The National – 22 April 2014
There is exactly a week to go until the formal deadline set for the conclusion of the Middle East peace talks arrives. Although both are desperate to see the back of the negotiations, Israel and the Palestinians will face renewed pressure from the United States in these last few days to save Washington’s face by spinning out the process a while longer.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, told visiting Israeli MPs last week that he is ready to extend the talks until the end of the year on one condition: Israel commits to discussing final borders first, a subject Israeli has previously avoided.
Whether or not the US can string out this futile exercise a little longer, the next stage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has already come into sharp relief. Mr Abbas will deepen international recognition of Palestinian statehood, over the vehement objections of both Israel and the US.
It was hardly surprising then that, when Israel broke the terms of the talks late last month by refusing to release Palestinian prisoners, Mr Abbas submitted applications to join 15 international treaties.
The logic behind the Palestinian move is well-known: to gather ever greater legitimacy for statehood in the international arena, slowly turning Israel into a pariah nation for refusing to end the occupation.
This manoeuvre appears to be heading towards their joining the International Criminal Court (ICC) – thereby exposing Israelis to potential war crimes prosecutions.
The 15 conventions place a greater burden on the Palestinians than their occupier Israel, requiring, for example, that they protect the rights of women, children and the disabled and renounce torture, arbitrary arrest and the suppression of free speech. US criticism of the Palestinian move plumbed new depths of cynicism, and provoked harsh rebukes from leading human rights organisations.
Furthermore, none of the treaty bodies considering the Palestinians’ applications will suffer directly as a result. Because they do not receive direct US funding, they cannot be sanctioned by Washington, as happened when Unesco admitted Palestine in 2011.
Israel responded by severing most coordination with the Palestinians, as well as declaring that the monthly $100 million tax revenues it collects on the Palestinians’ behalf would be withheld. But, as one commentator noted, Israel’s withholding of tax revenues was nothing more than pure spin.
Mr Netanyahu made the announcement after March’s revenues to the Palestinians had cleared. The threat won’t become tangible until late next month, when talks may have resumed anyway.
That both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are pulling their punches suggests that their real priorities are not to genuinely threaten each other but to pander to domestic audiences, which expect tough measures.
The truth is that Israel and the Palestinian leadership are so deeply enmeshed in an uncomfortable tango that neither has an easy way to extricate itself without leading to the demise of the body they both desperately cling to: the Palestinian Authority.
The biggest paradox of the two-decade peace process is that Mr Abbas is using a vehicle to realise his goal – statehood – that is incapable of bringing him to his destination.
One need only conduct a small thought experiment to understand the implications of the route the Palestinian president is travelling. The nearer he gets to real statehood, or a prosecution against Israel for war crimes, the more certain it is that Israel and the US will pull the plug on the PA. The PA exists only on licence from Israel, the US and Europe.
But if the PA never becomes more than a security contractor for the occupation, then it will be brought down eventually by the wrath of the Palestinians themselves. That day may be fast approaching. One Palestinian minister admitted last week that the PA’s outlook was gloomy: “We’re a government that cannot govern.”
So if the PA’s strategy is doomed, what other options lie before the Palestinians? Across in Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are jostling to champion another forlorn strategy: liberation through armed struggle. Yesterday, half a dozen rockets were fired into Israel. The reality, however, implicitly acknowledged in their intermittent and muted efforts to fight a distant Israel from inside their prison, is that they cannot win against Israel’s superior military might. In the past armed resistance only galvanised international sympathy for Israel.
With the Palestinian leaderships committed to hopeless strategies, a third way has begun to emerge. Israelis themselves are starting to recognise the danger. The historian Zeev Sternhell warned last week that with Israel’s demand for “unconditional surrender” from the Palestinians, “the road to South Africa has been paved”.
The most disturbing scenario imaginable for Israel is on the horizon: a campaign of popular non-violent resistance by Palestinians. It needs no formal leadership and its simple demand – equal rights – is one Israel and the US will struggle to counter. Israel’s arsenal may be well-stocked but it has no weapons to defeat such a campaign.