Commentary Magazine


UN Bodies Double-Edged Sword for Palestinians

Speaking on Thursday night, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would rather “become a martyr” than withdraw the applications that the Palestinians have submitted to 15 international treaties and conventions, as Israel has insisted he must do. Not one to pass up the opportunity for melodrama, Abbas’s pronouncement will hardly cause any shockwaves, but if he continues with this reckless policy of joining international bodies then Abbas may well find himself hoisted by his own petard. While legal experts are divided about the practical ramifications of these latest moves, there are certain international organizations that, were the PA to join them, would likely render Abbas open prosecution himself.

The events surrounding this latest Palestinian action–that likely symbolize the final blow to the latest round of talks–have already been pored over in detail, and no doubt will continue to be contested and fought over a great deal more. The simple chronology is that on Tuesday, shortly before Abbas was to meet with Secretary Kerry and while Israel was awaiting a response from Abbas to its ludicrously generous offer to release more than 400 Palestinian prisoners and partially freeze settlements in return for extending peace talks, Abbas had the PA submit requests to join 15 international conventions and treaties. This, it should be recalled, is despite the fact that the PA is obligated to refrain from such actions while talks continue through to the end of April, although strictly speaking the Oslo accords prohibit such actions in any event.

It is unclear whether the Palestinians ever directly responded to the initial Israeli offer, but instead they issued a counter-set of demands for agreeing to continue with negotiations. That list of demands essentially amounts to an itinerary of all the things that one would presume would be covered during the talks themselves. In other words, Abbas is demanding that Israel flatly agree to meet all his requirements on borders, Jerusalem, security, etc., prior to talks being resumed, at which point there would of course be nothing left to discuss. It hardly passes for what most would understand by the term “negotiation.” And if Israel doesn’t submit to all of this then apparently the Palestinians will plow ahead with their strategy of joining UN bodies.

There is, however, significant disagreement about just how damaging these moves could really be for Israel. So far it appears that in this latest round of applications the Palestinians have restricted their requests to joining treaties and conventions rather than actual UN organizations. Among the 15 they requested to join on Tuesday are the Fourth Geneva Conventions, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, the Hague Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It has been suggested that the move toward joining the Hague Convention may be part of preparation to try and prosecute Israel over construction in Jewish communities over the 1949 armistice lines, which would include any building throughout most of Jerusalem. Other observers, such as professor Robbie Sabel of the Hebrew University, have claimed that since Israel is already bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention, it will not make any difference whether the Palestinian Authority were also to become a member.   

Predictably, Amnesty International has welcomed these moves and condemned Israel for the threats that Cabinet ministers have made about sanctioning the Palestinian Authority for its breach of its obligations. Indeed, Amnesty International is even urging the Palestinians to go further, encouraging the PA to also submit requests to join both the International Criminal Court and the Rome Statute. Yet there is good reason why the Palestinians have not already attempted this. While the statement by Amnesty International was naturally gleeful about the prospect of opening the way to bringing charges against Israel for its presence and activities in the West Bank, the statement further noted that such a move would also allow for holding the Palestinian Authority to account for its “alleged” violations. Of course, one can’t help but come away from Amnesty’s statement with the impression that Israel’s “abuses” are presumed genuine; the Palestinian Authority’s are merely “alleged,” with the statement referring to how this move would “spur the Palestinian Authority into bolstering its commitment to upholding the rights of all people.” Well, that’s certainly one commitment that if ever made, could surely do with some bolstering.

The PA’s human-rights violations against other Palestinians may not be well publicized but they are no secret either. Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has even spoken of pursuing the PA at the ICC for its sponsorship of terrorism. That is certainly a reminder that in the event that the Palestinians were ever to join these more significant bodies, we need not assume that attempts at prosecution would be all in one direction. And it is for that very reason that Abbas will no doubt be far more cautious about applying to join the international organizations that actually carry the most significant clout. In the meantime the diplomatic war of words, threats, and counter-threats goes on. We are pretty much back to where we were before Kerry’s embarrassingly ill-conceived process began: negotiating about negotiating. 

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