At the UN, Abbas’s rhetoric offers a taste of the legal campaign to come

International Criminal Court will revisit the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — if Palestine is recognized as a state by General Assembly

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 27, 2012 (photo credit: AP/Seth Wenig)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 27, 2012 (photo credit: AP/Seth Wenig)

In the initial responses to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the United Nations General Assembly Thursday, most pundits zeroed in on language dealing with the possibility of rekindling negotiations with Israel.

But Abbas did not take the UN podium — to general applause that interrupted his speech several times — in order to return to negotiations. Rather, he used his speech before the United Nations to offer a condemnation of Israel and Israeli policies that sounded more like a legal brief before the International Criminal Court than a diplomatic address or negotiating position.

And that’s no accident.

Israel, Abbas said, is an international law-breaker that is “permitted to evade accountability and punishment” despite “its violations of international law and covenants.”

This lax enforcement of international law “represents a license for the occupation to continue its policy of dispossession and ethnic cleansing, and encourages it to entrench its system of apartheid against the Palestinian people.”

Abbas described Israel’s “illegal” policies in language taken directly from the texts and discourse of international law. The “occupying power” — a legal term repeated multiple times in the speech — has employed severe “illegal measures” against the Palestinian population, including hindering economic development and pursuing a policy of “racist settlement.”

In addition to “inciting religious conflict,” Israel “refuses to end the occupation and refuses to allow the Palestinian people to attain their rights and freedom and rejects the independence of the State of Palestine.”

In stark contrast, the Palestinians were presented in Abbas’s speech as patient and, above all, law-abiding, “a people that feels that, at the same time that they continue with their calls for their right to freedom and their adoption of a culture of peace and adherence to the principles and rules of international law and resolutions of international legitimacy, rewards continue to be illogically bestowed upon Israel, whose government pursues a policy of war, occupation and settlement colonization.”

The international community must “compel the government of Israel to respect the Geneva Conventions,” he insisted.

In April, the International Criminal Court, under then-prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, ruled that the Palestinian Authority did not fall under its jurisdiction as it was not a recognized state that could make itself party to the Rome Statute that established the court.

However, according to the ICC’s new prosecutor, Gambia-born Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s rejection was not permanent.

“What we have also done [in the April decision] is to leave the door open, and to say that if Palestine is able to pass over that hurdle [of statehood] — of course, under the [UN] General Assembly — then we will revisit what the ICC can do,” Bensouda said Friday in an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Indeed, she suggested that the ICC would not need to wait for another Palestinian request to begin investigating Israel. The original 2009 Palestinian Authority request to join the Rome Statute is enough to give the ICC jurisdiction to investigate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at its discretion.

“Palestine made a declaration under the [Rome] Statute acknowledging the jurisdiction of the court. As you know, this is one of the ways in which we can have jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute,” Bensouda said.

The ICC has focused its investigations largely on leaders and crimes committed in Africa in recent years, leading to pressure from some quarters — including African leaders — to show that it isn’t prejudiced against Africa. The ICC, some observers believe, is under pressure to broaden its investigative agenda beyond the African continent.

With the Palestinians insistent on bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the International Criminal Court, a sympathetic General Assembly that rose to its feet for a standing ovation as Abbas left the podium Thursday, and an ICC with more than a passing interest in expanding its scope of investigation to new regions and issues, Abbas’s speech should be taken as a sign of things to come.

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