The crisis in the peace talks was pre-planned by the Palestinians
By Jonathan D. Halevi
The Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process encountered a crisis and a dead-end with the unilateral announcement on April 1, 2014, by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), chairman of the Palestinian Authority, of Palestine's application to join fifteen international institutions and conventions, most notably the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The Palestinians' Dramatic Turnabout
Abbas, who refers to himself as "president of the state of Palestine" and also holds the titles of head of the PLO and leader of Fatah, explained the decision in terms of Israel's reneging (so he claims) on its promise to free the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners, which was supposed to include 26 prisoners, on March 29, 2014. As Abbas put it:
Regarding the applications to join the fifteen conventions (including the Fourth Geneva Convention), Abbas said he did not "think we need approval for this, we can join these immediately."
The Israeli Reaction
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Palestinian Authority of fundamentally violating the understandings that were reached in the negotiations under U.S. mediation, and warned the Palestinians against unilateral moves that would constitute a double-edged sword for them. At a meeting of the Israeli cabinet on April 6, 2014, Netanyahu said:
Feverish efforts by the U.S. administration to return the Palestinians to the negotiating table and refrain from unilateral steps have so far failed. The Palestinians' next target date is April 29, 2014, when the nine-month negotiating period, as decided at its inception, comes to an end.
A Preplanned Palestinian Strategy
In March 2014, Saeb Erekat, a member of the PLO executive committee and head of the Palestinian negotiating team, prepared a 65-page document that surveys the developments in the diplomatic process and offers a list of recommendations for the PA, some of which Abbas has recently implemented.
Erekat outlined the dangers entailed by Israel's policy:
In Erekat's view, Israel's political moves and concrete measures are intended to create a reality that prevents the Palestinians from establishing a state and leaves the occupation in place. As Erekat wrote:
In the section on recommendations, Erekat set forth the steps the PA must take to achieve the goal of applying Palestinian sovereignty to the territories demarcated by the 1967 lines:
In addition, Erekat recommended the following steps:
Erekat asserted that
At a conference in Ramallah that discussed the "resistance strategy" on April 5, 2014, Erekat said the PA's decision to join the fifteen international agreements and conventions was final and inalterable, but the PA would delay applying for membership to 48 additional international organizations, conventions, and agreements if Israel retracted its decision not to release the fourth batch of prisoners. Erekat stressed that if Israel did not release the prisoners, the PA would see itself as having no further obligations in this regard.
In his speech to the Ramallah conference, Erekat called on Hamas to return to the path of national rapprochement in line with the agreements signed in the past, and said, "I declare to all the world, and in the name of President Abu Mazen and in the name of the executive committee [of the PLO], that the Hamas movement is a Palestinian movement, and that it was not and will not be a terrorist organization."
Where Is the Palestinian Authority Heading?
The PA's latest moves reflect the long-term strategy Abbas has been implementing during his tenure as president, which involves using diplomatic means to obtain international recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state along the 1967 lines without the Palestinians having to make concessions on the fundamental issues of the conflict, particularly the refugee issue and what is called the "right of return."
On April 2, 2014, the PLO's Negotiations Department, under Saeb Erekat, published a document explaining its most recent moves, including its signing of 15 international conventions. Erekat personally sent out the document on April 5. His memo argued the logic behind Abbas' action:
The memo further explains that the treaties that were signed "are vital to continued Palestinian institution-building, good governance, and the upholding of human rights, all of which form the basis for an independent and sovereign state of Palestine."
The legal logic of such a move might be found in Professor James R. Crawford's The Creation of States in International Law. Crawford, who took part in the discussions at the International Court of Justice in The Hague over the legality of Israel's security fence, describes how a state might emerge through an "accretion of powers in a local unit over a period of time" and not just through a declaration of independence. He cites Judge Sir Gerald Fitzmaurice, who wrote that the "concluding of a treaty may be part of a process (or even constitute the act) whereby the State not fully sui juris (possessing by itself legal standing) is becoming so." In other words, the signing of the 15 international conventions, according to this logic, is part of a gradual Palestinian move to statehood which, unlike a unilateral declaration of statehood, does not occur with one move.
Abbas has previously made political moves in defiance of the United States and Israel without fearing the pressures and threats directed at him, as in his November 2012 appeal to the UN General Assembly for an upgrade of the PLO's status to UN nonmember observer state. Now, too, he feels confident in his ability to take unilateral steps without incurring serious damage.
The Palestinian strategy is based on the assessment that Israel's options are very limited. Israel, the Palestinians believe, may indeed exert heavy economic and diplomatic pressure on the PA, but not to the point of threatening the PA's survival or risking a Third Intifada. The Palestinians know that the overriding Israeli interest of maintaining security stability in the West Bank has, on more than one occasion, led it to retract a decision to withhold tax revenues from the PA; Israel wants to avoid tensions, violence, and terror that sometimes have also afflicted the PA itself.
The Israeli perception of the "lack of a moderate alternative" to Abbas' rule also boosts the PA's confidence, leading it to turn to the diplomatic-legal arena where it can count on the automatic majority of the Arab, Muslim, and nondemocratic countries. The Palestinians believe they can use this arena to overcome Israel's power and gradually subject it to diplomatic and economic pressures to begin a process of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank in a way similar to Israel's unconditional withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.
Although Abbas repeats the mantra of a "peaceful struggle" in tandem with the diplomatic campaign, in practice terror continues, including attempts to murder both Israeli civilians and security forces. Furthermore, the PA signals unequivocal support for terror by demanding the immediate release of all the Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for their role in terror attacks and the murder of Israeli civilians, including suicide bombings. These terrorists are treated as heroes by the PA, which also provides them a very generous basket of economic and social benefits; their average salary while in prison is even higher than that of members of the security forces.
The PA revealed its true face when it officially requested the Islamic terrorist organizations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to participate in a meeting of the Palestinian National Council, which is supposed to elect a new Palestinian leadership to serve as a temporary government of the Palestinian state. The PA does not view Hamas and Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations but, rather, as legitimate political groups that can be part of the Palestinian government.
The PA is preparing the ground in stages for de facto international recognition of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines that is under "Israeli occupation," and all that will remain is the official declaration of the state's establishment.
The demand for full Palestinian sovereignty along the 1967 lines also entails Palestinian control over the border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, with likely major implications for the stability of the Hashemite Kingdom, which has a Palestinian demographic majority. Paradoxically, Israel's accommodation under the presence circumstances of the Palestinian demand for sovereignty over the border with Jordan would likely prompt U.S., European, and, of course, Jordanian pressures on Israel to avoid such a transfer of authority and maintain its military presence in the West Bank.
Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd.