In his May 18 declaration, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority and PLO, announced that “[t]he Palestine Liberation Organization and the State of Palestine are absolved from all agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments and from all the obligations based on these understandings and agreements, including the security ones.”
This latest tantrum by Abbas, and subsequent actions to unilaterally halt security, health and other forms of cooperation with Israel, raise several interesting legal and political questions regarding the veracity and credibility of all and any Palestinian commitments, whether in the various documents comprising the Oslo Accords, or in other international commitments entered into by the Palestinians.
For if the Palestinian leadership feels that it can glibly and freely revoke solemn obligations in signed agreements, witnessed and guaranteed by international leaders, merely at the whim of Abbas and his close advisers and merely because they disapprove of, and even object to, speeches or Israeli policy statements, then one may indeed ask what value or reliability do any Palestinian commitments—past, present or future—hold?
What is perhaps curious, if not even sad, in Abbas’s declaration and actions is the fact that they are ostensibly not in response to any specific Israeli action that might be interpreted as violating those agreements. Israel, true to its Oslo Accords obligations, has not made any unilateral alteration in the status of the territories.
The Palestinian actions are merely in response to a provision in the Israel government’s coalition agreement and a speech by Israel’s prime minister in the Israeli Knesset, expressing possible intentions to apply Israeli law or sovereignty to parts of the territories at a later date, but without such actions having been actually taken and without any detail as to how and if such actions will indeed materialize.
To the contrary, the Trump peace plan invites the Palestinian leadership to involve itself in negotiating the implementation of the plan, with extensive financial and economic inducements that would greatly benefit the Palestinian population. But after having rejected the plan outright, and having removed himself from the negotiating table, Abbas is in no position to threaten or pressure Israel and the United States. He does not have at his disposal any right of veto.
In light of Abbas’s declaration absolving the Palestinians from all obligations, the question arises whether such abrogation, as well as the actual, unilateral violation by the Palestinian leadership of its commitments in the Oslo Accords, through actively obstructing and preventing security and other forms of bilateral cooperation, does not represent a material breach of those accords, rendering them frustrated and impossible to implement, and thereby enabling Israel to declare them void.
One may even ask the international community what value exists in the continued Palestinian fixation of acceding to international conventions in violation of their Oslo commitments, when they demonstrate so assertively that they can freely violate any commitments in such conventions and agreements, for no good reason.
Abbas justifies his actions against both the United States and Israel on the basis of his deep antipathy towards the Trump peace plan, to the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, and his personal aversion to President Trump himself. But the Trump plan, in and of itself, violates no agreement as such. It merely sets out an ostensible framework for peace between the Palestinians and Israel, including the establishment of a Palestinian state and the granting of considerable economic benefits for the Palestinian people.
Indeed, one may ask how any of this could be seen to justify—legally or politically—Abbas’s declaration absolving the Palestinians from all agreements and understandings, and the subsequent instructions to obstruct and impede security cooperation with Israel, much of which serves the interests of the Palestinian leadership itself as well as the Palestinian population.
By the same token, practically speaking, one may ask how Abbas and his colleagues intend to free themselves from such obligations as that specified in the September 1993 Exchange of Letters of Mutual Recognition between PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, in the name of the Palestinian People, and Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, according to which the PLO head declared that “all outstanding issues relating to the permanent status will be resolved through negotiations.”
Similarly, the question arises how the abrogation of security cooperation obligations will affect the very central and vital Palestinian commitments in the Oslo Accords to “take all measures necessary in order to prevent acts of terrorism, crime and hostilities.” By the same token, their specific obligations to prevent and to act against incitement and hostile propaganda as well as to cooperate in preventing criminal activity, drug trafficking and the like, represent central obligations which, inasmuch as they are not already being repeatedly violated by the Palestinians, constitute a fundamental component of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.
The implications of the violation of such commitments could be considerable and most serious inasmuch as they represent the very heart of the neighborly relationship between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Their formal abrogation by the Palestinian leadership, for no apparent or justifiable reason, could indeed be seen to be a fundamental breach of the accords, entitling Israel to consider them void, and to pursue its own vital security and territorial interests without being limited by any obligations emanating from the Oslo Accords. This is particularly significant in relation to those provisions dealing with security of the airspace and security along the Gaza coastline and provisions granting rights of Palestinian VIP and police passage.
Even in the long list of non-security-related fields of cooperation and coordination covered by the Civil Affairs Protocol to the Interim Agreement, including health, agriculture, water and sewage, telecommunications, fisheries, fuels, quarries, tourism and transportation, as well as the other protocols to the agreement covering legal cooperation, economic and financial relations, Abbas’s whimsical termination of the agreement with Israel would cause considerable harm and suffering to his own population.
The Palestinian declaration should be taken very seriously, both by Israel, the United States and the international community, all of whom have a serious stake in maintaining the integrity of the peace process.
Alan Baker is director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center and the head of the Global Law Forum. He participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.