Analysis: Will Abbas apply for full membership in ICC despite US opposition?

Could the recognition of Palestinians as observers at the International Criminal Court be a stepping stone towards full membership?

Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mahmoud Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinians on Tuesday celebrated their new status as observers at the International Criminal Court’s summit of 122 member-countries in New York, hailing it as another “morale victory” and “political achievement.”
The decision to upgrade the Palestinians’ status to observer at the ICC paves the way for Palestinian membership in the court, Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, said.
But it’s still not clear at this stage whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas intends to carry out his repeated threat to join the ICC and other international organizations and treaties in protest against the continued stalemate in the peace process with Israel.
Since the collapse of the US-brokered peace talks earlier this year, Abbas has threatened several times to proceed with his plan to gain Palestinian membership in the international bodies.
Abbas is also facing increased pressure from Palestinians to go to the ICC in order to file war crime charges against Israel, particularly in the aftermath of this summer’s Operation Protective Edge.
A public opinion poll published on Monday by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion showed that 83 percent of the Palestinians support going to the ICC to file charges against Israeli political and military officials.
However, there are two reasons why Abbas remains reluctant to embark on such a risky undertaking.
First, he has come under immense pressure from the US administration to refrain from such a move, out of fear that it would destroy any chance of reaching a peace agreement with Israel.
Second, Abbas is afraid that any move at the ICC could serve as a boomerang and lead to a situation where Palestinians might also face war crime charges.
Recently, an Israeli legal advocacy group, Shurat Hadin, filed a lawsuit against Abbas at the ICC in which it held him responsible for rockets fired at Israeli targets by Fatah members during the last war in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is also likely to face war crime charges for its role in firing rockets at Israeli targets and the killing of Palestinians.
Abbas’s recurring threats to join the ICC are seen by some Palestinians as a message directed to the US administration to “hold me back or else.” He is hoping to use this card to force Washington to exert pressure on Israel to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians and halt construction in settlements and east Jerusalem neighborhoods.
The decision to upgrade the Palestinians’ status to observer at the ICC will allow Abbas to show his people that he is not indifferent to their demand to see Israelis being charged with war crimes. But the decision will also intensify pressure on the PA president to ignore US pressure and threats and carry out his threat to join the court.
Already on Tuesday, there were Palestinian voices urging Abbas to take advantage of the momentum and apply for membership in the ICC.
These voices see the observer status move in the context of growing international support for the Palestinians as opposed to Israel’s increased isolation in the international arena.
Hassan Asfour, a former PA minister, said on Tuesday that it was not enough for the Palestinians to be happy with this “important political achievement.”
He added: “The achievement will be completed only when Palestine is effectively present at the court.
The Palestinian Authority needs to start preparing for filing war crime charges against Israel.”
It remains to be seen be whether Abbas will be able to avoid going to the ICC in wake of growing pressure from his people.