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Palestinians' Attempt to Join the ICC Will Empower the Israeli Right—Which Is Exactly What Abbas Wants

Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Palestinians failed to win U.N. Security Council approval for a deadline to become a sovereign state, and on Wednesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas formally requested membership in the International Criminal Court. Coming in the middle of Israeli elections, these actions—which are sure to infuriate Israelis and strengthen the Israeli right—seem rather self-defeating, and Americans committed to Mideast peace are bewildered. Aaron David Miller, a key American negotiator in the Clinton era, lamented on Twitter:

The New York Times editorial board warned that “Mr. Abbas’s actions will almost certainly make the situation worse, setting back the cause of statehood even farther. By taking this tack before the Israeli elections, which are set for March 17, he has given Israeli hard-liners new ammunition to attack the Palestinians and reject new peace talks.”

Underlying these responses is the assumption that Palestinian leadership not only detests Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which they surely do, but would prefer to negotiate with his more conciliatory alternatives, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. It is this assumption that creates the apparent conflict between Palestinian priorities (a negotiated settlement with Israel) and actions (weakening Israeli doves in the middle of election season). This assumption is faulty. Palestinians likely view Netanyahu’s opponents as wolves in sheep’s clothing; Herzog and Livni appear reasonable to the world but are unlikely to offer anything that Palestinians consider acceptable. In the absence of a prospective agreement, negotiations are about optics of blame rather than substance—and in that world, Netanyahu is Palestinians’ best option.

Imagine for a moment that a sudden surge brings the Israeli center-left to power. From the statements and past actions of figures like Livni and Herzog, we have a fairly good sense of what to expect: respectful and earnest negotiations that culminate in an offer similar to—and likely less generous than—those offers made by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert to Abbas and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. These offers were both, of course, rejected as inadequate for Palestinian needs. And in the years since, the position of the Palestinian leadership—on refugees, on Jerusalem, on borders—has only hardened and gained more international legitimacy. The gap between the parties has only widened from a decade ago, but even then the truth was clear: The most that Israelis will offer is less than the least Palestinians will accept.

Abbas knows this. So even though he might personally prefer Livni to Bibi, he must also recognize that politically, a right-wing Israeli government is a diplomatic triumph. International support for Palestinians plummets when Israel is led by leftist leaders who make concrete offers. Palestinian rejections of Barak’s and Olmert’s offers—however reasonable or unreasonable—contributed to a public image of the Palestinians as unserious and recalcitrant. By contrast, an Israeli government led by the confrontational Netanyahu and staffed by figures explicitly opposed to Palestinian statehood is a gift to Palestinians. In the years since Netanyahu assumed power, Europe has grown increasingly fed up with Israel—and as demonstrated by France and Luxemburg’s Security Council votes in favor of Palestine—have completely embraced Palestinian positions on the major issues.

Palestinians' tactic here is not that different from President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration. Like Obama, Abbas has independent reasons (for instance, assuaging his own Palestinian critics) to take his current course. But also like Obama, he must be aware of the way in which his actions strengthen his most unpopular enemies and weakens his most formidable opponents. As anti-amnesty fever consumes the American right, Republicans with more moderate views will suffer and the most anti-immigrant (and least palatable to the general public) partisans will emerge emboldened. So too in Israel. As fury with Abbas increases, economic minister Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu will gain in strength and Israel’s international position will become more precarious.

The Palestinian march to international institutions has been widely (and correctly) interpreted as an expression of frustration with the stalled peace process. But those puzzled by the timing have underestimated its strategic dimension. Palestinian frustration is not simply directed against Netanyahu, but against the entire spectrum of conceivable Israeli partners—and recent actions are meant to sideline those who appear most reasonable. After all, if you are going to have an opponent rather than a partner, you may as well pick one the world despises.