The Palestinian leadership is frustrated. Sidelined in Israel by an increasingly bitter election season that wants to discuss anything but the peace process and ignored by much of the Arab world as they turn their attention towards the Islamic State and Iran, the Palestinians have decided to look elsewhere for their cause. As one Palestinian official recently told Israeli diplomat Uri Savir, the Palestinians are looking to launch their “diplomatic intifada.”
The Palestinians want to shift the conflict into the realm of international legality and diplomacy. In December, the Palestinians took their case to the United Nations Security Council, where they sought to pass a resolution imposing a deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. When they failed to muster the nine votes necessary to force a U.S. veto, the Palestinians kicked off their ‘Plan B’: they signed the Rome Statute for accession to the International Criminal Court (ICC) the next day.
The signing of the Rome Statute, as well as 19 other documents for accession into international organizations and conventions, was the culmination of a full-court Palestinian diplomatic press. In 2014, the Palestinians rode a wave of symbolic recognition from parliaments in the UK, France, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and even the European Parliament itself. At each step, the Palestinians cheered on their newfound international allies while Israel criticized the Europeans for threatening the parameters of the Oslo Accords. The Palestinians insist their diplomatic initiative is meant to preserve the two-state solution. The Israelis maintain that any unilateral steps threaten the peace process. Both are right.
The Palestinian campaign may be based on the vision of a two-state solution. But in circumventing negotiations with Israel and shunning U.S. mediation in favor of international bodies, the Palestinians risk destabilizing the peace process that started two decades ago at Oslo. That may be exactly what they want. Ever since the collapse of US-sponsored talks this past April, Palestinian political rhetoric has shifted. No longer are the Palestinians talking about conditions for returning to the negotiating table, but rather conditions for halting their diplomatic campaign.
Origins in Latin America
“Palestine 194,” as it is referred to in Ramallah, is the Palestinian campaign to become the 194th full member state of the United Nations. It’s a plan with roots dating back to 2005, when Mahmoud Abbas paid a visit to the inaugural Summit of South American and Arab States. While there, Abbas was courted by Brazil’s President, Luiz Inacia Lula da Silva, who promised Abbas a network of support in Latin and South America for recognition of a future declaration of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.
This was not the first time a foreign leader convinced a Palestinian leader of the merits of looking international. Shafiq al-Hout, a former PLO leader, wrote in his memoirs of a PLO delegation visiting Belgrade in 1969 as part of a conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). There, President Josip Tito of Yugoslavia encouraged the PLO to look to the UN for claiming part of the historical mandate: “If you manage to get the part that was entitled to you by the international resolutions, that would be better than nothing.” At the time, the PLO was not entertaining the notion of a two-state solution, but the concept of going to the international arena would linger in the Palestinian political psyche.
In 2005, Abbas took da Silva up on his pledge. In the coming years, several Latin and South American countries recognized a Palestinian state. Venezuela opened a Palestinian embassy in Caracas in 2009, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador all vocalized their support for a Palestinian state in 2010, and they were soon joined by Chile, Guyana, Peru, Paraguay, Suriname, and Uruguay. By 2011, international momentum was firmly on the side of the Palestinians with over a hundred countries recognizing an independent Palestine.
Taking the Fight to the United Nations
The recognition was a shot in the arm for the Palestinians in 2011. The Palestinian leadership was frustrated with the progress in the peace process and feeling politically marginalized in the region as other Arab countries began to focus on the spread of the ‘Arab Spring.’ Then, as now, the Palestinians tried to jolt international attention back to their cause. That year, Mahmoud Abbas made the case for further Palestinian involvement at the United Nations in a New York Times op-ed: “Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.”
A few months later, the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted in favor of admitting Palestine as a full member. The U.S., fulfilling its traditional role as guarantor of Israel’s defense, responded by cutting off funding for the agency. At the time, the U.S. threats had an effect on the Palestinian leadership. They quickly backed down from the push for a vote at the UN Security Council after the U.S. made it clear they’d veto any resolution.
But the Palestinians returned a year later in 2012 and upgraded their status at the UN General Assembly by a vote of 138-9 to non-member observer. The victory was touted widely in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Authority swiftly changed all official PA documents to read as the ‘State of Palestine.’ Palestinians rushed to hear Abbas speak at a rally in Ramallah’s Manara Square. Even Hamas officials praised the move. The Palestinians had elevated their status to that equivalent to the Vatican at the United Nations, they had created a point of leverage over Israel, and they had defied the U.S.
Halting 194 for Negotiations
But their move was not without retribution. Israel withheld tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority as punishment. Security coordination between the PA and Israel also dipped. Months later, Salaam Fayyad quit as prime minister over disputes with the campaign. Fayyad thought the move was premature, that it was a gambit, and that it severely impeded him from seeking the donor aid necessary to run the PA. As tensions rose, Secretary of State John Kerry intervened and launched a round of talks. His prerequisite for the Palestinians? Halt Palestine 194.
But even if the campaign was off the table, it wasn’t far from the minds of the Palestinians. As the 9-month mandate for the talks got closer, the Palestinians became frustrated over Israel stalling on releasing a fourth batch of prisoners, and 194 resurfaced. In April 2014, Abbas signed the PLO on to 15 international organizations and treaties, causing an uproar in Israel and the U.S. A few weeks later, he announced a unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas. The talks were officially dead.
The plan after that was fairly simple: Abbas was going to continue to join international organizations and treaties in clusters until he reached the Statute of Rome and the ICC. Palestinian officials said they had at least 60 such organizations and treaties before getting to the ICC. Some even said the number was upwards of 500. The outbreak of the war in Gaza changed the entire calculus. The devastating war in Gaza shifted global public opinion against Israel and Palestinian public opinion in favor of going to the ICC in retribution. Up to this point, the ICC was mainly used as a threat to prosecute Israel over construction of settlements. Now, with their citizens howling for justice, the Palestinians accelerated 194. This drastic change was most noticeable when Abbas accused Israel of war crimes at the UN General Assembly in September.
Back to the United Nations
The Palestinians have now fully committed to Palestine 194. Their aims are simple: they want to fundamentally change the dynamics of the peace process. As one senior Fatah official professed candidly: “We are looking to replace the U.S. as mediator with the UN.” This transition may already be taking place.
The U.S. is buckling under the weight of its many failed Middle East policies and the Europeans appear content to fill the void. In December, the EU parliament voted 498 to 88 in favor of a resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution, affirming, “these should go hand in hand with the development of peace talks, which should be advanced.” The EU’s resolution was actually a softer version of resolutions that were passed in various member parliaments, almost all of which have called for recognition of a Palestinian state regardless of negotiations with Israel.
Also in December, the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention adopted a declaration among 126 of the 196 parties to the convention admonishing Israel’s settlement construction and calling on international law to be respected in the West Bank and Gaza. The U.S., Israel, Canada, and Australia all boycotted the Swiss-sponsored event, but it was otherwise well-attended.
The Palestinians thought they had momentum that could swing in their favor at the UN Security Council. However, momentum isn’t always enough to pass a resolution at the Security Council. On December 30th, they called for a vote on their Jordanian-sponsored resolution demanding an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and a launching of a new round of talks. The final count ended up one shy of the nine votes necessary to force a U.S. veto. The swing vote was Nigeria, who the Palestinians had counted as a ‘yes’ vote but they abstained at the last minute in response to American pressure. The Palestinians had failed again on their return trip to the UN Security Council.
Israel, despite having dodged the bullet, viewed the Security Council resolution as imposing a new set of negotiation parameters without their consent. In December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had already launched a full-on diplomatic counter-offensive, meeting Secretary of State John Kerry and French President Francois Hollande to push back against the resolution. Israeli officials surged into European capitals to try to stem the tide of recognition.
Bibi’s counteroffensive did little. It was largely American influence that held sway. Nevertheless, the Security Council vote was an embarrassing defeat for Abbas and one that revealed his weakness. Hamas was surging in popularity after the war in Gaza and Abbas had to show the Palestinians he could produce something from the Palestine 194 campaign. Out of options, the next day he signed on the Palestinians to the Statute of Rome of the ICC.
The Era of Lawfare in the Conflict
This shifted the parameters of the conflict. We have entered the lawfare era. In April, the Palestinians will become full members of the ICC. In any future negotiations, the Palestinian threat of accusing Israeli officials of war crimes will loom in the background. The Palestinians know they have only one true area of leverage over Israel and they intend to involve the international community more and more. Palestinian officials say they are preparing war crimes charges for Israel on two fronts: over settlements and the latest Gaza war.
To counter this move, the U.S. and Israel have limited options. One obvious move would be to launch a new round of talks after the Israeli elections. Abbas has repeatedly stated that he would consider halting 194 and the ICC move in favor of a new round of negotiations. It may create a repeat of the breakdown of the Kerry talks, but it has proven to stall the Palestinian campaign in the past. However, some may not find that satisfying, primarily because it lacks the ability to punish the Palestinians for their unilateralism.
Another option is to go on the offensive in the international legal arena. Already, Israeli and American groups are attacking: a recent verdict in a terror trial against the Palestinian Authority found the PA responsible for attacks during the second intifada. Similar charges have been prepared against Abbas should he go to the ICC. Trials like this attempt to make the Palestinian victories in the international arena Pyrrhic, but are they enough to halt the push at the ICC and in the international community?
Grant Rumley is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.