TEL AVIV — Israeli military officers and experts are warning against funding freezes and other punitive acts against the Palestine Authority (PA) that they insist will jeopardize security coordination with Ramallah.
Targeting PA President Mahmoud Abbas for what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has termed a "diplomatic assault" against the Jewish state will harm Israeli security interests along with those of Ramallah, experts here insist.
"When radical Islam is spreading like a virus through the region and threatening our borders, now is not the time to provoke more radicalism and instability right here at home," an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer general said.
Netanyahu retaliated last week against Abbas' UN statehood bid, which failed in a late December Security Council vote, and his successful accession to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by halting the transfer of some US $127 million in tax revenues due to the PA.
The move is just one of several harsh steps planned in response to Abbas' ICC membership request, which was accepted Jan. 6 by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon despite objections from Washington.
"The PA has chosen confrontation with Israel and we will not stand idly by," Netanyahu told Cabinet members Jan. 4.
Other steps include encouraging supporters in the US Congress to terminate some $400 million in annual aid to Ramallah.
Provisions in a funding bill passed late last year block US President Barack Obama from waiving existing restrictions governing the transfer of US aid if the Palestinians initiate or support ICC actions against Israel for alleged war crimes.
But experts here said pulling the plug on US aid will subject Israel to far greater and immediate risk than the remote threat that Israel will ever be investigated, let alone found guilty, of war crimes for last summer's war in Gaza.
In a Jan. 8 interview, the IDF general officer, speaking on background on what he insisted were "purely operational considerations," said security coordination was essential. Without the US funding that pays for PA salaries, Israel has to deal with consequences of "an Iraq-like de-Bathification purge" of thousands of unemployed, highly trained security personnel.
As it now stands, PA forces "do the minimum, and often a lot more" to maintain stability, said retired Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, a former IDF chief of staff.
By making arrests, confiscating weapons and otherwise acting in coordination with the IDF and Israel's Shin Bet security service, Ashkenazi said PA forces help contain terror not only in the West Bank, but in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem where so-called lone-wolf operatives are influenced by "the level of fury in the Palestinian street."
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, outgoing chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), has characterized security coordination with the PA as "helpful; something that contributes to stability."
In an interview last year, he noted that PA forces "are doing this for their own interests, and not out of any love of Zion."
Gantz repeated a phrase coined by Ashkenazi, his predecessor, to describe coordination with Palestinian counterparts: "They more they do, they less we do."
In the run-up to Israeli elections March 17, opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog of the Labor Party and others vying against Netanyahu have assailed sanctions against Abbas as petty, unnecessarily punitive and counterproductive.
Even Israeli President Rubin Rivlin, a former member of Netanyahu's Likud Party, criticized the move as "not beneficial to us and to them."
Speaking to Israeli diplomats in Jerusalem Jan. 5, Rivlin noted that tax revenues owed to the PA are essential. Those funds, he said, "keep the PA functioning. It is in Israel's interest that the PA will function."
Danny Rothschild, a retired IDF major general who served as coordinator of operations in the West Bank, insisted that Israel must do its utmost to prevent the collapse of security coordination by forces loyal to a Palestinian leader committed to nonviolent resistance.
"Our government insists the problem with the Palestinians cannot be solved; it must be managed. But the worst thing for someone that wants to manage this problem is to behave the way our government is behaving," Rothschild said.
In a Jan. 8 interview, Rothschild, chairman of the annual Herzliya Conference hosted by Israel's Interdisciplinary Center, said precipitous political steps taken by either side can have unintended and extremely negative consequences.
"Security coordination should remain apolitical and immune to stupid decisions taken by both sides," he said.
"As long as Abu Mazen [Abbas] is committed to nonviolence, the PA and the security forces he commands should not be targeted]," Rothschild said.
Hyped ICC Threat
Despite Washington's position that the PA is not a sovereign state and therefore is ineligible for ICC membership, Ban formally accepted Abbas' application to join the Hague-based court.
In an announcement posted Jan. 6 on the UN website, Ban said statutes signed by Abbas "will enter force for the State of Palestine on April 1, 2015."
Jurisdiction will date back to June 13, 2014, ostensibly giving ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda the option of choosing to investigate allegations of war crimes committed during last summer's 50-day Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.
Netanyahu has characterized the move as a defacto assault not only on Israel, but the soldiers and officers that make up its so-called people's army. "We will not allow IDF soldiers and commanders to be hauled before the ICC in the Hague," he told Cabinet members.
But legal experts warn that potential action against Israel by the PA or on behalf of the PA could take years or even decades, assuming Bensouda agrees to investigate such a case.
And even then, the court would almost certainly target only national command authorities such as Netanyahu, his defense minister and the IDF chief of staff, according to one international criminal attorney practicing on behalf of UN organizations.
"One of the strengths of international criminal law, and hence of the ICC, is the fact that it is guided by the international doctrine of command responsibility. This has been well established since the Hague conventions of 1899, and has been considerably developed in recent years. As such, it focuses on holding top authority holders and commanders to account on the presumption that they control their forces and thus responsible for their actions," she said.
In a Jan. 7 interview, the legal expert said Netanyahu's concern for of IDF soldiers and commanders misrepresents the way the court operates.
"Only a small number of individuals would ever be concerned. The court won't focus on the lower echelons; the individuals who actually pull the trigger."
She characterized threatened ICC action against Israel on behalf of the PA as a double-edged sword that would put pressure on the prosecution to investigate counter-claims of Palestinian abuses of international law.
"The ICC actually offers a strong deterrent to both sides and, as such, has a peacemaking role," she insisted.
"In the event that both sides are to be hauled before the court, how is Hamas going to explain its intentional firing of rockets and missiles on Israel? However Israel responded is up for debate, but Hamas clearly and repeatedly violated the Geneva Convention with their deliberate targeting of civilian populations."