The ICC Factor in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Marianna Karakoulaki

Remaining true to his statements, the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied and gained membership at the International Criminal Court (ICC) making Palestine the 123rd signatory of the Rome Treaty. The ICC bid came after a predefined bid for statehood at the UN Security Council in early December which was vetoed by the US. This move is seen as a more direct attempt to re-ignite the Palestinian issue which reached stalemate since the US-led peace talks collapsed in 2014. In return to the ICC bid, Israel withheld the transfer of Palestinian tax money to the Palestinian Authority as a punitive measure.

Although Palestine will formally join the ICC in April 2015, there are two flaming issues that the Palestinian Authority is said to push. The first is the issue of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The current Israeli government has been following an expansionist policy in the Palestinian Territories in pursuit of the full control of the areas as well as the full isolation of Gaza. Additionally, the Israeli Prime Minister has used the Israeli settlements as a blackmailing tool every time the Palestinian Authority is actively pushing for the recognition of the Palestinian State. In September Israel announced one of the largest expansions in recent years which was strongly criticised by both the US and the UK.

A Palestinian official who spoke to the Times of Israel said that the illegal Israeli settlements will be the first issue to be brought to the ICC as the confiscation of Palestinian land is a clear violation of international law. Although over the years the UN has criticised Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians, the USA’s veto power at the Security Council is blocking any efforts for progress. Should the Palestinian Authority bring the case of settlements to the ICC it will have yet another diplomatic tool on its side in order to pursue statehood. Even though Israel has not ratified the Rome Treaty, such a move will bring pressure as it will bring the issue of the settlements to the forefront of any future peace negotiations.

The second issue that the Palestinian Authority will seek to bring to the ICC’s attention is the most recent conflict in Gaza which cost the lives of more than 2,000 Palestinians. Fatou Bensouda the prosecutor of ICC opened a preliminary examination over the situation in Palestine over crimes committed “in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, since June 13, 2014.” Although the preliminary examination does not guarantee that the Court will proceed to an investigation of war crimes, it means however, the at least the recent Gaza war will be considered. The ICC though will not seek to investigate the State of Israel but the crimes committed by individuals which is still an important step towards justice.

Elections in Israel

Even though a surprising move, the timing of the Palestinian bid might not be coincidental as Israel is on an elections mode. On 17 March Israel is going to hold early elections for the 20th Knesset and the polls do not look too positive for Likud, Binyamin Netanyahu’s party. The coalition formed by the Isaac Herzog’s Labour Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, is slightly ahead of the Likud, and though difficult it might be able to break the Likud’s dominance.  Should the Livni-Herzog’s centre-left coalition manages to break Likud’s dominance, the balances concerning the Palestinian issue will change.

Netanyahu has held a rather stubborn policy towards the Palestinians – one that retains Israel’s dominance over the West Bank. Any peace process attempts made thus far have failed mainly because the Israeli administration is not willing to back down and is persistently pursuing aggressive policies such as declaring Israel as a Jewish State. On the other hand, although the newly formed centre left coalition is obviously not going to give up on everything Israel has gained throughout years of occupation, they support negotiations with the Palestinian Authority nonetheless and as Livni said, she is willing to freeze settlements at least in major blocs.

Taking into consideration domestic imbalances due to the upcoming elections, Abbas’ bid to the ICC has put even more pressure the current government and could possibly lead to a rapprochement of policies. Depending on the way the rival frontrunners will take advantage of the ICC factor, Abbas’ move could prove a formidable decision as it could lead to the polarisation of the voters. This will happen especially if the Palestinian Authority does not take a clear stance against the violence by individuals against Israeli citizens.

A Bold Move but a Right Decision

If someone looks at the way the Palestinian issue is developing, the ICC was the only way to move forward and seek justice and accountability for crimes committed in recent years. The Palestinian Authority, finally realising that the UN route is a dead end, and seeing that it is gaining more and more international support, surprised the actors of the conflict with a rather bold move. Even without being a signatory of the Rome Treaty, Israel might possibly find itself in the same position some of the world’s most wanted criminals. Whilst Israel is not new to scrutiny, international pressure might make its government – current or future – rethink its policies and re-evaluate its approach towards the Palestinian issue.

Regardless the way Palestinians will utilise their new membership, it will definitely be at their advantage as it will not only put pressure to Israel but to all those involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ICC might not have the diplomatic ability or power it should, yet the way it will treat the Palestinian issue will most probably determine the future of the peace process as all sides will have to re-evaluate their approaches.

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