Could congressional sanctions on Palestinians backfire for Israel?

In their unstinting zeal to safeguard Israel’s stranglehold over the Palestinians, members of Congress may have inadvertently set the stage for the materialization of Israel’s nightmare scenario: the collapse of the Palestinian Authority (PA). As the new 114th Congress gets underway, here’s how the law of unintended consequences could unfold over the next few years.

In the consolidated appropriations bill passed last month, Congress renewed a provision that would cut off all economic assistance to the PA if “the Palestinians initiate an International Criminal Court [ICC] judicially authorized investigation, or actively support such an investigation, that subjects Israeli nationals to an investigation for alleged crimes against Palestinians.”

{mosads}The unexpected move by Mahmoud Abbas, chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization, to sign the Rome Statute last week may force Congress to deal with the ramifications of this provision sooner than anticipated. Palestine is now set to join the ICC in April and, according to the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, it could file charges against Israel as early as that month, “with legal preparations to that end already well under way.”

Should this occur, the Obama administration will have no choice but to freeze U.S. bilateral economic aid programs to the PA since the provision in the appropriations bill contains no authority for the president to waive the requirement in the interests of national security. Congress could, of course, amend the law; however, this is highly unlikely as Israel’s most fervent backers on Capitol Hill are already demanding immediate sanctions against the Palestinians for attempting to join the ICC, much less prosecute a case there.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chair of the Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, called for an immediate suspension of aid “to make it clear” to Abbas “that there will be consequences to his schemes” to pursue justice and accountability at the ICC. And, on Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced legislation to cut off all funding to the PA until it “withdraws its request to join” the ICC.

This move would shut down all U.S. Agency for International Development projects, designed to slightly ameliorate Palestinians’ miserable economic conditions under the deliberate de-development of Israeli military occupation. The United States would also be unable to provide further direct budgetary support to the PA. Totaling $1.2 billion over the past eight years, this aid to the PA constituted nearly 15 percent of the PA’s entire international budgetary support, according to Congressional Research Service. (A separate $70 million annual appropriation to train, equip and construct bases for elite PA presidential guard units and special battalions of its National Security Forces — a program one U.S. Army colonel called “a stupid idea — it makes us look like we’re an extension of the Israeli occupation” — would go unscathed.)

With Israel already having imposed sanctions on the PA by withholding more than $100 million per month of tax revenues it collects on behalf of Palestinians, a potential cut-off of U.S. funding, and impending donor fatigue among EU and Arab League states in propping up the moribund “peace process” and its appendage — the PA — there is a strong possibility that the PA could collapse. Of course neither Israel nor the United States desire this outcome, because the PA fulfills the useful roles of subcontracting Israel’s occupation, offloading Israel’s Fourth Geneva Convention requirements to provide for the humanitarian needs of those under occupation to the shoulders of the international community, and serving as a catch-all bogeyman to rationalize Israel’s colonization of Palestinian land.

Nor does Abbas — a calculating, deliberate politician not prone to rash moves— want to deliberately scuttle the PA and his vested interests in it. His initiative to join the ICC, to date, is carefully calibrated not to trigger existing US sanctions. And there is still a possibility that Palestinian membership in the ICC will not be followed by the filing of charges, but rather will be used as a bargaining chip for future concessions or left to hang over Israel’s head as a deterrent to the commission of future abuses.

However, now that the ICC initiative has been unleashed, developments could slide out of Abbas’s control, as they did when he flip-flopped on pursuing accountability for the war crimes Israel committed in Gaza as documented in the Goldstone Report. Back in 2009, Abbas pulled back from pursuing a vote on the report in the U.N. Human Rights Council under withering Israeli pressure, only to reverse himself after receiving a maelstrom of domestic criticism for initially caving.

If Palestine does follow up ICC membership with the filing of charges against Israel — either as the result of a deliberate strategy or inexorably in response to public demands — then congressional sanctions against the PA could unravel the primary institution buoying the long-since-discredited “peace process.” Should the PA collapse and the fig leaf of Palestinian autonomy under Israeli occupation be dropped, all of the truisms and platitudes of U.S. policy — that a negotiated, two-state resolution is the only conceivable path toward peace — will become irrelevant.

Ruebner is the author of Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace and policy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

Tags ICC Ileana Ros-Lehtinen International Criminal Court Israel Mahmoud Abbas PA Palestine Palestine Liberation Organization Palestinian Authority PLO Rand Paul
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