to force Israel to freeze settlement construction have failed. An international legal opinion or ruling could perhaps assist the Palestinians in that domain.
Acquiring international legal and political status is also a policy that unites Palestinians. Hamas was the first to welcome the news of Palestine joining the ICC. It also grants the Palestinians a sense of identity, even if symbolically, that the Palestinians are present as a “state”.
That said, and with no prejudice to the constructive aspects of the international approach, there are multiple factors that make it a high risk: The Hamas-Fatah divide, the inability to advance reconstruction efforts in the Gaza Strip six months after the end of the Gaza war due to disagreements, the financial crisis facing the PA following the punitive Israeli measure of withholding PA tax revenues, the absence of institutions and especially a parliament and an elected leadership, are factors that could sabotage the Palestinian hope of international political and/or legal pressure on Israel.
Israel Must Be a Partner to a Resolution of the Conflict
At the end of the day, the pressure the PA could put on Israel via the ICC or other international forum would be countered by Israeli measures against the PA and the people in the OPT. The first Israeli response to Palestine’s accession to the ICC was to withhold the tax revenues. As the party in practical control, further measures can be expected. Basically, all passports carried by Palestinians are issued, under the Oslo Accords, by Israel.
To conclude, internationalizing the conflict could somehow be an effective tool in managing the conflict, however, it would be an illusion to contemplate a conflict resolution in which Israel is not a partner.