January 5, 2015 - the PLO at the UN, Palestinians at the ICC, and the 50th anniversary of Fateh

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This week, Alpher discusses why the PLO toughened its statehood resolution at the Security Council at the last minute instead of waiting a few days for a friendlier roster of Council members; whether, with France voting for the resolution and the UK abstaining, if this is a breakthrough for the cause of Palestinian statehood at the level of international institutions; what is likely to happen now that the Palestinians are going to the International Criminal Court; possible US and Israeli punitive measures against the Palestinians’ UN and ICC moves; what does the Fateh movement, the mainstay of the PLO and PA, and which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on January 1, have to show for its efforts and how do they tie in with the UN and ICC; and -- what about Israeli elections?

Q. Why did the PLO toughen its statehood resolution at the Security Council at the last minute? Why didn’t it at least wait a few days for a friendlier roster of Council members? Both steps led to defeat, without the US needing to fall back on its veto.

A. PLO diplomacy has a history of mistakes and shortcomings. For example, the PLO leadership tends to underestimate the importance of posting a highly capable and influential ambassador in Washington, seemingly preferring to send its best diplomats to London and Paris. Last week’s events at the Security Council appear to fall into the category of Palestinian diplomatic bumbling, though conceivably a more Machiavellian explanation also applies.

One area in which the Palestinians apparently misjudged their chances was in gauging the Nigerian vote on the Council. A “yes” from Lagos would have provided a majority of nine and forced Washington to exercise its veto. That the Nigerians yielded, apparently at the last minute, to US and Israeli requests and abstained appears to reflect their gratitude for those two countries’ military assistance in combating the radical Islamist Boko Haram movement, along with a general Israeli investment in recent years in improving relations, trade, and tourism.

A second apparent Palestinian mistake was in framing the resolution itself. First Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki, a moderate, presented via Council member Jordan a relatively tame proposal (analyzed in these virtual pages two weeks ago) that had been discussed with France. That language apparently raised the ire of more extreme elements in the PLO, and at the last minute less compromising language was introduced (e.g., Israeli “security forces” became “occupying forces”, separate Israeli and Palestinian capitals in Jerusalem became a Palestinian capital and the “capital of the two states”). If the more extreme language didn’t affect the ultimate vote, the amateurish Palestinian zigzag might have.

Q. And the Machiavellian explanation?

A. Conceivably, the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas wanted to avoid forcing Washington to exercise its veto at the Security Council in order not to exacerbate relations with the US. Alternatively, or in tandem, the PLO actually preferred to fail at the UN because it assessed at the last minute that victory at the Security Council would be hollow and would not change reality on the ground, whereas an appeal to the International Criminal Court to rule against Israel--the option the PLO declared would follow a UN defeat--is a more viable and effective step.

Q. Still, with France voting for the resolution and the UK abstaining, isn’t this a breakthrough for the cause of Palestinian statehood at the level of international institutions?

A. It is indeed. Until now, France and Britain have followed the US lead of opposing any UN decision on statehood. Their vote signals a readiness not only to break with the Obama administration on this issue. It also reflects the lack of credibility in their eyes of the Netanyahu government as well as acceptance that the UN, and not direct negotiations, is now the arena of choice for advancing a two-state solution. In this sense, persuading Nigeria to abstain is a minor achievement indeed.

How Paris and London will now pursue the issue of Palestinian statehood is not clear. Might they, for example, introduce their own compromise Security Council resolution, one that provides for specific Israeli needs like secure borders, avoids impractical timetables and deadlines, and clearly recognizes that the Gaza Strip is not under the control of the putative Palestinian state? That would seem like a logical next step.

Thus, after “losing” Europe, the Netanyahu government can hardly celebrate a victory at the Security Council, particularly with Abbas threatening to try again soon, this time with a friendlier Council lineup. On the other hand, because Abbas is pushing his case internationally and one-sidedly at election time in Israel, Netanyahu is likely to benefit at the polls by responding aggressively--which is too bad for Israeli-Palestinian relations and the two-state solution Israel so desperately needs.

Q. So now the Palestinians go to the International Criminal Court. What is likely to happen there?

A. Don’t hold your breath. After 60 days, the PLO leadership will be permitted to file war-crimes complaints against Israel or specific Israeli persons, such as officers and ministers who presided over last summer’s Gaza war. It does not have to complain, and may opt for the time being not to in view of the danger involved in inviting an Israeli response and the presumed effect on Israel’s elections.

Israel can respond to Palestinian complaints in a number of possible ways. It can challenge the PLO’s bona fides as a “state”: the PLO, after all, does not control the territory it purports to represent, e.g., Gaza, and therefore it can be argued that the ICC has no jurisdiction in the case. Israel can counter-complain, leveling charges against the PLO/PA leadership for war crimes committed by Hamas last summer (deliberately targeting Israeli civilians) at a time when it was (and technically still is) part and parcel of a PA government. Such a complaint would have a good chance of being heard, but the act of filing it would ostensibly verify the standing of the PLO before the Court. Israel can also argue, effectively, that the ICC should wave its jurisdiction because the Israeli judicial system itself investigates possible war crimes by Israelis: this is precisely the procedure Israel is currently pursuing independently.

Israel, which is not a member of the ICC, can also ignore it, though at least one Israeli NGO is preparing its own retaliatory ICC complaints against the Palestinian leadership for war crimes. One way or another, ICC proceedings will take years. On Sunday, PM Netanyahu reiterated (for electoral purposes) the obvious: that the government of Israel is obliged to protect and defend IDF officers charged by the international community with war crimes.

Q. What about US and Israeli punitive measures against the Palestinians’ UN and ICC moves?

A. Israel has already begun invoking punitive measures, beginning with withholding taxes and excise funds collected by it on Palestinian imported goods, to the current tune of $125 million monthly. In so doing it is breaking its own Oslo accord obligations while arguing that this is an appropriate response to the Palestinian violation of the commitment not to change the status of the territories. The US Congress, encouraged by the Netanyahu government, is threatening to cancel some $400 million annually in aid funds for the Palestinian Authority.

The PA anticipated these retaliatory measures. It boasts of receiving commitments from wealthy Arab countries to make up the difference and enable it to pay salaries and fund security forces. Alternatively, the PA is threatening to dissolve itself if, due to Israeli and US withholding of funds, it cannot function, thereby inviting Israel to re-impose occupation--an expensive proposition--in order to ensure order and security. Interestingly, at least one senior Likud minister in the Netanyahu government, Yuval Steinitz, is also mindlessly threatening to dismantle the PA as punishment.

These measures, counter-measures and threats open up several figurative cans of worms. First, based on past experience, the Arab states can be counted on not to deliver the funds they have pledged, thereby virtually guaranteeing a Palestinian financial crisis.

Second, Palestinian-initiated dissolution of the PA would directly contradict the notion that there now exists a Palestinian state. The Palestinians would now presumably argue that they constitute a state under occupation. In the real world, it is hard to believe that the PLO leadership would willingly concede so many vested economic and related interests. Still, were this to happen, Israel would be hard put not to reoccupy the West Bank, since a deteriorating security situation there would endanger it. Yet reoccupation would place Jerusalem in an extremely uncomfortable position internationally and this would be precisely the Palestinian intention.

Finally, it should be noted that the tit-for-tat of “violating” the Oslo accords borders on the ridiculous, since Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank have long constituted an attempt to alter the status of the territory, hence are a blatant violation. Note that an Israel Foreign Ministry official stated on Sunday that Israel would not this time retaliate for Palestinian transgressions by settlement-building. If this is true--and far be it for the Foreign Ministry to know what Netanyahu is planning--it would reflect the recognition that more settlement construction at this time would make Israel look particularly bad.

As for Israel withholding excises and taxes on Palestinian goods--a punishment visited upon the PA several times in the past by earlier Israeli prime ministers--it is nothing short of blatant theft: the money quite simply belongs to the PA. True, the PA owes billions of shekels to the Israel Electric Company and Israeli hospitals. But I have not (yet?) heard the Netanyahu government declare that the $125 million will be turned over to those institutions for payment of outstanding debt.

One way or another (and let Congress take note as well as the government of Israel), nearly 50 years of occupation and autonomy should by now have driven home the lesson that Palestinian behavior, which is ideologically and politically motivated and reflects genuine dedication to a national cause, will not be manipulated or altered through economic means, whether carrots (e.g., Netanyahu’s “economic peace”, Naftali Bennet’s apartheid scheme) or sticks like this one.

Q. Apropos Palestinian behavior, the Fateh movement, the mainstay of the PLO and PA, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on January 1. What does it have to show for its efforts and how do they tie in with the UN and ICC?

A. It’s distressing but important to recognize that, largely through its terrorist activities and those it inspired among sister Palestinian movements beginning in the 1970s, Fateh placed the Palestinian issue firmly on the international agenda. The first intifada (1987-92), which was a grassroots initiative that Fateh was quick to exploit, helped generate Israeli recognition of the PLO and the Oslo negotiations, which produced Palestinian Autonomy.

Now Fateh has spearheaded the Palestinian “internationalization” campaign at the UN, ICC and elsewhere. It is far too early to judge whether or not this constitutes another step forward for the Palestinian cause. But it must be understood to reflect the failure of the Oslo process to produce a Palestinian state. Moreover, it reflects the failure of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations at the highest level and Palestinian rejection of a genuinely far-reaching Israeli statehood proposal, by Ehud Olmert in negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. In parallel, Fateh’s leadership of the Palestinian national movement is now disputed by Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is constantly seeking to undermine Abbas’ leadership in the West Bank.

Throughout these 50 years, Fateh has had only two leaders: Yasser Arafat and Abbas. Under Arafat, at heart a guerilla leader and a man of violence and subterfuge (he even clandestinely visited Tel Aviv in 1967), the Palestinians maintained a greater degree of unity but repeatedly reverted to violence and paid a heavy price for it. Under Abbas, rejection of violence has enhanced Palestine’s international standing but problematic leadership has enabled Hamas to seize and hold Gaza, where its own repeated resort to violence has caused great Palestinian suffering.

Abbas’ is 80 years old. His leadership role is nearing an end. The issue of his successor at the helm of Fateh, the PLO and the PA is of huge importance for the future of Palestine, the future of security stability, and the future of negotiations and relations with Israel. Hamas already is a major factor. Corruption (usually termed “business”), never a stranger to the Fateh leadership echelon, could also be a major factor; witness Monday’s revelations of secret meetings between Netanyahu rival Avigdor Lieberman and Abbas rival Mahmoud Dahlan, neither of whom are strangers to allegations of corruption incurred in the course of business.

Q. Wait, what about Israeli election news?

A. So far, the election dynamic reads like a soap opera. As the parties and their lists take shape, there will be plenty of time to make sense of what is happening.

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