‘Israel need not worry about Palestinian UN move’

Bid to join international treaties and conventions is technically meaningless, but it advances the perception of Palestinian statehood, scholars say

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly, September 26, 2013. (AP/Justin Lane/Pool)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly, September 26, 2013. (AP/Justin Lane/Pool)

Jerusalem has nothing to fear from the Palestinians’ application to join 15 international treaties and conventions, because even if “Palestine” were admitted to them it would have no direct practical implications for Israel, a leading Israeli legal scholar said Wednesday.

“It gives them a feeling of satisfaction and it strengthens their feeling of getting international recognition of their state, but [it has] no practical importance whatsoever,” said Robbie Sabel, a former legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry and professor of international law at Hebrew University.

However, Sabel acknowledged that accession to international treaties does advance the world’s perception of “Palestine” as a sovereign, independent state.

On Tuesday evening, following a unanimous decision by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signed 15 letters of accession to multilateral treaties and conventions.

They include the Fourth Geneva Conventions; the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations; the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the Hague Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and others.

“These treaties and conventions will help to protect and promote basic rights of the Palestinian people and will enable the State of Palestine to be a responsible actor on the international stage,” according to a press release issued by the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department. “These treaties are vital to continued Palestinian institutional building, good governance and the upholding of human rights, all of which form the basis for an independent and sovereign State of Palestine.”

On Wednesday morning, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki handed the letters of accession to UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry and to representatives from Switzerland and the Netherlands (the depository countries for some of the treaties). Saskia Ramming, a spokesperson for Serry, confirmed to The Times of Israel that he received the letters and would forward them to the relevant bodies.

“These organizations are mostly innocuous, and if anything they can be used to challenge Israel’s policies in the West Bank, like settlements, which are already outside the scope of international law,” according to Grant Rumley, a visiting fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, where he focuses on Palestinian negotiation strategies. “They all look primed to pressure Israel on the settlement construction front, but they are certainly not ‘silver bullets’ for the peace process, like the ICC,” he added, referring the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

The PLO, in its press release, stated that the decision to apply for accession to these treaties and conventions is a direct consequence of Israel failing to proceed with the fourth released of Palestinian prisoners, scheduled for March 29. However, the PLO remains “committed to negotiations until April 29, as agreed,” the text states.

According to Sabel, the legal scholar, the Palestinians’ move is not much more than a symbolic act ostensibly intended to make them feel good about themselves. “They just joined treaties and there’s not much significance to this. Because Israel is in any case bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention and by the Human Rights Conventions, and it makes no difference whether ‘Palestine’ is a member or not.”

It is worthwhile noticing that the Palestinians refrained from joining any international organizations, Sabel said. “The reason is because the US cut off funding to any UN organization that would accept Palestine as a member at the moment, which is what they did at UNESCO, and UNESCO hurts,” he told The Times of Israel.

In 2011, UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — admitted “Palestine” as a full member.

It is also noteworthy that Abbas refrained from asking for membership in the International Criminal Court, where the Palestinians could theoretically sue Israeli leaders for war crimes or crimes against humanity, Sabel said. The Palestinians know that if they joined the ICC, “every Palestinian would be in the future jurisdiction of the court, which I doubt whether they’re eager to do,” Sabel said. “Because it would mean that the Hamas, for instance, and the whole population of Gaza, would be subject to the jurisdiction of the court if they commit a war crime in the future.”

However, Bassem Khoury, a former Palestinian minister of national economy, on Wednesday claimed that joining the ICC “may just be a matter of time.”

Palestinian leaders have repeatedly threatened to apply for membership in 63 international organizations, treaties, conventions if the peace process with Israel does not advance.

In 2009, Palestinian Justice Minister Ali Khashan asked the ICC to investigate Israel’s conduct in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The prosecutor’s office initially declined the request, noting that the Palestinian Authority was not a state and that consequently the court had no jurisdiction to launch an investigation into acts committed in the territories it claims. After “Palestine” attained nonmember state status at the UN in 2012, the prosecutor’s office released a brief statement saying that it “will consider the legal implications of this resolution.” It has yet to issue a new ruling on the matter.

But even if the joining the 15 treaties Abbas applied for Tuesday does not imply any real change on the ground, it does advance the international community’s readiness to recognize “Palestine” as an independent state, Israeli legal scholars said.

Recognition of “Palestine” as a state is “an ongoing process,” said Amichai Cohen, a senior lecturer of international law at Ono Academic College. “The Palestinians are currently in an interim stage,” with some states recognizing their state and others refusing to do so as long as the conflict with Israel persists. But as the Palestinians continue to sign more international treaties and conventions in the name of “Palestine,” the level of recognition increases as well, Cohen said, even if it is not yet a full-fledged state according to other criteria.

Sabel agreed that this week’s move further cements the status of “Palestine” as an independent nation. Yet Israel has no need to worry about this, he noted. “Already many organizations recognize them as a state,” he said. “It makes no difference.”

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