The Economist: Will joining the International Criminal Court further Palestine’s cause?
Posted by uscsjp on January 10, 2015
THE “nuclear option” was how American and Palestinian officials described the application by Mahmoud Abbas, Palestine’s president, to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. His move follows a vote against a Palestinian attempt to have the UN Security Council set a deadline for Israel to end its occupation of territories it captured in 1967. It might open Israel—or Palestine—to charges of committing war crimes. Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the UN, said Palestine would join the court on April 1st.
Before Mahmoud Abbas applied on January 1st to join the ICC, Israeli officials promised it would result in an appropriate “Zionist response”: the expansion of settlements that would in effect bisect the West Bank near Jerusalem. Moreover, said officials, an application would also effectively spell the end of talks to establish an independent Palestinian state: never again, they said, would Israel negotiate with Palestinians over the future of Jerusalem, an issue that would have to be the cornerstone of any agreement since both sides claim it as their capital.
Given such hyperbole, the response of Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, looks fairly mild. For now he has acted as in past rows, by withholding customs revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the PA on Palestinian imports, a sum of $127 million that comprises two-thirds of Mr Abbas’s monthly budget. Even that act earned Mr Netanyahu copious reprimands. A spokesman for the Obama administration ticked him off. So did Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, the veteran if maverick hardliner from Mr Netanyahu’s own party, Likud, who has turned into Israel’s leading advocate of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. Threatening Mr Abbas with bankruptcy and the Palestinian Authority (PA) with collapse, Mr Rivlin said, was bad not just for Palestinians, but for Israel too.
He has a point. Israel’s retention of tax revenues has left Mr Abbas unable to cover this month’s salaries for 160,000 state employees. The president’s men insist that Mr Abbas’ critics, who always thought the old man was bluffing about joining the ICC, will now cheer rather than stir up the street. But unions representing PA employees are smarting from previous pay cuts. Banks might have the reserves to cover their salaries for only a couple of months.
A Palestinian businessman asks: once the money dries up, for how long will PA security forces remain quiet before they start selling their guns to make ends meet? On a previous occasion when that happened in 2006, Hamas’s military wing was a willing buyer of weapons. Shortly thereafter it took over Gaza. Israel’s freeze on tax receipts, therefore, seems likely to be thawed just as previous ones were.
Israel is appealing to a sympathetic Congress to withhold the $400m it gives the PA each year when Palestine brings its first petition to the ICC. But Palestinians hope that will not happen. “Will the Americans really topple one of the last secular rulers,” asks a Palestinian official, “while IS is itching to take over next door?” In any case, Saudi Arabia, which has chipped in cash before, sounds more sympathetic than normal.
Now that Mr Abbas has followed through, the question is whether the ICC will do much. Israeli officials fret that soldiers travelling abroad may be subject to arrest. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are already said to be paying lawyers in western capitals to prepare the writs. Palestinians and their supporters abroad, meanwhile, hope to seek the prosecution for war crimes of any Israeli accused of occupying Palestinian territories. Among those that could be targeted is Uri Ariel, the settler housing minister who is driving the expansion of settlements on the West Bank.
Yet both sides seem to invest the ICC with powers that it has never hitherto shown itself to have. And it could take many years for an investigation to reach conclusion. “Look at Africa,” says a sober Israeli official, in reference to investigations that have stalled in Kenya and Sudan.
Just a few days after the Palestinian application, Israel’s Supreme Court (which prides itself on keeping on the right side of international law) prevented the government from building its separation barrier through Battir, a delightful West Bank village set on a gorge through which the old Ottoman railway line to Jerusalem passes.
The monks of Cremisan, whose monastery is also threatened by the barrier, wonder whether Israel’s judges will similarly spare their property. If not, they could turn out to be among the first applicants to head for the international court.
–The Economist, 10 Jan, 2015