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

At UN, Bibi Completes Trifecta of Hopelessness

After Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stirred up some controversy by terming Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza a “war of genocide” Netanyahu_speechat the UN General Assembly last week, there was some speculation that the Israeli prime minister would come in breathing fire. But all Benjamin Netanyahu presented in his Monday address was the same old smoke.

Netanyahu was expected to rail against the Palestinian Authority leader, but he merely said he was “refuting” Abbas’ “lies” and instead focused on bringing his two favorite themes together: the Islamic State (IS) and Hamas are the same thing, and Iran is trying to fool the world with a moderate president while trying to acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu addressed a largely empty hall, with mostly junior diplomats sitting through his speech, though billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and lawyer Alan Dershowitz, both staunch pro-Israel advocates, were also spotted in the hall. There was occasional applause but it mostly came from the Israeli delegation, a stark contrast to the kind of reception Bibi gets in the halls of Congress. Adelson apparently hosted Netanyahu for lunch following his speech.

Bibi has routinely made a fool of himself on the international stage. But what he says often plays fairly well in Israel, and it is always greeted with fawning adoration on Capitol Hill, though that means little—the response would be the same if he read from a phone book. Two years ago his Iranian cartoon bomb visual aid was ridiculed. This time he presented a blurry, unconvincing photo of children playing near what he claimed to be a rocket launcher. Few were impressed.

In fact, Bibi’s speech reeked of a desperation that has been a long time coming. True, the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are struggling along right now, but not for the reasons he had hoped for. Both sides are stuck on the details of Iran’s future capacity for nuclear enrichment, but both sides are also still committed to finding a resolution. That may or may not happen, but even if talks fail, that desire will remain and no one, absolutely no one, is interested in Bibi’s ludicrous and illegitimate standard of preventing Iran from maintaining any enrichment program at all.

On Gaza, Bibi knows full well that even the Obama administration was displeased by the obviously illegal Israeli actions in the strip this summer. Yes, the US can probably still be counted on to frustrate any UN moves for consequences directed at Israel, but that American view remains problematic as it will only fan the flames of much greater outrage in Europe. Netanyahu would be well-advised to stop talking about Gaza, but instead he peddles the ridiculous line that “Hamas is ISIS.” Again, no one is buying.

Between ham-handed references to retiring New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and demonstrating his lack of geographic knowledge by claiming that Tel Aviv is as close to the Green Line (the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank) as the UN building is to Times Square (Tel Aviv is actually about five times as far from the Green Line), Netanyahu gave the impression of a man with nothing new to say. And, indeed, there was nothing new.

Perhaps somewhat notable in its absence was any mention of a two-state solution. Netanyahu used his well-worn line about his willingness to make “historic compromises” but said it in the context of declaring his opposition, rather than his support for peace. Here’s the full quote:

I’m ready to make a historic compromise, not because Israel occupies a foreign land. The people of Israel are not occupiers in the land of Israel. History, archaeology and common sense all make clear that we have had a singular attachment to this land for over 3,000 years. I want peace because I want to create a better future for my people, but it must be a genuine peace–one that is anchored in mutual recognition and enduring security arrangements–rock solid security arrangements on the ground, because you see, Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza created two militant Islamic enclaves on our borders for which tens of thousands of rockets have been fired at Israel, and these sobering experiences heightens Israel’s security concerns regarding potential territorial concessions in the future.

So, the lands is ours and maybe someday we’ll give the Palestinians a tiny bit if all of our conditions are met. That, in the Netanyahu dictionary, is “historical compromise.”

But Bibi did present his ideas of peace. Well, not exactly his idea. He stole the idea from his foreign minister, the far-right leader of the proto-fascist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman has proposed, on several occasions, that Israel seek peace with the so-called “moderate Arab states” and then pursue an agreement with the Palestinians. It is, of course, a non-starter, as absurd as closing one’s eyes and believing the conflict will simply go away. But this is what passes for diplomacy in Bibi’s speech to the United Nations.

As with Abbas, Bibi was primarily speaking to his audience at home, both in Israel and in the United States. Abbas, however, won points at home, perhaps enough to compensate for the distaste his use of the term “genocide” evoked elsewhere. It’s hard to imagine that Netanyahu’s speech did much for anyone in Israel. It was a mere recycling of what have become clichés, and, while he did display his characteristic obstinacy, Bibi didn’t come across even as forceful as he has in other major speeches.

One point Netanyahu made has so far escaped notice, but in light of recent events bears scrutiny. He said that “…as prime minister of Israel, I’m entrusted with the awesome responsibility of ensuring the future of the Jewish people and the future of the Jewish state.”

Now, as protests became angrier over the summer, the inevitable, though generally isolated, incidents of anti-Semitism were often, and quite intentionally blended in analyses by defenders of Israel’s massive military campaign. The refrain, heard over and over, was that Jews should not be held accountable for Israel’s actions.

I agree completely. But the flip side of that is that Israel does not represent world Jewry. If a Jew in the US or France or Australia or Iran wants Israel to represent her, she should accept Israeli citizenship and move there. Netanyahu is quite correct that part of the job description of prime minister of any country is the security and well-being of that country’s citizens. But he is no more entrusted with my future, or the future of any other non-Israeli Jew, no matter how strong their Zionism may be, than David Cameron is responsible for Brits who have become citizens of other countries, or Angela Merkel is for German-Americans. They are all responsible for their citizens.

Indeed, the point is even stronger with Israel, which offers automatic citizenship to any Jew who emigrates there. Being of Jewish descent is sufficient to trigger that offer, something no other nation-state offers to descendants of its nation who are citizens of other states.

People can’t have it both ways. If they want to consider themselves Israelis and therefore have Netanyahu take responsibility for their well-being, then they are also responsible as any Israeli citizen is for their country’s actions. Most of us in the global, non-Israeli Jewish community do not want that responsibility, and so we are represented by the governments of our countries. Netanyahu should therefore worry about Israelis—and he’d do well to pay attention to ALL of his citizens and not just the Jewish ones—rather than trying to usurp responsibility for the Jews who didn’t elect him.

Obama met with Netanyahu two days after his UN address. At virtually the same time, the Israeli government was giving final approval to a new settlement in East Jerusalem that is widely understood to be the final nail in the coffin of the long-dead peace process. Between Obama’s barely a mention of Israel-Palestine, Abbas’ much more confrontational tone, and Netanyahu’s mantras, there was little hope left for the near future. If ever there was a time for powerful international intervention it is now. But with Abbas having announced a proposed Security Council resolution calling for Israel to end its occupation in 2016, and the United States having already signaled it would veto any such resolution, that doesn’t seem likely.

Changing Course: Mahmoud Abbas At The UNGA

Reaction to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the UN General Assembly today was swift and sharp. One of the most incisive

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN general Assembly, 9/26/14

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN general Assembly, 9/26/14

Israeli columnists, Chemi Shalev of Ha’aretz, broke it down very well. He considered Abbas’ speech to be a welcome gift to the Israeli right. And I agree with him. But that’s not really the point.

Abbas has often used the UN podium as a way to be more direct and combative than he usually is regarding Israel, de-emphasizing the “partner for peace” charade and instead being more of an advocate for and leader of the Palestinian cause. But this time, he really turned up the heat. His reference to the attack on Gaza as “genocide” was calculated to play very well in Ramallah and Gaza City, and he willingly sacrificed the rest of the world’s approval. Continue reading

Israel, UK And US Fail To Get Palestinians To Withdraw Or Blunt UN Resolution

The vote in the United Nations General Assembly on the Palestinian application for non-member status is a foregone conclusion. They’re going to win and it’s not really going to matter much, at least in the short term. Nonetheless, the decidedly warped world of diplomacy around the Israel-Palestine conflict has managed to give us a small degree of drama around the bid, which is also illustrative of why there seems to be so little hope for change.

I posted a draft of the resolution on my blog earlier this month. You can see the final version here (pdf). There is simply nothing there that anyone with even the mildest interest in resolving the conflict could have the slightest objection to. This says a lot about where Israel and the US stand. No, the drama lies outside, with the Israeli-US-UK efforts to scuttle the initiative.

It’s been clear for quite some time that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was not going to back down from bringing this resolution to the UNGA. At this stage, any threatening actions by Israel or the US could cause the PLO’s collapse, which Israel very much wants to avoid. So they had no way to stop the initiative from going forward and instead tried to change the substance of the resolution.

That, too, failed, but the changes they tried to make are instructive. Israel wanted to change or insert three conditions, none of which made any sense for the Palestinians. The US took the three conditions whole cloth and tried to convince the Palestinians to insert them. When that failed, it was passed off to the UK, who could offer the Palestinians something the US could not — namely, a yes vote on the UNGA resolution if they agreed to these conditions. Based on various reports, it seems that the Palestinians simply wanted to end the debate and went ahead and submitted the proposed resolution to forestall further discussion of it.

So, all the attempts at change seem to have failed. But the truth is that there is very little here for Israel to be worried about, at least for the time being. And this is why their reaction, as well as those of the US and UK, are all very telling. Let’s look at the three conditions Israel wanted to insert:

  1. 1. Israel wanted the resolution to state that the Palestinians would not seek membership in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Had the Palestinian Authority (PA) agreed to this, it would have sacrificed the one tangible benefit it gets from the General Assembly’s recognition of its non-member status. The other benefits are a matter of prestige and hopefully some diplomatic weight. But this is something the Palestinians can actually use at some point. Israel does not want to answer to the ICC, a court in which it is not a member, but whose decisions can make Israel more uncomfortable and give weight to protest movements, especially in Europe, where there is much more regard for international law than in the United States.
  1. Indeed, had the PA agreed to something like this, the reaction in the West Bank might have been as bad as if they had agreed to withdraw the resolution altogether. That issue only gets magnified in the wake of Hamas emerging from the latest Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza not only alive, but strengthened politically and with a ceasefire whose terms are surprisingly favorable to the government of Gaza.
  1. I strongly suspect that while the possibility of Palestine going to the ICC is probably the single most vexing aspect of this move in Israel’s eyes, they also probably knew that this was a non-starter, and perhaps didn’t even really want the PA to agree, as it might have spelled doom for the quisling Authority. In any case, it was a foregone conclusion that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would refuse Israel’s condition.
  1. 2. Israel wants a clause stressing that this is a symbolic decision that grants no sovereignty over the West Bank, Gaza Strip or East Jerusalem. This was just an attempt at bullying. The UNGA resolution is, by definition, symbolic. It does not carry the weight of law, but merely expresses the view of the GA, as far as such weighty matters as sovereignty are concerned. Yes, specific statuses in the GA can allow the Palestinians access to certain international bodies, but there is no recognition of sovereignty here, nor could there be.
  1. Israel wants this kind of statement to blunt the impact of the resolution in the diplomatic field, but really it wouldn’t do much of that either. It was just a way to diminish the Palestinians’ claim on paper, and more than anything else, it was a lead-in to the one thing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really hoped to get out of this.
  1. 3. Israel wants any decision to include a Palestinian commitment to renewing direct negotiations with Israel without preconditions. This has become Netanyahu’s Holy Grail. He would love nothing more than the continuing sham “peace process” to drag on while settlements expand. But he also knows too much had already been discussed in the Oslo process, and fears, perhaps with some reason, that US President Barack Obama might eventually press for an endgame along the lines of the Clinton Parameters. Even if he doesn’t, Bibi doesn’t want to maintain the framework of withdrawal from more than 90% of the West Bank and some sort of sharing of East Jerusalem.
  1. For Netanyahu, “no preconditions” is a mantra, but one which means something very different than what the term implies. “No preconditions” means starting from absolute zero from the Palestinian point of view. It means no presumption that the 1967 borders are the starting point for discussion, or that there is any legitimate Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem. It means forgetting the Oslo Accords, other than perhaps the lines that Netanyahu wants to hold talks with the starting point at the facts on the ground. Those facts involve the settlements, including those in East Jerusalem that cut the city off from the rest of the West Bank and hemmed Bethlehem in, among other Palestinian towns. They include separation between the West Bank and Gaza and no presumption that they must be rejoined.
  1. Within that framework, any land Israel surrenders, any settlement or outpost Israel evacuates, is a “concession” to the Palestinians and more than that, a gift and symbol of Israeli largesse. Given not only Netanyahu’s right-wing orientation, but the even more radical rightward tilt of his party and, even more, his coalition, this is the only way he could sit and talk with the Palestinians, even if it is just for show. In other words, no preconditions means no to any Palestinian conditions at all and yes to plenty from the Israelis.

Ultimately, Israel knew it would have to tolerate this Palestinian move. It really couldn’t even respond to it without risking its West Bank subcontractor whose demise would mean that Israel would have to foot much more of the bill for its occupation. So, they tried to get the one thing they thought they had at least an outside shot at: talks without preconditions.

Israel’s failure to achieve that goal is not surprising. But the buy-in Netanyahu got from both the US and UK is something we should all be looking at. Abbas didn’t break off talks with Netanyahu on principle, or even because of settlement expansion itself. He broke them off because he knew that, after 17 years of negotiations in the shadow of expanding settlements, the clock had expired and the Palestinian people would no longer tolerate such a state of affairs. The peace process had been exposed as a sham to cover an entrenching occupation, and only a complete halt to settlement construction would allow Abbas to come back to the table without seriously risking the existence of the PA.

Maybe the US and UK knew that Abbas would not accept the “no preconditions” condition and that’s why they felt comfortable pressing for it. But I doubt it. Both countries simply want to see talks resume, fearing the stalemate and vacuum diplomatic silence produces while Hamas continues to establish itself as the more credible Palestinian leadership body.

And what choice do the US and UK have? The same choice they’ve always had, the same one that was always the only way this was ever going to be resolved: pressure both sides — but especially the powerful and comfortable one, Israel — to make the deal. (Pressure on Israel has been totally absent, while both the US and UK are quite practiced in pressuring the Palestinians). Remind them that the exports they both depend on, the cooperation they both need, will no longer be so forthcoming if they don’t achieve a lasting peace.

And, of course, that is an option that neither country is willing to take for no good reason other than domestic politics. This isn’t about forcing anything on anyone. Israel and the Palestinians are perfectly free to choose their own course, but if they choose one that is contrary to US or UK interests, those countries can also choose not to do business with them. This wouldn’t exactly cripple either nation, but domestic politics continue to rule the day, and the craven leaderships in both countries cannot even conceive of such actions.