Hugh Lovatt
Last updated: 18 November, 2014

“President Abbas may find himself with little choice but to act”

Peacemaking in Israel/Palestine is thoroughly stuck. The conflict has reached a dead-end where current dynamics are only entrenching a status quo which has enabled Israeli occupation and territorial expansion at the expense of Palestinian national aspirations and human rights. The cycle of violence which has periodically punctured this reality is however becoming increasingly frequent, indicating that the traditional model for managing this conflict, a US-led peace process based on the 1993 Oslo Accords, is spluttering to an end.

Although it is unclear when this model will finally grind to a halt, its demise will leave a dangerous vacuum that risks serious and uncontrolled violence. The beginnings of which have perhaps already started to be seen in the streets of Jerusalem.

At the moment the parties to this conflict have not presented any clear long-term strategic vision for breaking out of this impasse. So what are the Palestinian options?

UNLIKE A SIGNIFICANT minority of the Palestinian public, the Palestinian government remains firmly wedded to the two-state paradigm. And despite occasional rhetoric, there is no real inclination to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and hand back the keys to the Israelis, let alone ignite a third Intifada. Both moves would prove very costly to the PLO and jeopardise the little it has to show for two decades of negotiations.

True, the Palestinian Authority (through generous EU/US funding) has to a certain extent relieved Israel of its responsibilities as an occupying power. The PA has also absolved Israel from having to administer the Palestinians on a daily basis. Most critically perhaps, Israeli/PA security cooperation has remained insulated from political fallout between both sides. Yet the PA has become so ingrained in daily Palestinian life that its sudden removal would have deep repercussions for Palestinians. Not only is it the largest purveyor of salaries and social services for Palestinians but also one of the most visible manifestations of Palestinian national aspirations. As such, its dissolution would be seen as a real step backward.  

Yet, paradoxically, there is increasing resentment amongst the Palestinian public towards the PA as an enabler of the status quo and (indirectly) Israel’s occupation. Therefore, a grassroots Palestinian uprising against Israel – even one predicated on civil rights – could turn its sights closer to home. On the other hand, a popular resistance movement directed from the top-down would risk harsh retaliatory measures from Israel and – should it turn violent – from the US and EU. With souvenirs of Israeli tanks and bulldozers besieging Arafat’s compound in 2002 still vivid and acknowledgement that the second Intifada lost the Palestinians considerable international goodwill, there is understandably little enthusiasm on President Abbas’ part for a repeat.

A Palestinian tabula rasa that up-ends the Oslo framework may ultimately be the only way of breaking the current deadlock. But do not expect this to happen on President Abbas’ watch.

“…the Palestinian government remains firmly wedded to the two-state paradigm”

For now at least, internationalising the conflict remains the best and only real option available to the Palestinian leadership. This is the track favoured by President Abbas who has vowed to present a draft resolution to the UN Security Council demanding Israel end its occupation and withdraw to the 1967 lines by November 2016. Although such a resolution would largely be a copy and paste of U.S. and EU positions, the inclusion of a deadline would likely invite a U.S. veto, on condition of course that Palestine is able to muster the requisite support of 9 UNSC members.

Should their initiative at the UNSC fail, the Palestinians have pledged to renew their drive to win membership to international treaties and organisations. Previous measures in this regard have however had far more of an impact on the U.S. than on Israel. Due to Congressional restrictions the U.S. is prohibited from funding bodies in which the State of Palestine is a member. Although ostensibly designed as a preventative step, U.S. legislation is a double edged sword which means that Washington loses its voting rights within those fee-paying bodies, and thereby its influence. Losing UNESCO has been palatable, exclusion from UN bodies such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) would be less so.  

Merely raising the prospect of joining multilateral bodies therefore represents a certain degree of Palestinian leverage over the U.S. And indeed, there is little evidence that the Palestinians are approaching these options as any more than short-term tactics for strengthening their hand with the aim of launching another round of U.S. negotiations on slightly better terms, instead of a more profound strategic vision that is able to redress the current asymmetry that exists between the two sides. Something that would in all likelihood necessitate meaningful Palestinian reconciliation.

The Palestinians may view keeping President Obama and Secretary Kerry on-side as their best option. But as he comes under increasing domestic pressure to demonstrate that an international track can deliver at a time of growing Palestinian public anger and frustration, President Abbas may find himself with little choice but to act, even to the detriment of his relations with the U.S. administration.

IF PALESTINIANS DO decide to press ahead, their first target would likely be the International Criminal Court (ICC), described by some as the “nuclear option” given that ratification of the Rome Statute by Palestine would allow the ICC to investigate Israeli actions in the OPTs. The ICC is however not the silver bullet it has been made out to be, not least as it would expose the Palestinians themselves to international prosecution and risk politicizing the Court amidst tit-for-tat cases. And although the ICC’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has indicated that following the 2012 UNGA vote Palestine was now eligible to join, any investigation by the body will likely take years before any prosecution could be brought. As was highlighted recently with the ICC’s dismissal of the Mavi Marmara case, any case against Israel may not even make it past the preliminary inquiry.

An exclusive focus on the ICC also neglects many of the other legal tools available to Palestinians in order to challenge the occupation. As al-Shabaka’s Victor Kattan has argued, Palestine would be better served by first asking “the UNGA to discuss the steps that member states can take to help end Israel’s occupation of Palestine (…) the Arab Group could then ask the UNGA to request an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legal responsibilities of states and international organisations to end the occupation.” Not only do the Palestinians have a better track record at the ICJ but they would also avoid U.S. sanctions given that referral would come from the UNGA. 

Regardless, any move that can lead towards greater implementation and respect of international law on both sides and reduce the impunity with which violence is wrought should be encouraged. It would also put Europe in the spotlight. Having sought to discourage such moves EU states would have to choose between Israel and the principles they profess to uphold. Finally, a strategy based on international and human rights would reverberate strongly with European audiences and strengthen efforts to build on the recent wave of Palestinian statehood recognition in Europe, including by the Spanish Parliament today.