Worried that U.S.-brokered peace talks might collapse in coming days, Palestinians are weighing their options, which they say range from urging international boycotts against Israel to holding mass protests to unilaterally seeking more recognition at the United Nations.
Among the most explosive possibilities — or threats, as Israelis see it — would be for the Palestinians to try to take a case against Israel to the International Criminal Court, alleging that the Israeli military has committed war crimes in the West Bank.
Even if talks continue for a few months, many Palestinian activists assume that the negotiations will ultimately fail.
They say now is the time for a Palestinian Plan B.
Going to The Hague would be a desperate gambit, and it is far from certain that the Palestinians would even be awarded jurisdiction in the international forum, let alone see their claims heard.
Still, the threat of going to The Hague has rattled the Israeli government, which would almost surely retaliate. Such a move is also likely to anger Israel’s closest ally, the United States.
The Palestinian Authority relies on billions of dollars in budgetary support and humanitarian aid provided by the United States and the European Union for its survival.
“It would be the atomic bomb,” conceded Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee tasked with assembling options for Palestinian leaders to pursue if the peace negotiations fail.
“It is a huge bluff,” said Alan Baker, an expert on international law and a former Israeli ambassador to Canada, adding that it was doubtful that the Palestinians could persuade the International Criminal Court to hear their case.
Even so, Baker said the threat has gotten the attention of the United States and has frightened Israelis, who do not want to be blamed for a breakdown in talks.
As U.S. diplomats shuttle between Ramallah and Jerusalem in an effort to extend the negotiations, which are scheduled to end April 29, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is insisting that he will not agree to continue talks until a last round of 26 Palestinian prisoners is released as promised.
“Either this is going to be settled or it’s going to fall apart,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a ministerial meeting of his Likud party members on Sunday, saying the picture could become clear in “a few days.”
According to a U.S.-brokered timetable agreed upon last summer, the last of a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners should have been freed this weekend. But Netanyahu wants a promise from Abbas that the peace talks will continue before he frees the inmates, all of whom are serving long sentences after being convicted of murdering Israelis.
The 79-year-old Abbas is telling diplomats that if the talks end, Israel and the United States will have to deal with his successor.
Meanwhile, Palestinian officials say they have prepared documents for Abbas to sign that would seek Palestinian membership in a half-dozen U.N. organizations and make Palestinians a party to international conventions and treaties, moves that would represent another step toward legitimacy for a future state of Palestine.
While the two sides are negotiating, Abbas has promised not to seek greater recognition at the United Nations, where the Palestinians won “non-member observer state” status in 2012.
Full membership to the United Nations was blocked in 2011. U.S. diplomats have warned Israel that the United States cannot stop further Palestinian moves at the United Nations, especially if the current negotiations collapse.
A group of academic experts recently completed a six-month study looking at what would happen if the Palestinian Authority, which has provided for limited self-rule and security in the West Bank since 1994, either dissolves or collapses in the wake of failed talks.
The analysis released by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, titled “The Day After,” predicts that a dissolution of the Palestinian Authority would throw the economy of the West Bank into turmoil — with salaries unpaid and banks failing — and bring a rise in lawlessness and a return to the days when militias wreaked havoc on both Palestinians and Israelis.
Palestinian leaders have threatened in the past to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, established two decades ago in the wake of the Oslo Accords, and let the Israelis try to directly govern the territory.
The Palestinian Authority could also collapse if the Palestinians go to The Hague and the United States and Israel retaliate by withholding money and other support.
The question that many Palestinians are asking, Ashrawi said, is whether the peace talks will “end with a bang or a whimper.”
“If we are blamed, if there are external actions against us, and the Palestinian Authority collapses, it could lead to either Hamas taking over or to warlordism,” the PLO official said. “The people here do have weapons.” The militant Islamist movement Hamas, which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization, controls the Gaza Strip.
This Friday, Palestinian activists and scholars plan to hold a two-day session to discuss renewed “strategies of resistance.”
“If the current round of talks, or diktats, hits a wall, Palestinians will be more united — and vigorous — than ever in waging diplomatic, legal, economic, popular and rights-based pressure campaigns against Israel, particularly in the form of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement,” said Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the campaign seeking such sanctions.
Some Palestinians say it is time to abandon the idea of an independent Palestinian state and insist on equal rights for Palestinians in one state combining Israel and the West Bank. In such a state, these Palestinians say, they would press for “one citizen, one vote,” in which case Palestinians and Arab Israelis would make up about 40 percent of the population.
“Palestinians have many options ahead of them if the peace talks fail. In fact, they have even more options than are available for the Israelis,” said Antwan Shulhut, lead researcher at the Ramallah-based Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies.
Shulhut said that in addition to seeking redress in international forums and at the United Nations, there are calls from Palestinians for more action on the street.
“The second option is to bring about a popular uprising or nonviolent, peaceful intifada, which a lot of people are now calling for,” Shulhut said.
Anne Gearan in Paris contributed to this report.