By Grant Rumley
22 November 2017
This week, the Trump administration threatened to close the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) if the Palestinians did not immediately halt their campaign at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and agree to engage in the soon-to-be announced peace process. In response, the PLO announced today that it would halt all contacts with American officials. Though the Palestinians joined the ICC over two years ago—and have yet to successfully bring a case against an Israeli—it was Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s comments at the UN General Assembly in September in which he called on the ICC to “open an investigation” and prosecute Israeli officials, that reportedly were a bridge too far for the Trump administration.
The crisis comes at a delicate time. The White House is hoping to re-launch peace talks soon with a to-be-announced program, one that it hopes will capitalize on Israel’s growing relations with the broader Arab world. An important component of this regional architecture—for the Arab world—is progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether this latest crisis is simply bureaucratic or an attempt to pressure the Palestinians into accepting the White House’s plans, Abbas’s response is still the same. He will resist external pressure, dig in his heels, and double down on his international campaign.
American officials have always seen this international campaign, of which the ICC is a major part, as a nuisance. “The Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded,” remarked Susan Rice, then-U.S. ambassador to the UN, after the Palestinians upgraded their diplomatic standing at the General Assembly in 2012. Even some Palestinian officials have seen their campaign as lacking in strategic heft: Former prime minister Salam Fayyad famously broke his hand pounding on the table in disagreement with the plan.
Yet Trump’s demand that the Palestinians halt the campaign or face closure of their office in D.C.—without a concrete plan for peace negotiations on the horizon or extracting any concessions from Israel—is new. In the past, both Israelis and Palestinians have demanded preconditions before new rounds of peace talks—a halt in settlement construction, or a release of prisoners, for example. With this week’s news, it seems that the Trump team is essentially banking on Abbas caring more about peace negotiations and the PLO’s office in Washington, established at the start of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s than his international campaign against Israel.
The calculation might be outdated. In the early days of international campaign, commonly referred to in Ramallah as “Palestine 194,” the goal was to gain leverage in peace negotiations through international recognition. Abbas himself first threatened to go to the UN Security Council to win recognition in 2011 after months of talks with Israel collapsed over countering demands over preconditions for negotiations. Only the threat of a U.S. veto at the UN deterred Abbas in 2011, but a year later he returned—this time to the General Assembly—and upgraded the Palestinians’ status there to that of “non-member observer state” by a margin of 138-9 (with 41 abstentions).
Still, it was clear after the UN vote that the United States would not tolerate the Palestinians reaching out to the international community while also engaging in peace talks with Israel. At the start of the peace negotiations in 2013, then-secretary of state John Kerry insisted the Palestinians halt the campaign in order to participate. In exchange, Israel would release approximately 100 Palestinian prisoners in four batches throughout the negotiations. When Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed the fourth release, Abbas abruptly re-launched Palestine 194, joining 15 international organizations and effectively ending the negotiations.
A few months later, Abbas signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, his rivals in Gaza, and by the summer of 2014 a war had broken out between Israel and Hamas. At the time, Palestinian officials had insisted that the 15 organizations they joined were part of a package of international organizations (numbering around 60, in total) that would end with them acceding to the ICC. The war in Gaza accelerated their plans: Palestinians demanded their leaders go to the ICC after the 50-day war. At the end of 2014, Abbas attempted another push for recognition at the Security Council, this time forcing a vote but failing to muster enough to pass. A few days later, Abbas signed the Statute of Rome, and in early 2015 the Palestinians were admitted to the ICC.
At varying times, Congress has tried to halt this campaign. By the end of 2011, it had added conditions on U.S. aid to the Palestinians that would cut it off if the Palestinians began joining international organizations. However, within months the Obama administration had signed a waiver and resumed funding of the Palestinian Authority. After the Palestinians joined the ICC, Congress again tried to stymie the international campaign by including a provision in the 2015 Foreign Operations Act that called for the PLO office to be shut if the Palestinians brought action against the Israelis at the court. Abbas’s speech at the General Assembly this past September, in which he called on the ICC to begin investigating Israelis, appears to have triggered this provision.
Over the years, this campaign has morphed from a negotiating tactic into a self-sustaining strategy, however flawed. The Palestinian Authority changed much of its government labeling to “State of Palestine” after the 2012 General Assembly vote. Palestinian officials regularly call on the ICC and other bodies to intervene in the conflict. Abbas himself has urged other countries to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state. And at home, this international march is one of the few policy options that regularly garner overwhelming support among Palestinians. Polls regularly show a majority wants Abbas to resign, yet a similar majority support going to the UN and ICC. For an unpopular leader, pursuing a popular agenda is a no-brainer.
Which makes the timing of this recent announcement perplexing. The Trump team is still formulating its peace plan—some reports suggest the White House won’t unveil the details until March 2018—so Abbas is seemingly being asked to halt a popular campaign for nothing in return. It may also be that Abbas is feeling the squeeze from all sides—he was recently summoned to Riyadh for a meeting with the Saudis, who have been playing regional kingmaker of late—and that last week’s announcement was part of a concerted effort to corner Abbas. If so, he is unlikely to play ball. He’ll double down on his international crusade, meaning Washington may have just emboldened the Palestine 194 campaign.