When the Palestinians sought statehood at the United Nations in 2011, it was widely dismissed as a symbolic gambit to skirt negotiations with Israel and Washington’s influence over the long-running conflict. But the Palestinians have begun to translate a series of such symbolic steps, culminating in last week’s move to join the International Criminal Court, into a strategy that has begun to create pressure on Israel.
While many prominent Israelis have called for unilateral action to set the country’s borders, it is Palestinians who have gained political momentum with moves made outside of negotiations. The Palestinians are, in effect, establishing a legal state. International recognition, by 135 countries and counting, is what Palestinians are betting could eventually force changes on the ground — without their leaders having to make the concessions or assurances they have long avoided.
“Those states that have recognized the State of Palestine, that’s not an insignificant number, they’ve reached a kind of critical mark,” said Mark Ellis, director of the London-based International Bar Association. “We’ve added an additional complexity to this very long 66-year-old journey. I think it’s intriguing.”
Israel has promised painful retaliation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel promised Sunday that he would “not sit idly by” in the face of what he called Palestinian “confrontation,” and other Israeli officials said harsher measures would follow their freezing the transfer of Palestinian tax revenue, which will prevent thousands from collecting government paychecks this week.
The strategy has also upset Washington, which is expected to cut $400 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority if the International Criminal Court bid is not reversed. Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said Monday that administration officials had told the Palestinian leadership that “we would like to prevent it from moving forward,” while also warning Israel that the frozen tax transfer “raises tensions.”
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority seems undeterred and increasingly indifferent to American diplomacy. He vowed Sunday to resubmit a Security Council resolution that failed last week “again and again” and to “join 100, 200, 300” international organizations, despite the risk that Israeli and American sanctions could lead to his government’s collapse.
“We will not get exhausted or tired,” he said. “The whole world is supporting us.”
There is also a sense that Mr. Abbas could benefit if the Palestinians’ unilateral approach bolsters Mr. Netanyahu and other conservatives in the upcoming Israeli elections. Some analysts say his center-left opponents, more clearly committed to the two-state solution, would be more palatable to Europe and force the Palestinians back to negotiations.
With Mr. Netanyahu in power, Israel has increasingly been reactive to Palestinian actions — with punitive measures — and forced to play defense in the court and other forums. Talk of the two sides agreeing on anything has all but disappeared.
“It’s quite clear to me that we are ushered into a new era of political and legal conflict, and beyond a certain point it could be very hard to contain it,” said Michael Herzog, a former Israeli general and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They take certain measures, and Israel responds — this could certainly escalate politically, legally, economically and maybe, ultimately, security-wise. It’s a dangerous game.”
President Abbas, having joined the International Criminal Court after months of rebuffing internal pressure to do so, now faces calls from a frustrated public to go further, by halting security coordination with Israel or dissolving the Palestinian Authority. While both steps would be problematic for the Palestinians as well as the Israelis, Palestinian leaders see it as a way to further squeeze Israel. Without the authority, Israel would have to provide services and maintain order across the West Bank without Palestinian security forces, which would likely be both costly and chaotic, and could intensify international frustration with Israel’s occupation.
“I’m a little surprised with the negative American reaction because Palestinians either pursue peaceful legal approaches or pursue violent illegal approaches,” said Ghassan Khatib, vice president of Birzeit University in the West Bank. “But if all the doors are closed, and if the Israelis and the Americans will stop funding, then the P.A. will collapse, and that will play to the hands of the extreme elements in Palestinian society, including Hamas.”
In some ways, the dual Palestinian tracks seem contradictory — how could they continue to make the case for statehood if they collapse the provisional authority the Oslo Accords created two decades ago for state-building? But it is the Palestine Liberation Organization, not the Palestinian Authority, that represents Palestinians on the world stage.
Mr. Ellis, the international-law expert, said that Palestine met the criteria for statehood — permanent population, defined territory, government, and recognition by other states — and that those would not be nullified if the authority disappeared and chaos ensued on the ground. Mustafa Barghouti, one of many Palestinian leaders pressing Mr. Abbas to collapse the authority, envisions “a government in exile” for a “state under occupation.”
“This would mean liberating the Palestinian movement from all these restrictions and obligations by Israel — it’s like declaring civil disobedience,” Mr. Barghouti said. “In a way, it’s the end of the Oslo era. For me, it was the end many years ago. For Abbas, it was the end only this week.”
But the path forward may be slow and bumpy. International Criminal Court investigations take years, and the court’s involvement also opens Palestinians to war-crimes charges for, among other things, firing rockets at Israeli civilians. Shurat HaDin, an Israeli legal group, filed complaints with the Hague-based court on Monday against three Palestinian officials, including the prime minister and security chief, after earlier doing so against Mr. Abbas and Khaled Meshal of Hamas.
Israel, which has already undertaken 13 criminal investigations of its military’s behavior during this summer’s war with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, could also deter the International Criminal Court by proving its own justice system deals seriously with suspected offenders.
Yaakov Amidror, an Israeli former national security adviser, played down the significance of the recent Palestinian steps and said of the potential dissolution of the authority, “we have been there and it’s not so bad,” referring to the pre-Oslo days when Israel directly governed the territories it had captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.
“If he wants a solution, if he wants something, I really don’t understand it,” he said of Mr. Abbas. “If he doesn’t want anything, then I understand what he was doing.”
After polls that showed his popularity plunging over the last year, Mr. Abbas appears to have won some points with the public by joining the International Criminal Court, and even by speaking openly of the authority’s demise.
“I hear it from my father for the first time: Even if we will not get our salaries and the economic situation will be worse, at least we can say we will get our rights,” Rula Salameh said of her father, who is 70 and relies on a Palestinian Authority pension.
Ms. Salameh said her sister, who is on the government payroll, “hears it also from her friends, her colleagues — they said even if we will not get our salaries, we need to feel like something is going on, tomorrow will be better than today.”