WASHINGTON — Hours after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas convened a crisis meeting of the Palestinian leadership to get ready to apply for membership in the International Criminal Court, former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren warned that Abbas’s moves to penalize Israel through international organizations were a “strategic threat” for Israel. In contrast, he said Wednesday, continuing rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip was a tactical threat that Israel could confront.
“We have an Iron Dome to protect against rockets, but we have no Iron Dome for this,” cautioned Oren. “The danger of sanctions and embargoes is a real one.”
Abbas’s actions, including his threats to seek ICC membership so that he could prosecute Israel though the international legal body, were part of a strategy that Oren warned was not designed “to get a better two-state solution.”
During a meeting in Ramallah on Wednesday, Abbas charged that Israel was committing “genocide” in Gaza during its Operation Protective Edge — launched to stem Hamas rocket fire on civilians across Israel — which has so far killed 43 Palestinians.
“It’s genocide — the killing of entire families is genocide by Israel against our Palestinian people,” he said. “What’s happening now is a war against the Palestinian people as a whole and not against the [terrorist] factions.”
“Shall we recall Auschwitz?” Abbas added.
Oren cautioned that while Hamas’s rocket fire against Israelis was a “tactical threat” that Israel could confront with weapons technology, Abbas’s plans to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s international status in order to initiate punitive actions against Israel was a “strategic threat” that Israel was challenged to counter.
The former ambassador noted that despite the continued rocket fire against Israeli targets, Washington has maintained a seemingly paradoxical policy of condemning Hamas rocket fire and defending Israel’s right to defend itself, while at the same time “there has been no indication whatsoever that the US or other members of the Quartet are willing to review or reassess their participation in the [Palestinian] unity government.”
“The administration sees no contradiction between condemning the Hams rocket fire and maintaining its recognition of the Hamas-Fatah unity government,” Oren explained.
On the Palestinian side, he noted, this ambiguity has allowed Abbas to deny any responsibility for the rocket fire being launched from Gaza, but at the same time, portray himself as a victim of the reprisals for that rocket fire.
At the same time, US support for Abbas’s technocratic government, formed this spring as part of a unity agreement with Hamas, has remained steady. On Tuesday, Philip Gordon, a special assistant to US President Barack Obama and the White House coordinator for the Middle East, warned that Jerusalem “should not take for granted the opportunity to negotiate” with Abbas, who has proven to be a “reliable partner.”
But Abbas’s stance, said Oren, “doesn’t resonate with segments of Israeli population who see Abbas refusing to condemn rocket fire but accusing Israel of committing war crimes.”
With tens of thousands of reservists massing at the border with Gaza, Oren said that a ground operation against the Hamas-held territory “would be in Hamas’s interest.” Their influence has declined markedly over the past year, he explained, noting that the Islamist group has recently lost support from key backers in Syria and Iran as well as with the fall of the Morsi government in Egypt.
“The economy in Gaza is abysmal,” Oren said, arguing that Hamas believes that if it can drag Israel into a ground operation it will come out with the upper hand and Israel will face heavy casualties as well as international criticism and even prosecution for war crimes.
At the same time, Oren said, the Israeli government must be sensitive to the fact that the intense rocket barrages have disrupted daily life in the southern third of the country. “The south is an indivisible part of the country and Israel is not going to put a different price on the lives of its citizens,” he warned.
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.