Argument

Forget the Knesset. I’ll See You at The Hague.

Israeli elections are just days away. But Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are less interested in who wins than how they’ll take Israel to court.

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas holds no illusions regarding next week’s general election in Israel. He knows that in an election cycle preoccupied with the economy, a nuclear Iran, and a region in chaos, his cause — Palestinian statehood — is nowhere near the Israeli electorate’s radar. Even the candidates who would seem a likely partner in the peace process, such as Labor’s Isaac Herzog, skirt around the issue with evasions like “let’s see what happens.”

But no matter who controls the Knesset after March 17, Abbas will still be in charge in Ramallah. And so he has taken every opportunity possible to increase his bargaining power — specifically by taking his cause into the international arena. On April 1, the Palestinians will become full members of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In Abbas’s eyes, there’s nothing that will change that. His pre-Israeli election maneuvers, then, are attempts to maximize this campaign regardless of who is the next prime minister.

When Abbas ramps up talk of filing war-crimes charges against Israeli officials at the ICC, threatens to cut security ties with Israeli forces in the West Bank, or pushes for more international recognition, he’s stacking some cards in his favor in case Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins the Israeli premiership again. And when he praises Arab-Israeli parties for forming a united list for the first time — or, as some reports suggest, urges them to sign an agreement with an Israeli leftist party — he’s doubling down on the left beating Netanyahu.

Yet it’s clear that Abbas is looking far beyond Jerusalem. Some in the Palestinian leadership, like senior Fatah official Mohammad Shtayyeh, have already started calling for greater international engagement. Shtayyeh, who recently linked the ICC campaign to the death of the peace process, says, “April 1 is a landmark day for us, and we’re doing it to hold Israel responsible for two crimes: Gaza and the settlements.” When asked about the possible impact of the Israeli elections on this campaign, Shtayyeh responded: “We will wait and watch future developments.”

The latest polls put Herzog’s left-leaning coalition in the lead, but the election could still go either way. In the event that Netanyahu wins, the status quo in regards to the peace process is likely to persist. Netanyahu is unlikely to jump back into negotiations with the Palestinians after the last round of talks disintegrated in April 2014. If Abbas sees a Netanyahu-led government in Jerusalem as an intransigent partner, he will likely revive plans to go back to the U.N. Security Council and continue to pressure countries to recognize an independent Palestinian state. In the past, the United States sent mixed signals regarding this campaign. Another Netanyahu government might even elicit American acquiescence.

Yet if Netanyahu is unseated by the centrist Zionist Union alliance headed by Herzog and Tzipi Livni, things wouldn’t change much either. Palestinian opinion is mixed on the prospect of working with a Herzog-Livni government. Herzog has made a number of visits to Abbas in Ramallah during his time in the Knesset, and any center-left coalition that defeats Netanyahu could have momentum to spare for a new round of talks. But that doesn’t mean Herzog and Abbas will be sitting at the table anytime soon. Relaunching negotiations — especially after kidnappings and war followed the last round — isn’t likely to top any list of priorities for the next prime minister.

In some ways, Abbas’s actions over the past year have weakened not only his standing, but may have played a part in weakening the Israeli left. The unity agreement he signed with Hamas last April hurt him in the eyes of Israeli politicians. Abbas’s moves at the United Nations — including an accusation of Israeli “genocide” in Gaza during the General Assembly meeting in September — and the Palestinian Authority’s impending accession to the ICC have also led many on the Israeli right to portray him as an unsuitable partner for peace, no matter who is in charge. In past elections, the Israeli left has pointed to its position on the peace process to provide contrast with and swipe at the right. But this time around, Abbas’s aggressive posturing has taken the wind out of those talking points for Labor.

The Palestinian Authority officially claims that it is uninvolved in Israel’s election, but officials from Ramallah have responded with delight to the announcement this week that the Arab parties will run on a joint list — and thus likely strengthen their voting bloc inside the Knesset. At the annual meeting of the Palestinian Central Council, a PLO body, Abbas declared: “We will be very delighted if our Palestinians inside Israel unite.… We say to Palestinians running [in] the Israeli elections: God be with you. And this is not interference in Israeli affairs.” Despite the rhetoric, recent reports suggest Ramallah is attempting to push the Arab-Israeli parties closer to the Israeli left. Although the Arab-Israeli parties say they would not join a government with Herzog, it’s clear that Herzog is hoping for some of their votes. He even courted them in a recent interview, suggesting he may appoint an Arab Israeli to a ministerial position.

Palestinian officials likely see two scenarios, both of which are favorable to the Palestinian Authority: Either Arab-Israeli parties stay out of the government regardless of who wins, thus ensuring them a prominent role in the opposition, or the Arab-Israeli parties join the Herzog-led government, possibly paving the way for the first Arab Israeli in a ministerial position. For the Palestinian Authority, the potential to have an Arab-Israeli party in the coalition, and potentially even in the cabinet, could vastly improve Palestinian bargaining power in peace negotiations. “We can see these parties getting 13 to 15 seats, and that’s a major change,” says Shtayyeh. “That could be a major advantage for us.”

That’s not the only thing that’s different this election cycle. The Palestinians have rarely engaged in so much posturing before. In 1999, Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat, explored the idea of unilaterally declaring statehood in the international community only to halt his campaign when it became clear that his actions could jeopardize a victory for Labor’s Ehud Barak. In 2008, Abbas seemed to bet the house on a Livni victory — according to reports at the time, he delayed signing Ehud Olmert’s peace offer in 2008 because Livni was urging him to wait for her to succeed Olmert. Abbas complied, only to watch her fail to form a coalition and instead give way to a Netanyahu-led government. This time around, says Husam Zomlot, a senior official in Fatah’s foreign relations unit, the Palestinians are tired of waiting: “We have always waited on Israeli elections — this time we will not wait.”

Abbas seems to have taken this sentiment to heart. He appears determined to change the framework of the conflict and shift it into an international lawfare phase. “If the right wins, the international community helps halt settlements and other Israeli actions,” says Zomlot. “If the left wins, the international community helps show Israel we can negotiate a better deal.” The Palestinians want more leverage over Israel, more international involvement, and more options at the ICC. They won’t wait on Israeli voters any longer.

Photo credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the co-author of the book The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas (Prometheus, July 2017).

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