American officials have always seen this international campaign, of which the ICC is a major part, as a nuisance. “The Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded,” remarked Susan Rice, then-U.S. ambassador to the UN, after the Palestinians upgraded their diplomatic standing at the General Assembly in 2012. Even some Palestinian officials have seen their campaign as lacking in strategic heft: Former prime minister Salam Fayyad famously broke his hand pounding on the table in disagreement with the plan.
Yet Trump’s demand that the Palestinians halt the campaign or face closure of their office in D.C.—without a concrete plan for peace negotiations on the horizon or extracting any concessions from Israel—is new. In the past, both Israelis and Palestinians have demanded preconditions before new rounds of peace talks—a halt in settlement construction, or a release of prisoners, for example. With this week’s news, it seems that the Trump team is essentially banking on Abbas caring more about peace negotiations and the PLO’s office in Washington, established at the start of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s than his international campaign against Israel.
The calculation might be outdated. In the early days of international campaign, commonly referred to in Ramallah as “Palestine 194,” the goal was to gain leverage in peace negotiations through international recognition. Abbas himself first threatened to go to the UN Security Council to win recognition in 2011 after months of talks with Israel collapsed over countering demands over preconditions for negotiations. Only the threat of a U.S. veto at the UN deterred Abbas in 2011, but a year later he returned—this time to the General Assembly—and upgraded the Palestinians’ status there to that of “non-member observer state” by a margin of 138-9 (with 41 abstentions).
Still, it was clear after the UN vote that the United States would not tolerate the Palestinians reaching out to the international community while also engaging in peace talks with Israel. At the start of the peace negotiations in 2013, then-secretary of state John Kerry insisted the Palestinians halt the campaign in order to participate. In exchange, Israel would release approximately 100 Palestinian prisoners in four batches throughout the negotiations. When Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed the fourth release, Abbas abruptly re-launched Palestine 194, joining 15 international organizations and effectively ending the negotiations.
A few months later, Abbas signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, his rivals in Gaza, and by the summer of 2014 a war had broken out between Israel and Hamas. At the time, Palestinian officials had insisted that the 15 organizations they joined were part of a package of international organizations (numbering around 60, in total) that would end with them acceding to the ICC. The war in Gaza accelerated their plans: Palestinians demanded their leaders go to the ICC after the 50-day war. At the end of 2014, Abbas attempted another push for recognition at the Security Council, this time forcing a vote but failing to muster enough to pass. A few days later, Abbas signed the Statute of Rome, and in early 2015 the Palestinians were admitted to the ICC.