The ICC Decides to Investigate War Crimes in West Bank and Gaza

The International Criminal Court at The Hague
The International Criminal Court at The Hague

As Israel moves toward its third round of elections in less than a year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is desperate to find a way to hold on to power. More than vain self-interest motivates him now, as he hopes that being a sitting (and re-confirmed) prime minister will make it impossible for him to be tried, convicted, and eventually jailed for the corrupt dealings with which he has been charged.

Netanyahu was doubtless overjoyed to hear that the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague has decided there was sufficient cause to investigate whether war crimes had been committed by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over past five and a half years. The announcement provided him with exactly the kind of target he likes best, one that allows him to claim that Israel is being singled out, persecuted, held to an unfair standard, and all because of antisemitism.

That assertion is absurd on its face, and hardly worth examining. Israel’s human rights record is open for all to see, and it’s not pretty. Moreover, the ICC isn’t investigating Israel; it is investigating the conflict in the occupied territories, and that investigation includes all parties involved. That’s just one of several key points that need to be understood regarding the ICC investigation. Read more at Responsible Statecraft

A Progressive Response To Saudi Crimes Begins, Not Ends, With Yemen

Donald Trump’s statements and actions are so blatantly awful, so thoroughly misguided and immoral, that he gets blasted from a spectrum of political commentators, from the far left all the way to Lindsey Graham (R-SC). But through all the criticism, little is said about what should be done.The backlash against Trump’s shocking apologetics for Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has been powerful. Most Americans, including a significant number of Republicans, do not support a foreign policy based solely on cynical self-interest. They also object when the president makes it clear that if the price is right, the United States will allow an ally to get away with murder. Read more at LobeLog

Takeaways From the Israeli Election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won his fourth election last night in surprising fashion. He outdistanced the polls, including the exit polls in the waning hours of voting and won a decisive victory over the Zionist Union and Isaac Herzog. Here are some quick and initial takeaways from the results.

A huge victory for the Right

Even though the right wing/religious bloc in the Knesset didn’t grow, the right gained considerable power relative to
BenjaminNetanyahuthe last Knesset. The last government included two centrist parties, Yesh Atid, and Hatnuah. Yesh Atid actually was the biggest single party in it, with Likud having joined with Avigdor Lieberman’s party to gain a decisive lead in the 2013 elections. Hatnuah, though small, was very important to the coalition, as its head, Tzipi Livni was the fig leaf over the right wing that negotiated with the Palestinians.

This coalition is going to have a very different character. It is quite possible that Netanyahu will get the fully right-wing coalition he wants. It is very possible that the most moderate party in it will be Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu party. Kahlon is at best lukewarm on the two-state solution, although he has been critical of Netanyahu’s refusal to maintain negotiations. He probably described his view best when he said he supported Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. That’s the one Bibi just repudiated in the last days of the campaign. Read more at the FMEP blog.

Preparing for a Post-Abbas Palestine?

On December 31, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas closed out a year of stinging defeats by signing on to 18 374713108_04a72adb2b_zinternational accords. Included among these was the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). The reaction in Jerusalem and Washington was apoplectic.

The United States rebuked Abbas, and Israel immediately vowed harsh reprisals. Shortly thereafter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that although Israel would not increase settlement growth—a routine method of punishing the Palestinians—it would withhold the tax and tariff revenues it collects for the Palestinians. The Obama administration also announced that it was reviewing the annual U.S. aid package to the Palestinian Authority.

These actions were to be expected. But some other developments were much more unusual. For instance, Netanyahu also started urging his friends in Congress to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in response to its signing on to the Rome Statute and threatening to bring Israelis to trial for war crimes. In the past, Netanyahu and his supporters have persuaded Congress to refrain from such action, for fear that such a drastic loss of funding would cause the PA’s collapse and force Israel to take on the full burden and expense of its occupation.

Something has clearly changed.

Palestine’s International Gambit

The State of Palestine may not exist in reality, but many countries around the world have recognized it. More importantly, the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine non-member observer state status in 2012. That means it has certain rights, and Israel is trying to stop the Palestinians from exercising those rights.

The plea to the Palestinians, for decades, was that they should abandon armed struggle and use non-violent methods to achieve their national goals. Yet when they tried negotiations, they got 20 years of expanding settlements—which seems to have buried the notion of a two-state solution—and an occupation that is more entrenched than ever. The PA conceded 78% of the land that was once Palestine and policed the West Bank on behalf of Israel, a level of security cooperation that military and police officials from both Israel and the United States have praised. Yet Israel insists it must keep most of Area C, a subdivision of the West Bank, for security purposes.

And now, when Palestine has appealed to international legal institutions, Israel in response has stolen—there really is no other word for it—the Palestinians’ tax and tariff revenue, and the United States has threatened to suspend $440 million in annual aid.

All of this raises a central question: just what methods should the Palestinians employ to achieve their independence and put an end to the decades-long refugee status that has denied them the basic human, civil, and national rights that so many people around the world take for granted? Israel seems to expect the Palestinians to do nothing but watch settlements spread and the occupation become more entrenched and violent. Meanwhile, Israel moves closer to supporting the various plans proposed by right-wing political leaders for an institutionalized apartheid that would entail the annexation of much of the West Bank and the cantonization of Palestinian towns and villages in what little is left..

This recipe for increased Palestinian extremism, militancy, and violence—in short, a formula for endless conflict—is the take-it-or-leave-it offer that the United States and Israel are sending to the Palestinians. The United States and Israel apparently expect the Palestinians to passively accept the status quo in the hope that the world’s only superpower and the Mideast’s regional superpower will some day decide to grant them their freedom. However unrealistic this course of action might be, the recent shifts in Israeli strategy on this front indicate that both countries are more resolutely moving in this direction .

Abbas Out, Dahlan In?

Israel’s lack of interest in the fate of Mahmoud Abbas is of relatively recent vintage. The shift appears to have begun in October when Israel was dealing with daily clashes in Jerusalem. Not only the Palestinians but also Jordan and even the United States began raising serious questions about Israel’s intentions in the flashpoint city. At that time, Netanyahu’s rhetoric toward Abbas became considerably more virulent. He stopped just short of calling Abbas a terrorist when he accused him of “inciting terror” and implied a guilt by association after Abbas agreed to establish a unity government with Hamas.

That rhetoric grew even angrier as the PA moved to propose, through Jordan, a Security Council resolution that would set a deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. When that resolution inevitably failed, the PA vowed to pursue membership in the ICC. It is likely that the crisis over Jerusalem in the fall convinced Netanyahu to work to bring Abbas down, as some of Israel’s leading right-wing figures, notably Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, have been suggesting for some time.

In this context, reports that a senior Likud figure met with Abbas rival Mohammed Dahlan some time in November become more interesting. Dahlan has been getting a lot more attention among the Palestinian public lately. He has been working on building ties with Hamas and has almost certainly been in contact with Israel for quite some time. In particular, the possibility that he might be exploring a stronger working relationship with Hamas might, coupled with Israel’s change of heart regarding Abbas, have convinced Israel that now was the time to intensify contacts with Dahlan in anticipation of a post-Abbas future.

Congress Weighs In

The Israeli response to the Palestinians’ signing of the Rome Statute was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading Republican and the incoming chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was in Israel in the waning days of 2014, just as Abbas’ efforts at the Security Council were in full swing. Graham’s vow that Congress would follow Israel’s lead on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program certainly applied with equal force to these Palestinian actions, as they are issues on which there is much less difference of opinion between the White House on one hand and Congress and Israel on the other.

So, it comes as no surprise that, almost as soon as Congress was back in session, Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, introduced a bill that would change the current criteria for cutting aid to the PA. As it stands, U.S. law permits the Palestinians to join the ICC and only requires cutting off aid if they initiate or support an ICC investigation of Israel. Paul’s bill would deny the Palestinians aid just for signing the Rome Statute.

Paul is not one of Israel’s darlings in Congress. In fact, he opposes foreign aid on principle. But since he knows where Republican presidential campaign bread is buttered, he  makes an exception for Israel these days. Nonetheless, whether it’s Paul’s bill or some other one that another member of Congress draws up, aid to the PA is likely under serious threat unless Israel once again changes its mind about this strategy.

If, however, Israel and Congress continue on their present course, the Palestinian Authority will not be able to survive much longer. The rest of the world may not be prepared for a post-Abbas future. But there might not be much time left to get ready.

Abbas Moves Toward ICC After UN Failure

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has now moved a step closer to making good on its threat to go to the International

Palestinian representative to the UN, Riyad Mansour

Palestinian representative to the UN, Riyad Mansour

Criminal Court (ICC) and bring charges against Israel. There is little doubt that this was a move Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tried desperately to avoid. In the end, he was forced to do it by a combination of U.S.-Israeli rejectionism, Palestinian desperation to do something to try to end Israel’s occupation, and his own many missteps.

Abbas signed on to 18 international agreements after the quixotic attempt to pass a resolution at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) predictably failed. Among them was the 1998 Rome Statute, which established the ICC and took formal effect in 2002. This is the step that the U.S. and Israel have warned Abbas against most strongly. Among all the “unilateral steps” the Palestinians could take (which, one should note, is no more “unilateral” than any number of actions taken by Israel on a routine basis), this is the one Israel worries about most.

The reason, of course, is obvious. Israel knows it has committed war and other international crimes—some very serious—in the course of its occupation. While Israel generally scoffs and waxes indignant at critical world opinion, it is concerned that being hauled before the ICC could further negatively impact public and elite opinion in Europe, Israel’s main trading partner, where patience with Israeli policies has grown ever thinner.

Abbas knows only too well that he risks losing what little power he has in the West Bank. There are many ways this move can blow up in his face, and most of the roads to success are going to take more time than he has. That he has taken this step testifies to his desperation.

When, on behalf of the Palestinians, Jordan submitted its resolution to the UNSC last month, it did so under tremendous pressure from other Arab states. Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah had preferred to wait until France was ready with its own resolution, which the United States had strongly hinted it would support, or at least not oppose. Abbas knew full well that, even if the Palestinian resolution had mustered the nine votes needed to pass the UNSC, Washington would have vetoed it. Approval of the French version, while toothless and lacking a fixed deadline to end Israel’s occupation, would at least have had virtue of demonstrating the international community’s insistence on a two-state solution.

But internal pressure to submit the Palestinian version, as well as the external pressure that turned out to be decisive, seems to have pushed the French version to the back burner, at least for the time being. With the expected failure of the Palestinian resolution at the UNSC, Abbas was forced to carry through with his threat to sign the Rome Statute, a move that many Palestinians, including many in his own Fatah faction, had been clamoring for ever since the 2012 U.N. General Assembly vote that granted Palestine non-member observer state status, thus enabling it to join international agreements and UN specialized agencies.

In the long run, this is a move that could pay off for the Palestinians, but it carries enormous risks, especially to the PA. The most obvious and immediate threats lie with the responses that can be expected from Israel and its most important foreign backer, the new Republican-led U.S. Congress. Many in Congress have made it clear that they intend to push for suspension of aid to the PA if it signs the Rome Statute. And Israel will surely ramp up its settlement expansion and likely once again withhold taxes it collects on the PA’s behalf. The resulting economic impact could very well lead to the PA’s collapse.

That outcome has been forestalled in the past by Israel’s recognition that the security and economic costs it would inherit would be exorbitant. Israeli officials not only allowed their own cooler heads to prevail, but also urged restraint on their friends in Congress. Despite the recent splash the Labor Party made by joining forces with peace process veteran Tzipi Livni, Bibi Netanyahu’s main challenge still comes from his right in the elections scheduled for mid-March, and he can’t afford to look soft on the Palestinians.

That certainly won’t help Abbas. He knows the dangers that confront him. Moreover, the approach to the ICC carries another risk. Even if Abbas survives the Israeli-U.S. response, it is very possible that Hamas will also face charges at the ICC. The case against Hamas, while covering crimes involving far less destruction and loss of life, is also more clear-cut than one likely to be brought by the PA against Israel, whose acts in Gaza and in the day-to-day occupation of the West Bank will require lengthy investigation. Should Hamas find itself on the losing end of the law before Israel does, Abbas’s position is likely to weaken further.

Despite his moves toward internationalization, Abbas still much prefers to work with Washington. U.S. fecklessness in the face of persistent Israeli opposition to any diplomatic initiative, however, has essentially brought him to this Rubicon. And his own clear reluctance to cross it will itself likely diminish the chance of success.

Under the Rome Statute, the Palestinians will not be able to formally file any cases with the ICC prosecutor for 60 days from the date of signing. That time will certainly be used by the Obama Administration, which will no doubt argue that such a filing could bolster the Israeli Right in the critical final days of the election campaign, to pressure the Palestinians against going forward. Still, the repeated failure of the Security Council to address the occupation in any substantive way, coupled with the failed history of the U.S.-brokered peace process, has sent the Palestinian people the message, however unintentionally, that diplomacy and cooperation are dead-end strategies. That is going to lead to more Palestinians embracing the violent paths called for by Hamas and other, considerably more militant, factions.

At the same time, Palestinians have seen the futility of armed struggle over the decades. Failure at the UNSC and joining the ICC — but then forgoing charges against Israel – will only increase Palestinian despair and desperation. That will no doubt lead to more of the kind of “lone wolf” attacks that Israelis endured in 2014.

The one party that could make a difference is the European Union (EU). It can exert serious pressure on Israel of a kind even the United States cannot match. The EU accounts for nearly one-third of Israel’s export business. (By comparison, the U.S. accounts for just under one-quarter). Labeling settlement products (as some EU countries currently require, but don’t generally enforce) could be a first step. And if it is couched as a warning that sterner measures are in the offing, the impact on Israeli thinking could be significant, perhaps even a game-changer.

Indeed, ultimately, that sort of European action is what Israel fears. If the Obama administration wants to see a reversal of the downward spiral its own peace-making efforts have helped create in Israel-Palestine, it could quietly encourage the EU in that direction.

Such a course would be wise. Abbas’s strategy of relying entirely on U.S. help to pull him through has clearly failed, and his reign, whether due to a P.A. collapse or just his own advancing age, will not last much longer. He has no clear heir apparent, so what comes after is a mystery. The United States won’t exert significant pressure on Israel in the near future, and, absent some unanticipated shock, Obama’s successors in the White House are unlikely to spend as much political capital as he has on resolving the conflict. The pressure must come from Europe and from the Palestinians using whatever international tools are at their disposal.

This is, after all, just what was always demanded of the Palestinians—that they pursue their goals without recourse to violence. If a peaceful path to statehood is denied them, ongoing and escalating violence is all we can expect to see.