Between Friday’s announcement that the International Criminal Court has opened a “preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine” and Sunday’s airstrike that killed six Hezbollah operatives and an Iranian general, a seemingly minor Israel-related item at the United Nations Security Council last Thursday has been largely ignored. But it shouldn’t be, because it goes to the heart of what’s wrong with the world’s handling of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: According to both the UN and the European Union, signed Israeli-Palestinian agreements are binding on one party only – Israel.
At Thursday’s Security Council briefing, Assistant Secretary-General Jens Anders Toyberg-Frandzen slammed Israel for freezing tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority, declaring that this was “contrary to Israel’s obligations under the Paris Protocol of the Oslo Accords.” The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, made an identical claim 10 days earlier.
Though the claim is probably false, let’s assume for a moment that it’s true. The fact remains that Israel’s alleged violation of its “obligations under … the Oslo Accords” was in response to far greater violations of the Palestinians’ obligations under those same accords. Yet far from meriting any equivalent condemnation by the UN or the EU, the Palestinian violations were actively supported by both parties.
According to Article 31(7) of the 1995 Oslo II agreement (formally titled the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.” This isn’t some trivial technicality; it constitutes the very heart of the Oslo Accords: that Israel and the Palestinians will resolve their differences through negotiations, not unilaterally.
Nevertheless, the Palestinians have grossly and repeatedly violated this clause, including by obtaining UN recognition as a nonmember observer state in 2012, applying to the Security Council for full UN membership last month and joining the ICC as a state party earlier this month. All these moves are aiming at unilaterally changing the status of the West Bank and Gaza from territories whose future will be determined through negotiations to territories belonging to a Palestinian state. Yet no UN or EU official has ever criticized these moves for violating Palestinian obligations under the Oslo Accords, and in fact, both the UN and the EU actively supported them.
It was the UN General Assembly that accepted “Palestine” as a nonmember observer state, with half the EU’s 28 members voting in favor and only one voting against. In last month’s Security Council bid, two of the council’s four EU members voted in favor and none voted against. And when “Palestine” applied to the ICC this month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon immediately announced that it qualified for membership and would join on April 1, although technically, the court itself should make this decision, as it did when the Palestinians first tried to join in 2009.
In other words, both the UN and the EU think it’s fine for the Palestinians to ride roughshod over their core obligations under the Oslo Accords, but it’s unacceptable for Israel to violate even the most minor element of those accords. And Israel’s violation, if it existed at all, was indeed minor, since the Paris Protocol stipulates the existence of “procedures for the set-off of financial obligations between the two sides, including legal entities under their control or management.” In short, Israel has the legal right to withhold some of the billions of shekels the PA owes to state-owned Israeli entities like the Israel Electric Corporation, and it has always formally justified freezes of tax transfers under this clause. At most, it was guilty of violating the proper procedures for doing so.
All of the above leads to one obvious question: If the UN and EU are going to deem Israeli-Palestinian agreements binding on Israel in every particular but not binding on the Palestinians at all, why on earth would Israel ever sign another?
Originally published in Commentary on January 19, 2015