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UNSC vote on Palestine: When numbers don’t add up

The threat of joining the ICC ruffles the feathers of the Israelis and the Americans

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Last week’s headlines around the world were very quick to pronounce the result of the Security Council’s vote on the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state a failure for the Palestinians. Technically it was a failure, but as a matter of fact this draft resolution stood no chance from the onset. Short of an end of year miracle, even if the resolution had gained the required nine votes, the United States would have vetoed it. In this sense this resolution was stillborn even before it was submitted. Supported by only eight members of the Security Council, the U.S. was “saved” from the need to veto the resolution. The American administration preferred not to use the veto power in order to maintain the charade of an honest broker in the peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, even if the result was a massive disappointment for the Palestinians, it still represents a continuing trend of majority support in almost any international forum for Palestinian statehood. Technically the resolution was rejected, but the voting figures showed eight countries in support of the resolution with five abstaining and only two opposed. These results reveal the wide international support the Palestinian cause is enjoying. A combination of hastiness on the Palestinian leadership’s side, the weight of Israel and especially the U.S. in pursuing other countries to abstain, and the nature of the voting system in the Security Council brought about this setback for the Palestinians. But it did not spell bad news for all of them.

Exacerbating conflicts

I have argued in the past against unilateralism in international affairs and I am still of the opinion that bilateral and multilateral negotiations should be the preferred way of resolving conflicts. Unilateral steps in many cases in the past have only exacerbated conflicts. Nevertheless, more than twenty years of a peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians has yielded endless procrastination, divisions, violence, extremism and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank rather than peace. Under these circumstances, it would be somewhat disingenuous to blame the Palestinian leadership for trying to improve their bargaining position considering Israel’s position of power backed by unwavering U.S. support. President Abbas’ insistence to submit the application at this time had more to do with his loss of public support at home, in the aftermath of the conflict in Gaza, than a successful attempt at passing the resolution. Glancing at the list of the newly elected non-permanent members to the Security Council, suggests that waiting until these countries take their positions might have increased the likelihood of a vote in favor of an independent Palestine state (short of course of an American veto). However, a recent survey by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah found that if presidential elections were held between Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Abbas, the former would win a majority, and Hamas would win more seats in the legislative branch than the Fatah. There is little doubt that to a certain extent, domestic political considerations affected the Palestinian leadership’s entry into their recent diplomatic foray. Nevertheless, regardless of the domestic scene, the diplomatic route and turning of international public opinion against Israel are a logical courses of actions based on Palestinians’ past experiences. Between a stalled peace process and the decision to abandon the armed struggle, exploring every avenue in the diplomatic arena is quickly becoming the most promising route for the Palestinians to turn their dream of statehood into a reality.

The overreaction by Israeli decision makers reflects their sense of threat from the Palestinian’s industrious activity in the international arena

Yossi Mekelberg

Hence the Palestinian response to the Security Council’s vote is not very surprising. The Palestinian Ambassador to the U.N., Riyad Mansour, submitted the request to join 22 international treaties, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The move by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who signed these applications, reflects the shift in approach taken by the PA/PLO leadership in recent years. They have accepted that the armed struggle ran its course, both for ideological and pragmatic reasons, and led to a search for peace through negotiations. However, in order to bring about a just peace agreement it must address all the core issues of the conflict with the Israelis, including Jerusalem and a fair solution to the refugees’ predicament. This never happened. Instead negotiations reached a dead end early last year, leading to a deadly war in Gaza, which inevitably resulted in the weakening of the moderate majority of peace-seeking Palestinians. There is also an unrealistic expectation among Israelis and Americans that the peace process will converge with the internal political agendas in Israel and the U.S.. First, the peace process came to a halt few months before the U.S. mid-term elections, which made it tricky for the Obama administration to take a robust approach with Israel. Now Israel is engulfed in election fever which postpones any prospect of negotiations for at least several months. Considering these circumstances, is it any surprise that frustration has reached a boiling point among the Palestinian leadership? The outlet for this frustration is the search for international recognition and an attempt to make Israel pay for the oppressive occupation. This is a rather rational approach, although it risks the wrath of Israel and the United States.

Joining the ICC

The threat of joining the ICC is the particular action which obviously ruffles the feathers of the Israelis and the Americans. The threat of an Israeli politician or general potentially being indicted for war crimes and tried in The Hague, is a genuine worry for the Israelis. For President Abbas, maintaining the threat of bringing Israelis to the ICC is even more beneficial than actually doing so. He will not shed tears if the move also puts the Hamas political and military leaders under legal scrutiny for their violence against Israel. The Israeli retaliation was instant and predictable in the form of suspending the transfer of half a billion shekels ($127.6 million) in tax revenues, collected on behalf of the Palestinians, to the Palestinian Authority. In addition, the American administration has also threatened to cut its aid to the PA. As convincing as these punishing acts might seem, they might backfire. If the PA collapses due to an inability to pay its employees, someone will need to fill the political vacuum if anarchy and chaos are to be averted. This vacuum could be filled by either resuming complete Israeli control of the West Bank, or by the very same elements that neither Israel nor the U.S. (and of course the Fatah movement) would like to see gaining power. Neither are good options for Israel.

The overreaction by the Israeli decision makers reflects their sense of threat from the Palestinian’s industrious activity in the international arena, a reaction which puts them on the wrong foot. Despite the inability to pass the resolution on Palestinian sovereignty in the Security Council, the horses have bolted in terms of international recognition of Palestinian statehood. Israel will do itself a favor if it recognizes this instead of fighting a losing battle. The threat of the ICC is a serious weapon that should be handled by both sides very carefully. What was proved by the events of last week is that both sides are capable of inflicting severe damage on each other and increasingly do so. However, it also clearly demonstrates that both sides can only maximize their benefits and reach a just peace through genuine negotiations.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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