By Noah Browning
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has entered into his most serious confrontation yet with Israel by signing onto the International Criminal Court.
His decision on Wednesday gives the court jurisdiction over crimes committed in Palestinian lands and could even lead to cases being brought against Israeli or Palestinian leaders.
The nearly 80-year-old bespectacled former teacher, advocating non-violence, has spent his ten years in office trying to clamp down on armed groups and build up his administration in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
But the failure of peace talks this year to win a state or halt the spread of Israeli settlements seems to have clinched his decision that now is the time for what commentators on both sides describe as "lawfare" - conflict by means of law.
"We've tried every possibility to reach a solution with the Israelis and we've spent 20 years of negotiations that didn't end their occupation over us. So now we have taken a peaceful, legal option to internationalize this conflict," senior Palestinian official Mohammed Shtayyeh told Reuters.
U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian talks collapsed in April amid mutual blame. It was the latest failure of negotiations to bring about peace and a Palestinian state since the Palestinian Authority (PA) under Abbas's iconic predecessor, Yasser Arafat, came into being in 1993 under interim deals.
Abbas signed onto the ICC and 20 other international agreements a day after a resolution that called for an end to Israeli occupation by 2017 failed to win passage the United Nations Security Council.
It follows other steps to seek the trappings of statehood without waiting for the outcome of negotiations with Israel.
In 2012, the Palestinians won "non-member observer state" status in the U.N. General Assembly. In the past year, Sweden recognized the Palestinian state, while the British, Irish and French parliaments held non-binding votes calling on their governments to do the same.
Palestinians seek a state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem - lands Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Palestinians consider the spread of Jewish settlements on occupied land a war crime which will deny them a viable state.
Israel cites Biblical and historical roots to those lands, and has lashed out at the Palestinian move to sign onto the ICC.
The latest moves come just three months before an Israeli general election, and could help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu push his hawkish message to Israeli voters that Israel has no peace partner.
Netanyahu, who was re-elected leader of the right-wing Likud party on Thursday, vowed to "defend Israel's soldiers".
Economy minister Naftali Bennett, a far-right member of Netanyahu's ruling coalition, said Abbas's Fatah party, as nominal partners in a Palestinian unity government with the Islamist militant group Hamas, "can go to the court in The Hague only as a defendant".
Opinion polls show Likud neck-and-neck with an alliance of centrist and center-left parties that accuse Netanyahu of abandoning the peace process. But with other right wing parties also strong, the hawks have a better chance than the doves of forming the next Israeli ruling coalition.
An Israeli political source told Reuters that Netanyahu could seek to prosecute Palestinian leaders at the ICC for past militant attacks, or impose new economic sanctions on Abbas's cash-strapped administration.
But Israel may be careful about retaliating too strongly. The PA has cooperated with Israeli forces in confiscating illegal weapons and quashing plots by Palestinian militants.
"Abbas is deriving strength here from the PA's weakness. It's already under financial pressure and the Israelis and Americans know that any economic retaliation could cause it to collapse, which would undermine security," former Palestinian minister and academic Ghassan Khatib told Reuters.
Palestinian officials say U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told them privately in meetings that any Palestinian moves to join the ICC would endanger some half a billion dollars in annual American aid, which has repeatedly been docked before amid previous Palestinian campaigns at the United Nations.
While the United States and Israel worry for the PA's health, a survey found Palestinian satisfaction with the government at an all-time low, with 55 percent of respondents believing it has become "a burden on the Palestinian people".
The December poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that Hamas was more popular than Abbas's moderate secular Fatah party. More than half of Palestinians had never heard of Abbas's moves at the United Nations.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff)