Risks of Retaliation

Israel is in an impossible position. On the one hand, it can’t sit by idly as PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas openly violates a core clause in the Oslo Accords. On the other, it can’t retaliate so forcefully that it brings about Abbas’ collapse.

In applying for membership in the International Criminal Court last week, Abbas violated an agreement that neither side would take unilateral action. In a move that the State Department termed an “escalatory step,” the PA leader turned his back on direct negotiations — which would have involved compromise — and appealed to international bodies to impose an agreement on Israel.

If the Palestinians are accepted to the court, they will seek to bring Israeli military and political figures up on charges of “war crimes” for their efforts in Gaza this summer to put an end to the Hamas missiles being fired on Israeli civilians.

Israel has no choice but to respond to this move. It cannot allow its soldiers to be subjected to prosecution and cannot accept open violations of international agreements by the Palestinians. (To be sure, Israel is not a member of the court and does not recognize its jurisdiction, and the court has no police force or authority to enter Israel and make arrests. But it could issue arrest warrants that would make it difficult for Israeli officials to travel abroad.)

On the other hand, Israel’s response last week — to withhold half a billion shekels in tax revenue that it collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority — runs some serious risks. While it sounds perfectly reasonable for Israel to withhold the money and apply it to the Palestinians’ NIS-2-billion electric bill, as proposed by Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom, it creates pressure within Palestinian society that could boomerang against Israel.

For this reason, there are many in the Israeli defense establishment who oppose the move. They fear that Abbas’ inability to pay salaries to his security forces will breed instability and open the door to a Hamas takeover, or worse. Abbas might decide to retaliate and sever all security cooperation with Israel, which has been extremely beneficial to both sides.

Finally, there is the very real possibility that Abbas, who is almost 80, could just throw in the towel and quit. He may be a weak leader who has proven incapable of taking bold decisions for peace, but he’s probably better for Israel than any of the alternative candidates.

By the same token, not everyone in the Israeli diplomatic corps is excited about the freezing of funds. The action might increase calls to isolate Israel internationally, by those who view it as unfair to seize Palestinian funds, instead of retarding PA efforts to isolate Israel.

The question of how to get Abbas back to the negotiating table and some semblance of rational thinking preoccupies not just Israel, but the United States as well. As State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke put it last week, the Palestinian appeal for membership in the International Criminal Court and other bodies was “entirely counterproductive and does nothing to further the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a sovereign and independent state.”

Washington provides hundreds of millions of dollars a year in aid to the Palestinians, and could use this as leverage. The combination of Israeli and American economic pressure could bring about the desired results.

The real problem is that the Palestinians have been coddled by the international community and are under the mistaken impression that they don’t need to negotiate with Israel because their friends in high places will give them a state on a silver platter.

The time has come to correct that impression. As former Mideast adviser Dennis Ross wrote in a New York Times op-ed this week, “European leaders who fervently support Palestinian statehood must focus on how to raise the cost [for the Palestinians] of saying no or not acting at all when there is an offer on the table. Palestinians care deeply about international support for their cause. If they knew they would be held accountable for being nonresponsive or rejecting a fair offer or resolution, it could well change their calculus.”

Ross correctly blamed “most Europeans” for being “focused far more on Israeli behavior” than on Palestinian intransigence.

But while he is one of the most knowledgeable and experienced negotiators in the world, having amassed thousands of hours of face time with Israelis and Palestinians in the Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations, it would be naïve to think that Europe will heed his message.

Meanwhile, we can only hope that the ICC will reject Abbas’ request for membership. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu correctly said, “the Palestinian Authority is not a state. It is an entity that is in alliance with a terrorist organization.” n