Considering the current precarious position of the Palestinian Authority (PA), President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the UN General Assembly on September 24 might have benefited from less pretense. Despite knowing that he is not in a position to issue any formidable threat, the PA leader warned Israel that it has just a year to withdraw from the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, before the PA again takes its case over Israel’s war crimes, colonialism, and imposed apartheid system to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.
“The international community’s support for this initiative, consistent with international law and United Nations resolutions, may save the region from an unknown fate,” Abbas stated. He failed to take into consideration, however, the fact that there are powerful UN member-states that object to the ICC’s investigation into Israel’s war crimes. As for the other countries which have not voiced objection, their tacit complicity with Israel likely will ensure that any support for the initiative will not be detrimental to their relations with the settler-colonial state.
Just two weeks prior to the UN General Assembly, Israeli media reported that the Biden Administration had been privately pressuring the PA to backtrack on the ICC’s war crimes investigations. According to an unnamed Middle Eastern diplomat, US officials have argued that the ICC investigation impedes “efforts to keep dimming prospects for a two-state solution alive and antagonizes Israel.” The US request came earlier this year, but the pressure has subsided more recently, according to the same media report.
Israeli media reported that the Biden Administration had been privately pressuring the PA to backtrack on the ICC’s war crimes investigations.
However, another Israeli report in early October indicates Abbas’s flailing political standing. During a meeting with Meretz party members in Ramallah, Abbas requested a meeting with Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and reiterated his interest in meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Exposing his political limitations, Abbas declared of Bennett, “We know there will be no political negotiations, but let’s meet and talk about what is possible, even if we do not agree on anything.” Shaked and Bennett have so far refused to meet with Abbas.
Abbas is desperate to maintain diplomatic channels with Israel: what remains of his power, after all, ties directly into the two-state diplomacy, as long as this serves Israel. So desperate is he, in fact, that Abbas reportedly stated he would freeze the ICC lawsuits filed by the PA against the Israeli Defense Forces’ soldiers in return for dialogue with Israeli officials, “even if not in the form of official negotiations.”
“We must start and create confidence-building measures, and prove that we intend to make peace,” he told the Meretz delegation. “It will allow me to keep the hope of the Palestinian people, because if we lose hope – we will lose the future.”
The irony in Abbas’s words is not lost on Palestinians. If Abbas had talked politics instead of hope, a more accurate story would have emerged – that of a leader ready to sacrifice even the most belated of moves for the sake of retaining what vestiges of power the PA has left. To suggest reneging over a war crimes investigation, when the PA itself has been crying out to the international community over Israel’s violence, is a move that debases even the most corrupt of leaderships.
The US and Israel have both expressed concern over the PA’s deteriorating support base, with both governments scrambling to offer concessions aimed at helping the leadership in Ramallah.
Abbas is facing growing dissent among Palestinians, particularly after the cancellation of elections, and the PA security services’ extrajudicial killing of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat within an hour of his arrest. The US and Israel have both expressed concern over the PA’s deteriorating support base, with both governments scrambling to offer concessions aimed at helping the leadership in Ramallah exert some control over a population that is gradually realizing it has a unified and powerful political voice.
In a recent meeting with US Envoy Hady Amr, Abbas stressed the importance of strengthening Palestinian-US relations. So imbalanced is Abbas’s statement given the US priority in its relations with Israel, that the only outcome of such groveling is the PA putting itself in the unenviable position of accepting whatever the US-Israeli alliance deems best for the colonization project. Presently, the point is to preserve the PA for Israeli interests.
The PA’s deterioration is unprecedented. Its dependence upon external funding is just one part of the problem. Abbas now knows that the PA’s existence is doomed either through future Palestinian revolt, or by a joint US-Israeli effort forcing Abbas into even greater betrayal.
Since the PA announced its recourse to the ICC, the US, which is not a signatory to the Rome Statute which established the court, has strongly advocated against the investigation on the grounds of Palestine not qualifying “as a sovereign state.” Israel has carried out its own lobbying through its embassies to influence world leaders into opposing the war crimes investigation.
The mere fact that Israel has spent considerable time on a strategy to combat an investigation in which it has already declared it will not participate speaks volumes about the ICC’s impact on Israel’s “exceptionalism,”—as well as its security narrative, which has so far protected the state from accountability and state actors from culpability.
If the US is pressuring Abbas to shelve the ICC investigations, it is because there is much at stake for Israel. However, Abbas will also be trapping what remains of his illegitimate leadership in the crosshairs of Palestinian scrutiny.
It is possible that the PA’s ICC stance so far has been consistent because the investigation is in the court’s hands. Indeed, it is not at all clear whether, or how, Abbas could reverse the proceedings. This does not mean, however, that the US cannot pressure Abbas into not filing any more charges against Israel before the ICC.
For decades, Israel has pushed the parameters of international law to the point where its human rights violations have been normalized by the international community.
For decades, Israel has pushed the parameters of international law to the point where its human rights violations have been normalized by the international community’s parroting of Israel’s security narrative as a legitimate defense. The ICC has the potential to alter the prevailing narrative and shift from security to criminal liability of the individuals responsible for war crimes against Palestinians. That does not bode well for Israel in the international arena.
Then again, the US pressuring Israel to renege, as well as Abbas’s overtures to Meretz, also indicate the potential to exploit the PA’s political crisis to the detriment of the Palestinian people. Bennett is using the ICC investigations as one of the main reasons why he will not meet with Abbas.
For his part, Abbas has demonstrated no loyalty to the Palestinian cause, only opportunism. Facing opposition from Palestinians on the one hand, and Israel on the other, Abbas may attempt to compromise in Israel’s favor by ceasing any future recourse to the ICC, if only to create the illusion of moving towards diplomatic negotiations.