by Mitchell Plitnick
On December 31, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas closed out a year of stinging defeats by signing on to 18 international accords. Included among these was the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). The reaction in Jerusalem and Washington was apoplectic.
The United States rebuked Abbas, and Israel immediately vowed harsh reprisals. Shortly thereafter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that although Israel would not increase settlement growth—a routine method of punishing the Palestinians—it would withhold the tax and tariff revenues it collects for the Palestinians. The Obama administration also announced that it was reviewing the annual U.S. aid package to the Palestinian Authority.
These actions were to be expected. But some other developments were much more unusual. For instance, Netanyahu also started urging his friends in Congress to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in response to its signing on to the Rome Statute and threatening to bring Israelis to trial for war crimes. In the past, Netanyahu and his supporters have persuaded Congress to refrain from such action, for fear that such a drastic loss of funding would cause the PA’s collapse and force Israel to take on the full burden and expense of its occupation.
Something has clearly changed.
Palestine’s International Gambit
The State of Palestine may not exist in reality, but many countries around the world have recognized it. More importantly, the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine non-member observer state status in 2012. That means it has certain rights, and Israel is trying to stop the Palestinians from exercising those rights.
The plea to the Palestinians, for decades, was that they should abandon armed struggle and use non-violent methods to achieve their national goals. Yet when they tried negotiations, they got 20 years of expanding settlements—which seems to have buried the notion of a two-state solution—and an occupation that is more entrenched than ever. The PA conceded 78% of the land that was once Palestine and policed the West Bank on behalf of Israel, a level of security cooperation that military and police officials from both Israel and the United States have praised. Yet Israel insists it must keep most of Area C, a subdivision of the West Bank, for security purposes.
And now, when Palestine has appealed to international legal institutions, Israel in response has stolen—there really is no other word for it—the Palestinians’ tax and tariff revenue, and the United States has threatened to suspend $440 million in annual aid.
All of this raises a central question: just what methods should the Palestinians employ to achieve their independence and put an end to the decades-long refugee status that has denied them the basic human, civil, and national rights that so many people around the world take for granted? Israel seems to expect the Palestinians to do nothing but watch settlements spread and the occupation become more entrenched and violent. Meanwhile, Israel moves closer to supporting the various plans proposed by right-wing political leaders for an institutionalized apartheid that would entail the annexation of much of the West Bank and the cantonization of Palestinian towns and villages in what little is left..
This recipe for increased Palestinian extremism, militancy, and violence—in short, a formula for endless conflict—is the take-it-or-leave-it offer that the United States and Israel are sending to the Palestinians. The United States and Israel apparently expect the Palestinians to passively accept the status quo in the hope that the world’s only superpower and the Mideast’s regional superpower will some day decide to grant them their freedom. However unrealistic this course of action might be, the recent shifts in Israeli strategy on this front indicate that both countries are more resolutely moving in this direction .
Abbas Out, Dahlan In?
Israel’s lack of interest in the fate of Mahmoud Abbas is of relatively recent vintage. The shift appears to have begun in October when Israel was dealing with daily clashes in Jerusalem. Not only the Palestinians but also Jordan and even the United States began raising serious questions about Israel’s intentions in the flashpoint city. At that time, Netanyahu’s rhetoric toward Abbas became considerably more virulent. He stopped just short of calling Abbas a terrorist when he accused him of “inciting terror” and implied a guilt by association after Abbas agreed to establish a unity government with Hamas.
That rhetoric grew even angrier as the PA moved to propose, through Jordan, a Security Council resolution that would set a deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. When that resolution inevitably failed, the PA vowed to pursue membership in the ICC. It is likely that the crisis over Jerusalem in the fall convinced Netanyahu to work to bring Abbas down, as some of Israel’s leading right-wing figures, notably Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, have been suggesting for some time.
In this context, reports that a senior Likud figure met with Abbas rival Mohammed Dahlan some time in November become more interesting. Dahlan has been getting a lot more attention among the Palestinian public lately. He has been working on building ties with Hamas and has almost certainly been in contact with Israel for quite some time. In particular, the possibility that he might be exploring a stronger working relationship with Hamas might, coupled with Israel’s change of heart regarding Abbas, have convinced Israel that now was the time to intensify contacts with Dahlan in anticipation of a post-Abbas future.
Congress Weighs In
The Israeli response to the Palestinians’ signing of the Rome Statute was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading Republican and the incoming chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was in Israel in the waning days of 2014, just as Abbas’ efforts at the Security Council were in full swing. Graham’s vow that Congress would follow Israel’s lead on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program certainly applied with equal force to these Palestinian actions, as they are issues on which there is much less difference of opinion between the White House on one hand and Congress and Israel on the other.
So, it comes as no surprise that, almost as soon as Congress was back in session, Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, introduced a bill that would change the current criteria for cutting aid to the PA. As it stands, U.S. law permits the Palestinians to join the ICC and only requires cutting off aid if they initiate or support an ICC investigation of Israel. Paul’s bill would deny the Palestinians aid just for signing the Rome Statute.
Paul is not one of Israel’s darlings in Congress. In fact, he opposes foreign aid on principle. But since he knows where Republican presidential campaign bread is buttered, he makes an exception for Israel these days. Nonetheless, whether it’s Paul’s bill or some other one that another member of Congress draws up, aid to the PA is likely under serious threat unless Israel once again changes its mind about this strategy.
If, however, Israel and Congress continue on their present course, the Palestinian Authority will not be able to survive much longer. The rest of the world may not be prepared for a post-Abbas future. But there might not be much time left to get ready.