Palestinians At The Hague: Abbas' Big Bluff On War Crimes Bid Against Israel
08 January 2015
By Jonathan Cook in Nazareth
Intense pressure from Israel and the US last week on
members of the United Nations Security Council
narrowly averted Washington's embarrassment at being
forced to veto a Palestinian resolution to end the
The Palestinians' failure to get the necessary votes
saved the White House's blushes but at a cost: the
claim that the US can oversee a peace process
promising as its outcome a Palestinian state is simply
no longer credible.
Looming is the post-peace process era. Its advent
appears to have been marked by Palestinian leader
Mahmoud Abbas' decision in the immediate wake of the
Security Council vote to join the International
Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.
Israel furiously opposes the move, justifiably fearful
that its politicians, military commanders and
settler-leaders may now be put on trial for war
But the Palestinian leadership has long been
apprehensive about such a move too. Abbas has spent
years postponing the decision to sign the Rome
Statute, which paves the way to the ICC.
Israeli statements at the weekend implied that Abbas'
reticence signalled a concern that he might expose
himself to war crimes charges as well. Israel had
"quite a bit of ammunition" against him and his
Palestinian Authority, said one official menacingly.
In truth, the Palestinian president has other, more
pressing concerns that delayed a decision to move to
the legal battlefield of the Hague.
The first is the severe retaliation the Palestinians
can now expect from the US and, even more so, from
Israel. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu
began by halting the transfer of tax revenues Israel
collects on the Palestinians' behalf. Israel is also
preparing to lobby the US Congress to enforce
legislation that would halt aid to the PA in the event
of it launching an ICC action. More punishments are
due to be announced.
In selecting the "nuclear option", as Israeli analysts
characterised it, Abbas has also left himself
empty-handed in future diplomatic confrontations – and
for no obvious immediate gain. War crimes allegations
may take years to reach the court and, even then, be
stymied by pressures the US will bring to bear in the
Hague, just as it currently does in the Security
But most problematic of all, as Abbas knows well, a
decision to pursue war crimes trials against Israel
threatens the PA's very existence.
The PA was the offspring of the two-decade-old Oslo
accords, which invested it with two temporary
functions. It was supposed to maintain stability in
the parts of the occupied territories it governed
while serving as Israel's interlocutor for the five
years of negotiations that were supposed to lead
towards Palestinian statehood.
It has excelled in both roles. Under Abbas, the PA has
been doggedly faithful to the idea of the peace
process, even as Netanyahu spurned meaningful talks at
Meanwhile, the PA's security forces – in coordination
with Israel's – have kept the West Bank remarkably
quiet even as Israel expanded and accelerated its
But as Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister,
argued on Sunday, the Palestinians' move to the Hague
court is further proof that the Oslo accords have
Without a peace process, or any Israeli commitment to
Palestinian statehood, why would the PA continue to
cooperate on security matters with Israel, let alone
consider such coordination "sacred", as Abbas termed
it last year? If the accords are seen to be dead, the
impression can only grow that the PA is nothing more
than Israel's security contractor, assisting in its
own people's oppression.
Until now, that reality had been partially obscured by
Abbas' image as the Palestinian peace-maker. But if
the process is indeed over, the contradictions in the
PA's role will be dramatically on show.
Right now, Palestinian security forces are committed
to coordinating with the very people the PA is
intending to indict as war criminals. And by
maintaining calm in the West Bank, the PA is
furthering the building of the very settlements the
Rome Statute defines as a war crime.
Abbas is in a bind. If he ends coordination and goes
on the offensive, why would Israel allow the PA to
continue functioning? But if his security forces
continue to collaborate with Israel, how can he retain
credibility with his people?
This leaves the Palestinian leader with only two
credible strategic options – aside from dissolving the
The first is to adopt a sophisticated model of armed
resistance, though the PA has specifically rejected
this in the past and is poorly equipped for it
compared with militant factions like Hamas.
The other is to accept that Palestinian statehood is a
lost cause and adopt a new kind of struggle, one for
equal civil rights in a single state. But the PA's
rationale and bureaucratic structure preclude that. It
is in no position to lead a popular struggle.
That is why Abbas will continue pursuing a Palestinian
state through the UN, as he promised again at the
weekend, undeterred by the realisation that it is
unlikely ever to come to fruition.
The door to the Hague may be open, but Abbas is in no
hurry to venture through it.
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize
for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the
Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to
Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and
"Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human
Despair" (Zed Books). His website is
* Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a
graduate from Brasenose College, Oxford University,
with a degree in Classics and Oriental Studies. His
research interests primarily concern Iraq and Syria,
focusing on armed groups on all sides of the conflicts
therein. He is also the Jihad-Intel Research
Specialist at the Middle East Forum. His website is