RAMALLAH, West Bank — Frustrated by the failure of U.S.-brokered peace talks and under growing pressure from his people to confront the Israeli occupation, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is launching diplomatic war against Israel, betting on a risky campaign to fully “internationalize the struggle” by moving toward the United Nations and away from the United States.
As part of this strategy, which the Israelis have dubbed a “diplomatic intifada,” the Palestinians are seeking support for statehood from the international community via resolutions at the United Nations and in European parliaments calling for the end of Israeli occupation within two years and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The Palestinians also are threatening to seek war-crimes charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court, an idea considered a “nuclear option” by the Palestinian leadership just a few months ago. Last week, Abbas signed several U.N. treaties and filed paperwork in a bid to have the Palestinian Authority join the ICC.
The stated goal is to embarrass, anger and isolate Israel, and thereby pressure ordinary Israelis to push their government to make a peace deal with the Palestinians. But critics warn that the Israelis do not like to be pushed and may instead support strong countermeasures, including travel and work restrictions for Palestinians and accelerated Jewish settlement construction.
For their part, the Israelis say that it is the Palestinians who have walked away from peace offers and are the intransigent party. They say that if any party to the conflict should be tried for war crimes, it is the Islamist militant group Hamas, which fires rockets indiscriminately at Israeli cities.
Palestinian officials describe their campaign as both an act of desperation and a huge gamble.
“The past approach was not taking us anywhere,” said Mohammad Shtayyeh, a veteran Palestinian peace negotiator who resigned in protest halfway though the last round of talks, which collapsed in April. “At least this strategy has not failed yet.”
The campaign to seek greater recognition from the international community represents a public rebuff of the Obama administration, which has warned the Palestinians that unilateral moves at the ICC and the United Nations will ultimately fail to get them a state.
The Palestinian strategy also threatens to raise the hackles of Congress, which can cut off vital funding to the Palestinian Authority, money that pays for aid projects that employ tens of thousands of Palestinians.
Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and now president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said Abbas and his Fatah party, which have vowed to pursue nonviolent resistance, have lost ground to their arch rivals in Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
“The Palestinians believe that they can get some kind of domestic boost by confronting the United States,” Gold said.
Skeptics of the strategy, including those who support the creation of an independent Palestinian state, warn that the approach could backfire — or worse.
“While we think the Palestinians have the right to move the status quo, at the same time there has to be an effort to find a consensus solution,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who supported a pro-Palestinian resolution at the U.N. Security Council last month.
“Once you set this cycle off, you get results that you don’t want one way or the other,” Fabius told reporters in Paris.
Palestine was recognized as a “non-member observer state” at the United Nations in 2012. But the Palestinians’ current campaign goes far beyond this, and Israel has vowed to respond. The dynamic could create a cycle of escalation that spirals into violence.
After the Palestinians began their bid to join the ICC, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly froze the transfer of $125 million in monthly tax and customs duties that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian territories.
A freeze lasting a few months would not be fatal, the Palestinians say. But if the Israelis decide to drain the Palestinian Authority, Abbas may not be able to pay salaries. The Israelis could also limit electricity, gasoline and permits to travel.
“If the Palestinian Authority doesn’t take a step back, I think we have to take much more severe steps,” said Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz.
At a cabinet meeting last week, Netanyahu vowed that he would not permit Israeli soldiers to be put on trial. He warned the Palestinians: “We will not sit idly by.”
Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said one possible but dire outcome would be the partial or complete collapse of the Palestinian Authority, the interim body created by the 1993 Oslo Accords that governs Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.
“If there is an end to civil and security coordination, the Israelis could call on the Palestinian forces to disarm,” Shikaki said. “The militias would then take up weapons. In six months, there could be anarchy. Israeli soldiers and tanks in the streets.”
Shikaki said “the scenarios for this kind of diplomatic war have not been tested.”
The uncertainty is compounded by Israel’s elections on March 17, which could see Netanyahu win office for a historic fourth time or be replaced by a leader from Israel’s center-left parties, such as chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, who wants to make a deal with the Palestinians.
Palestinian officials say they will continue to lobby for U.N. resolutions that call for an end to the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and to the trade and travel restrictions imposed on the Gaza Strip, and for the creation of a Palestinian state.
The first attempt to pass such a resolution failed at the Security Council last month, when Nigeria decided at the last moment to vote no.
Abbas said the Palestinians will try again, “a third time or even a fourth time.” They believe they have better odds now that the Security Council nonpermanent members include Venezuela, Angola and Malaysia. But the United States, as one of five permanent members of the council, would be likely to veto the measure.
More ominous for Israel are the Palestinians’ threats to have Israeli leaders tried for war crimes. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said attorneys for the Palestinian Authority are assembling two possible cases to bring against the Israelis. One concerns civilian casualties during last summer’s Gaza war; another, construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which is considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.
The shift away from U.S.-
brokered talks is a historic break. For more than 20 years, the Palestinians have relied on Washington to serve as mediator.
Palestinian officials say they know that to get a state, they must eventually negotiate with the Israelis. Still, the Palestinian leaders say that the Israelis must be pushed and that the Americans, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, have failed, so perhaps international pressure will work.
“This shift to a more confrontational approach in the international arena is a significant departure for the Palestinians. But the question is: Will it get them any closer to a Palestinian state?” said Robert Danin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state with responsibilities for Israeli-Palestinian issues and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“I wonder if they have thought this through,” Danin said. “This tit-for-tat could leave both Israel and the Palestinians bloodied.”
Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.