Palestinian leader Abbas, after 10 cautious years in office, dramatically challenges Israel

After a decade in power, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has little to show.

He is no closer to a deal on Palestinian statehood, has failed to reclaim the Gaza Strip from political rival Hamas and is being disparaged by some as a pliant guardian of Israeli security needs in the West Bank.

But the typically cautious 79-year-old dramatically changed course in the days before this week's tenth anniversary in office by signing up to the International Criminal Court. That could allow for war crimes complaints against Israel in what many believe is his strategy of last resort.

The court bid is part of a wider strategy Palestinians hope will bring international pressure to bear on Israel and improve their leverage in future statehood talks. They say the approach stems from frustration with two decades of failed talks overseen by staunch Israeli ally America. Israel accuses Abbas of trying to replace negotiations with a campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state.

The move carries unprecedented risks, but Palestinian officials say Abbas had to act.

"We are weak and the only way before us is to bring the Palestinian cause back to the international community," said one aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe Abbas' private views.

Palestinians close to Abbas say he has been under intense domestic pressure to challenge Israel since the summer's 50-day Gaza war between Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas group that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, many of them civilians, along with 72 people on the Israeli side.

"He had a choice, whether he listens to the people and the leadership and the advisers, or he isolates himself further," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official often briefed by Abbas.

The Israeli response to the court bid was swift. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze the monthly transfer of $120 million in taxes that Israel collects for the Palestinians, forcing the Palestinian Authority — propped up by foreign aid and chronically short of funds — to immediately halt salary payments for 153,000 government employees.

Many civil servants live month to month and have mixed feelings about joining the court.

Government employee Mohammed Jadallah, 49, a father of five already falling behind on loan payments, said Abbas hadn't done enough to explain his strategy to the suffering public.

In the long run, though, Abbas can count on public support as Palestinians "will never trade their national cause for salaries," Jadallah said.

Abbas, sworn in as president on Jan. 15, 2005, will spend his tenth anniversary Thursday in Cairo, appealing to Arab League officials to keep promises to give $100 million a month to make up for the Israeli sanctions. Arab countries have broken such promises in the past.

Netanyahu has no immediate plans to resume tax transfers, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said. Withholding the money "is a way to express our deep displeasure at the kind of steps the Palestinians have been taking lately," he said.

The Palestinian Authority was set up in interim peace agreements in the 1990s as a stepping stone to Palestinian independence. Negotiations on a final deal repeatedly broke down, leaving the Palestinian Authority in place. It still administers 38 percent of the West Bank, but lost Gaza to a Hamas takeover in 2007.

If the Palestinian Authority were to dissolve over its money woes, Israel, as military occupier, would be responsible again for providing services to Palestinians, a costly task. Israel also would lose out on coordination with Abbas' security services, which has helped prevent militant attacks.

Nathan Thrall, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, said he believes Israel wants the Palestinian Authority to survive and won't retaliate against Abbas too harshly. In joining the international court, Abbas took this into consideration, Thrall said.

Abbas has given no indication that he plans to step aside.

He was initially elected for four years, but stayed in office because the formation of rival Palestinian governments after the Hamas takeover of Gaza prevented new elections. He has not groomed a successor and instead has tried to beat back potential challengers.

Thrall also noted Abbas hasn't played his ultimate card against Netanyahu: ending security coordination. Such a move would bring down the Palestinian Authority, Thrall said, because almost every single Palestinian government action requires Israeli approval, from Abbas' travel in and out of the West Bank to sending Palestinian police cruisers from one town to another.

Israel holds national elections March 17. Netanyahu, who is seeking a third consecutive term, has refused to accept the pre-1967 line as a starting point for border talks and continued to build Jewish settlements on occupied lands in six years in power.

If he is re-elected, Abbas is bound to step up the campaign for greater recognition of a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967. The U.N. General Assembly recognized such a state in 2012.

Israeli critics of Abbas say he shares responsibility for failed negotiations, particularly after not accepting a 2008 offer by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a state in Gaza, 95 percent of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem. But Palestinians counter that there was no agreement on details at the time and that Olmert was a lame duck.

Since then, there have been no meaningful negotiations — and Palestinians say it is time for a change.

"We are willing to negotiate, but now in a different way, through an international conference or a collective process," said Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. ambassador.


Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.


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