The cries of victory heard at the Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign Ministry last night after the UN Security Council rejected the Palestinian resolution to end the occupation were premature. Just a few hours later, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signed the Rome Statute and sought to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague, it was understood that Israel’s troubles have only just begun.
Frustration following the defeat at the United Nations, combined with internal political pressures, forced Abbas to make the move he has avoided for the last six years. All along, the United States and Israel have made it clear to the Palestinians that the court in The Hague is a red line. But despite the warnings from Washington and the threats from Jerusalem, Abbas utilized his “nuclear option,” otherwise known as the International Criminal Court.
Many officials in Israel’s political-defense establishment are concerned about the Palestinians joining the ICC. They’re quickly writing horror movie scripts about legal wars against Israel that won’t be taking place in courts lacking authority, but rather in the most respected judicial system in the world. Israel could see indictments against IDF commanders, or arrest warrants for CEOs of companies that build in the territories, or even complaints filed against Israeli politicians.
Horrifying scenarios aside, the reality is more complex, and there’s no need for panic. Like with every “nuclear option,” it is complicated, and it takes time to prepare. The justice mill that is The Hague churns out its rulings very slowly, and issuing indictments is a long process. In addition, the ICC prosecutor understands full well the significance of the Palestinian effort, and will not be quick to become a tool in the political-diplomatic struggle between the two sides.
Also like every “nuclear option,” using it is dangerous for the attacker as well as the attacked. By joining the ICC, the Palestinians will also expose themselves to counter-complaints over rocket fire from Gaza and suicide bombings on Tel Aviv buses. As in the Cold War, the principle of MAD – mutually assured destruction – could create a balance of deterrence. Each side would bombard the other with complaints until they can no longer breathe.
Most important is how Israel will react. The upcoming election does not bode well for the ability or desire of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon or Economy Minister Naftali Bennett to deal with the Palestinian move as they see fit. Based on the initial reactions from politicians to Abbas’ move, participants in the ministerial meeting Netanyahu convenes today will be competing fiercely over who can propose the harshest punishment.
The Palestinian bid for statehood in the United Nations in November 2012 also took place during election season. Netanyahu formed his response with the leaders of his election campaign, almost without consulting any professionals whatsoever. The result was an incredibly disproportional wave of settlement construction, a declaration to build in the ultra-sensitive E1 area, and an international rift that almost ended with Britain and France recalling their ambassadors.
It is unclear if Netanyahu learned the appropriate lessons. Based on his position in the polls, the expected radicalization of the Likud Knesset slate, and his lust for right-wing votes, Netanyahu is liable to respond in a way that would diminish the Palestinians’ joining of the ICC, and turn Israel into the focus of international pressure yet again, making the prospect of EU sanctions that much more possible.
Even if Abbas didn’t begin the process of joining the ICC, the “diplomatic victory” declared by Netanyahu and Lieberman would have been tactical and short lived. It did not solve the problem, it only postponed it. Netanyahu managed to do what he does best – buy more time. But not much more. Within weeks or months the UN Security Council will be back, and this time with members more favorable to the Palestinians, and the issue will be raised again.
Events of the last 48 hours are the best evidence of Israel’s difficult standing in the international community. They are testament to serious problems caused by six years of inaction and lack of creative diplomatic initiative. In the end, the day will come when blocking maneuvers and evasive measures simply won’t be enough.
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