JERUSALEM — A day after a failed bid at the United Nations to push a Middle East peace settlement, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas moved Wednesday to join the International Criminal Court, setting the stage for potential war-crimes complaints against Israel.
Abbas signed the Rome Statute governing the Hague-based court, prompting swift criticism from Israel and the United States. The State Department said the action was “entirely counter-productive and does nothing to further the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a sovereign and independent state.”
In a statement, department spokesman Jeff Rathke said the move was “an escalatory step that will not achieve any of the outcomes most Palestinians have long hoped to see for their people.”
The decision to appeal to the international court reflects deep frustration among Palestinian leaders at what they consider the Israeli government’s hard-line policies under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including the expansion of West Bank settlements. It also is a product of sharpening tensions amid clashes in recent months and the summer war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
The move deals a major blow to the already dim hopes of reviving peace talks that collapsed in April.
And it could end up backfiring, opening some Palestinians to prosecution over the actions of Hamas, which the United States and Israel have designated a terrorist group. In the past, ICC prosecutors have made clear that they will investigate all allegations of misdeeds in a dispute, not just those of one side. That means Palestinians could be called to answer for Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israeli population centers and the group’s use of civilians as human shields.
Netanyahu made that point shortly after Abbas’s announcement, saying it was the Palestinian Authority — not Israel — that had reason to fear the court.
Congress also could take action in response. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said funding for Palestinians would be cut if they initiate an investigation of Israel.
The end-of-the-year announcement came late in the day at a specially convened meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Abbas said his government would seek to join about 20 international treaties, including the framework that set up the International Criminal Court.
The signing of the Rome Statute in itself does not have any legal effect until ratified by the Palestinian Authority, which could delay it indefinitely.
The decision to lay the groundwork came a day after the Palestinians fell one vote short of the nine needed to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Israel step up peace efforts and withdraw from occupied lands.
“We want to complain,” Abbas said in Ramallah. “There’s aggression against us, against our land. The Security Council disappointed us.”
Saeb Erekat, who was part of the Palestinian team negotiating peace with the Israelis, said the step was taken “in order to ensure the protection and advance the rights of our people.”
“There must be accountability, and those who are concerned about courts should stop committing crimes,” he said.
Political considerations also may have played a role. Abbas has come under increasing criticism of his leadership since the recent 50-day war in Gaza. More than 2,100 people died, most of them Gazans, though the Netanyahu government says almost half of them were militants who fired rockets into Israel. But the lopsided death toll increased Palestinians’ demands that their leaders formally accuse Israel of war crimes.
Grant Rumley, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said going to the ICC is another step in the Palestinian effort to mitigate U.S. influence by getting other countries more involved.
“A lot of what this is about is they’re trying to find a way to replace the U.S. with another country as a mediator,” he said. “They’re looking to up the pressure on Israel, and they’re looking at the U.N. to do it.”
John Bolton, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, said the countries that are part of the ICC should reject the Palestinian application.
“To be part of the treaty, you need to be a state, and the Palestinian Authority is not a state,” he said.
The Palestinians recently gained observer status at the court and in 2012 gained non-member observer-state status at the U.N. General Assembly.
The ICC’s powers are not unlimited. Prosecutors were forced this month to abandon a case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had been charged with orchestrating a 2007 campaign of ethnic violence. Although Kenya is a member of the court, the government refused to cooperate with the prosecution and blocked investigators from gathering evidence.
Israel could resist the court’s intervention. Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel would “rebuff this attempt to force diktat on us, just like we rebuffed the Palestinian appeal to the U.N. Security Council.”
The resolution called for Israelis and Palestinians to strike a peace deal within a year and for Israel to withdraw within three years from territories it captured in the 1967 war — in which Israel won control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
It also declared that East Jerusalem would be the capital of a Palestinian state, a more hard-line stance than an earlier version that described Jerusalem as a shared capital. It also demanded an end to Israeli settlement building.
Morello reported from Washington. Robert Costa in Washington contributed to this report.