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patrick martin

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas speaks in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Sunday. Mr. Abbas spoke about Palestinian membership in the International Criminal Court.ABBAS MOMANI/AFP / Getty Images

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has come under sharp criticism for his government's request to become a state party to the International Criminal Court, with a view to prosecuting Israel for war crimes in its occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.

It's been said that even if Palestine's designation as a "non-member observer state" at the United Nations gives it the legal right to accede to the treaty establishing the ICC, it is diplomatically unwise to do so. Angering Israeli leaders, as this move has, will only set back hopes for negotiating a two-state solution to the 67-year-old conflict, critics say.

Even though Palestine is to be formally accepted as a state party to the ICC on April 1, of all days, Mr. Abbas is no fool. He has reluctantly resorted to a tool that gives the Palestinians some badly needed leverage – a tool of a non-violent nature, for which many will applaud him.

He already has touched a nerve. The prospect of being prosecuted or even investigated by the ICC has drawn anxious responses from Israeli leaders.

"We will not allow Israeli soldiers and officers to be dragged to The Hague," a defiant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet last week, referring to the ICC's location in the Netherlands.

"The Palestinian Authority is the one that should fear the ICC," he said at another point, vowing to "take measures to defend the soldiers of the IDF," and labelling the Israel Defense Forces "the most moral army in the world."

Riad Mansour, Palestine's ambassador to the United Nations, said Palestinians are not worried about coming before the court. "We are not afraid of the judgment of international law," he said.

Indeed the more Israel protests against this Palestinian move, the more it looks as if it has something to hide.

The ICC defines itself as "a permanent international court established to investigate, prosecute and try individuals accused of committing the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole." Those crimes are: genocide; crimes against humanity; war crimes; and the crime of aggression.

War crimes, under the Rome Statute that established the court, include: "The transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies …"

Crimes of aggression in the treaty include: "Any annexation by the use of force of the territory of another State or part thereof," as well as "the blockade of the ports or coasts of a State by the armed forces of another State."

So it's not a stretch to say that the construction of large-scale Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, the annexation of occupied territory in the area of Jerusalem and the blockade of Gaza make senior Israeli officials vulnerable to prosecution.

Israel is not a state party to the ICC. Like about 30 other countries, including the United States, Israel has signed the Rome Statute (in 2000) but has not ratified it. It is not expected to hand over anyone to the court, nor to co-operate with any investigation, should the Palestinians or anyone else raise an accusation the ICC prosecutor deems sufficiently serious.

However, any individuals named in a prosecution can be arrested if they travel to a country that is a state party to the ICC. That means more than 120 countries, including Canada and most of Europe.

More importantly, the years-long sensational process will drag Israel's name in the mud, lowering its already diminished international stature.

This is not how partners in diplomatic negotiations behave, says Mr. Netanyahu, who quickly ordered that $127-million (U.S.) in Palestinian tax revenue collected by Israel be withheld as punishment.

Mr. Abbas doesn't feel like a partner. The continued construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank along with precious little in the way of concessions to the Palestinians has humiliated Mr. Abbas in the eyes of his people.

The Palestinian leader is not looking for revenge; he knows prosecutions are iffy and would take years. He's seeking to apply pressure on Israel to make major concessions in negotiations, such as halting settlement construction and agreeing to a formula for the borders of a Palestinian state.

And this is precisely how negotiators behave.

It's exactly how Zionists behaved during the British Mandate of Palestine, raising international support for their dream state by every legal means.

"The Palestinians will get nothing while on their knees," said Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic and author of The Crisis of Zionism.

"As a Jew," he wrote last week in his column in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, "I cannot deny the Palestinians' right to demand the same freedoms that we demand for ourselves. And I cannot ask them to wait."

As the 19th-century black American abolitionist Frederick Douglass concluded: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."