Pyrrhic victories for all at the UN and the ICC

Israel and the Palestinians both stand to pay a price for Abbas’s appeal to international bodies this week; Jibril Rajoub hints it will take the form of a popular uprising

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas waves to the crowd during a gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Fatah movement, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 31, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas waves to the crowd during a gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Fatah movement, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 31, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Abbas Momani)

Henry Kissinger used to say that Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic policy. This week we saw proof that the saying applies, at least in part, to the Palestinians as well.

Their decisions to move ahead with a UN Security Council vote on Tuesday, on the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the next day to sign the Rome Statute ahead of joining the International Criminal Court, were not based on purely diplomatic considerations.

Fatah, and its leader Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, have long been targets of criticism among the Palestinian public — supporters of both Fatah and Hamas — for stalling: The PA kept promising to turn to the Security Council, but kept delaying officially submitting a resolution on statehood and an imposed timetable for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines.

Senior PA officials will claim that the decision to move ahead with the vote on Tuesday evening stemmed from a conviction that the time was right diplomatically — that is, they believed there were at least nine council members who would support the Palestinian maneuver. But they also knew that the US would veto the resolution if it did get nine votes. Thus, the true goal was not to actually pass the resolution, but to show the Palestinian public that, finally, the PA was doing something.

Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, right, votes during a meeting of the UN Security Council Tuesday, December 30, 2014 (Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP)
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, right, votes during a meeting of the UN Security Council Tuesday, December 30, 2014 (Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP)

In the end, the Security Council vote was somewhat embarrassing for the Palestinians. The US didn’t have to use its veto, since the PA didn’t even manage to get the requisite nine votes.

Palestinian commentators have long talked of a growing unrest among the public in light of the PA’s powerlessness. Nothing is moving, they say. The economy in the West Bank isn’t growing. Although the situation in Gaza is far worse, the stagnation and lack of economic growth in the West Bank — along with the sense of diplomatic deadlock; attacks by settlers; and maybe, most of all, rising criticism against Abbas from within Fatah — were key factors in the decisions to go to the UN and then the ICC.

The criticism within Fatah was also a factor in the PA leadership’s handling of the wording of the failed Security Council resolution. At first the Palestinians submitted a more nationalistic, uncompromising draft. Later, because of US-French pressure, changes were introduced to the document.

But then, critical statements from senior Fatah officials like Marwan Barghouti were released, calling for the wording to be re-radicalized. When the Americans and some European countries rejected the revised, more-moderate proposal, the path was cleared for the harsher version eventually submitted and voted upon.

Whatever the process, and what the reasons the Palestinians give, the defeat was plainly a miscalculation, and the timing raises question marks. Two days later, after January 1, the Palestinians would almost certainly have got their nine votes, as the rotating membership of the Security Council now provides a more empathetic constellation from the Palestinians’ point of view. What’s more, the vote came a day before the Likud primaries: Abbas and his circle gave Benjamin Netanyahu a gift, providing ostensible proof of his skills as a statesman, as he helped to swing Rwanda and Nigeria away from supporting the resolution. The morning after, Netanyahu allies hailed Israel’s glorious victory over the Palestinians, and the PA’s painful defeat.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote in the Likud primaries on December 31, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote in the Likud primaries on December 31, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But though it truly was a failure for the Palestinians, it was also only a Pyrrhic victory for Israel — a win at quite a price.

The day after the Palestinian defeat at the UN, Abbas signed the Rome Statute. This means that, in 60 days’ time, the Palestinians will be able to submit complaints against senior Israeli officials in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and have a far better chance of these complaints being investigated than in the past. This could lead to a complex legal campaign against Israeli leaders in the upper echelons of both the civilian and military leadership.

Thus, at the beginning of March, two and a half weeks before the March 17 Israeli elections, Netanyahu and other members of Israel’s leadership could find themselves in the eye of an ICC storm. It might not be a diplomatic catastrophe, but it could be bad news for Israel in general, and Netanyahu in particular on the eve of the elections.

January 1, 2015, just happened to be the 50th anniversary of the founding of Fatah. The movement has been organizing a variety of rallies to mark the occasion. Abbas has not had too many achievements to wave in front of his supporters or his Hamas rivals. He is doing his best to turn the appeals to the Security Council and the ICC into the basis of a victory festival. Hamas castigated Abbas for the UN failure, but on Wednesday it did publish a notice saying that it supports the signing of the Rome Statute.

Joining the ICC may come at a price for the Palestinians as well, however, including in the form of punitive measures by Israel. If the Palestinians ask the court to prosecute Israeli officials, this could also lead to a wave of suits against Palestinian leaders.

Pyrrhic victories all around.

Rajoub’s warning

“The Israeli right pushed us into a corner and forced us to turn to the ICC,” Jibril Rajoub, one of the Fatah heads in the West Bank, told The Times of Israel by telephone on Thursday. “They didn’t want negotiations, they didn’t want to freeze settlements or treat us like neighbors or partners. They don’t even recognize our existence. We prefer talks and negotiations, but this time we had no choice.”

But what now? You gave a gift to Netanyahu.

“With all due respect, the Likud primaries don’t interest us. They always come to us and say, ‘There are Senate elections in the US, there are elections in Israel, there are primaries in the Likud.’ Enough. Peace is a Palestinian and Israeli interest, and you need to understand that we all eat here out of the same bowl. If we eat shit, then so will you. The left and right in Israel, it’s your internal matter.”

Jibril Rajoub (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Jibril Rajoub (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Rajoub is today considered one of the strongest people in Fatah, and he will run for a top spot in the internal elections for the Fatah Central Committee, which were supposed to take place as part of the Seventh General Assembly at the end of the month, but were delayed again.

Confrontational in the past, his message in our conversation was relatively moderate. “We want to work with the peace camp in Israel, who will join us in the streets to protest for the end of the occupation on the 1967 borders. We have a road map, and we are going in a clear and direct direction — the end of the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state. It’s time the sane camp in Israel gets up and says, ‘Enough!,’ and calls for this malignant tumor of the occupation to be removed,” he said.

“We need to build a future of peace and coexistence for our children, on the basis of two states for two peoples. This is the strategy of the Palestinian leadership. We are not interested, in any way, in violence. We turned to the UN and the international community as a clear message to the people in Israel, so that they understand that violence and bloodshed are not part of our policies, even though the occupation policy uses terror against us. If the Israeli government gets up tomorrow and says, ‘The time is right to end the occupation,’ the Palestinian partner will respond positively.”

What are your next steps? The General Assembly? Halting security coordination?

“All options are available to us. As long as the Israeli government uses violence, as an occupier, we will not wave a white flag. I do expect an escalation in the popular uprising.”

Does that mean you are talking about a Third Intifada?

“I am talking about a non-violent uprising. But it is clear to me that there will be a price we will all pay.”

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