Israel, Palestinian Authority play a high stakes game of chicken

The Israelis and Palestinian Authority (PA) are playing a potentially dangerous high stake game of chicken

Yossi Mekelberg
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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no stranger to unilateral acts by either side. These acts have provided the sides a sense of quick victory, though a hollow one, and a sense of instant gratification. Nevertheless, seldom has unilateralism had any positive contribution towards bringing the sides any closer to a long lasting resolution of the conflict. It is only to be expected that the collapse of the American led peace negotiations last April and the summer war in Gaza, would result in further friction, constant and mutual accusations, and inevitably further unilateral actions. The current deadlock leaves the Palestinians in a vulnerable position, almost forgotten due to other international developments, and a general fatigue from a conflict which stubbornly persists. Fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, containing Russia in the Ukraine, and negotiating an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, pushed the plight of the Palestinian people living under Israeli occupation to the margins of the international agenda. The Palestinian Authority’s signing of the Rome Statute, hence paving its way to become a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the decision to suspend security co-ordination with Israel aims at breaking this intolerable impasse and the danger of side-lining the Palestinian issue.

The Israelis and Palestinian Authority (PA) are playing a potentially dangerous high stakes game of chicken at the moment in which neither would like to be the first to blink, let alone lose. More than twenty years of process without peace brought about a symbiotic, some would argue unhealthy, relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The latter is dependent on the good will of Israel economically, military, politically and in short for its existence. In return the Israeli government, since the Oslo accords, demands that the PA prevent Palestinian militancy against Israel. The Palestinian leadership thus became a sort of sub-contractor for Israeli security in the occupied territories, even though this arrangement has done very little for Palestinians’ national aspirations, security, human rights or prosperity. The PA can in principle resist or challenge Israel, but at the risk of Israel bringing about the PA’s collapse by economic or military means. President Abbas, whose time in power is running out, sees the dream of a free independent Palestinian state slipping away. He is subsequently almost forced to take unilateral actions, even if it is risky, as the only avenue left open to exert pressure on Israel to moderate its policies.


Ultimate achievement

The ultimate achievement for the Palestinians would have been a recognition of Palestine as a full member of the United Nations, despite Israel’s vociferous objection, but this was blocked by the Security Council. The most that the Palestinians gained from their diplomatic campaign among the members of the United Nations was recognition as a non-member state with observer status. A combination of U.S. pressure on other members of the Security Council to vote against full Palestinian membership and its veto power prevented this option from materializing. This leaves the Palestinian leadership with three other unilateral courses of action in the hope of bringing Israel to seriously negotiate the two state solution and stop the expansion of settlements. The first is a vigorous support of the international BDS movement with the objective of exerting severe economic pressure. Unless the United States and the European Union, Israel’s main trade partners, support such a movement, it is unlikely to succeed. Imposing a blanket BDS, and not a targeted one, can also end up being counter-productive. The second unilateral action is the suspension of the security co-ordination with Israeli security forces for a limited time, or even indefinitely. It is more than a veiled threat that the PA is refusing to comply in ensuring the security of Israeli citizens, while the rights of its own people are violated and their land is occupied and seized. It is not an endorsement as such of returning to violence, but can be seen as enabling it. It is an extremely risky path to take, as it might send a message to militants that the resumption of violence is permissible regardless of the consequences. It might end in a third Intifada, more Israeli repression and even the end of the PA and Abbas’s leadership, which could be taken over by a more militant leadership.

The ultimate achievement for the Palestinians would have been a recognition of Palestine as a full member of the United Nations

Yossi Mekelberg

The third option, which together with the BDS campaign keeps the Palestinian struggle for independence on the non-violence track, would be the indicting of Israeli politicians and military chiefs by the ICC for war crimes. The focus of such indictments would be Israeli behavior during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, but other Israeli actions might also face possible legal scrutiny. Under Article 8 of the Rome Statute, the unlawful deportation, transfer or confinement of protected persons, living in territory which is under military occupation, amount to a war crime. Similarly, as noted by Bill Van Esveld from Human Rights Watch (HRW) “[House] Demolitions intended to drive Palestinians from their communities in occupied territory are war crimes under the 1949 Geneva Conventions.” First and foremost, however, the Palestinians are convinced that some Israeli military actions during the 50 day conflict in Gaza last summer constitute war crimes. The seven week conflict left more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, killed and many thousands injured. Furthermore, tens of thousands of homes in Gaza were completely destroyed or severely damaged, including schools and hospitals. The Palestinian Authority is cognizant that an indictment of an Israeli politician or military commander by the ICC, would be a severe blow for Israeli political and moral standing in the world. Israel is a country which is very protective of the people serving her on the battlefield, an attitude which has been repeatedly demonstrated in the exchange of prisoners in the past. Therefore, it would find it even unbearable to hand over any Israeli to a trial in The Hague. The ICC presents Israel with serious challenges. Unlike other certain international bodies where there is almost an automatic political majority which condemns Israel, the ICC is viewed by most as legal and professional body. Hence even an indictment which does not end in a trial against a leading Israeli figure, will be a great victory for the Palestinians. It might of course also lead to a closer scrutiny of the Hamas’ alleged war crimes, but this will not bother the Fatah led Palestinian leadership too much. It may even provide an additional incentive to pursue this course of action.

In the short term, the Palestinians might incur the wrath of the Israelis, and maybe the Americans, as a response to being referred to the ICC. However, in the long term it might prove to be a very effective non-violent wakeup call for the Israelis who think that the current situation works to their advantage. This wakeup should play into the considerations of the Israeli voters, who in less than a week will cast their votes to choose their new government.


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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