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Israel responding to ICC with 'political blitz' to undermine court

The Israeli government will reportedly pressure allied countries into saying they will not enforce the arrest warrants on Netanyahu and Gallant if issued
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a wreath-laying ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in Jerusalem, 20 May 2024 (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a wreath-laying ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in Jerusalem, 20 May 2024 (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

The Israeli government is responding to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) bid to issue arrest warrants for its leaders with a “political blitz” aimed at undermining and isolating the court, according to Israel’s Channel 12. 

Israeli allies will be pressured to announce they will refuse to enforce the arrest warrants if issued, the report said.

On Monday, the ICC’s chief prosecutor Karim Khan announced that the court was seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and three Hamas leaders: Ismail Haniyeh, Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif.

Khan’s announcement reportedly came as a surprise to Israeli officials, who were expecting the prosecutor to arrive in Israel next week and who believed members of his team were travelling out ahead of him this week. Those visits have been cancelled.

According to Channel 12, “intense talks” had taken place between Israel and the prosecutor’s office to convince him that the ICC does not have the authority to go after Israeli leaders over the war on Gaza.

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Israel is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, however the Palestinian Authority is. Khan's predecessor Fatou Bensouda previously determined that the ICC has jurisdiction to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes in Palestinian territories such as Gaza.

The Israeli government is briefing that Khan’s statement on Monday was made in bad faith, but there are fears that the ICC will also look to prosecute military commanders and members of the security establishment.

Khan was previously seen as favourable to Israel, with Israel’s Kan public broadcaster reporting in February 2021 that Israeli officials had supported the British lawyer’s candidacy for chief prosecutor behind the scenes. 

After the departure of Bensouda, who as chief prosecutor opened a formal investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories, Khan was seen by Israeli officials as a “pragmatist who shies away from politicisation”. 

Coordinated campaign

Now, reports Channel 12, Israel will conduct a “political blitz” to condemn the ICC, lobbying member states to declare that they will not enforce its authority if and when the arrest warrants are issued. 

Netanyahu, who has been hitting the phones for weeks to avert the prospect of ICC warrants being issued against him, will continue this work, while Israel’s foreign ministry is also “considering a series of measures in an attempt to stop the prosecutor’s move”.

According to Israeli media, these include the establishment of a situation room geared towards getting pro-Israel advocates around the world to repeat the Israeli line both diplomatically and in the media.

The main message Israel will put out, according to Channel 12, is that it is “impossible” to group Netanyahu and Gallant together with the three Hamas leaders and that this is a decision that “harms the chances” of returning captives taken by Hamas during its 7 October attack.

Israel will also push countries to act “according to the principle of complementarity”, meaning that member states will declare their faith in the Israeli justice system to investigate its own. 

'The question is how the most failed government in Israel’s history loses its legitimacy in the most just war'

- Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli politician

Israeli officials and allied states have already swung into action, condemning the ICC and declaring their outrage at the idea that Israeli leaders could be mentioned in the same breath as those of Hamas.

Netanyahu called the ICC’s decision a “moral outrage of historic proportions”. He said that Khan was “callously pouring gasoline on the fires of antisemitism that are raging across the world”, and that the prosecutor had taken his place “among the great antisemites of modern times”. 

But Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party and formerly a minister under Netanyahu, called the ICC’s move “a resounding explanatory failure of the government”. 

“It is true that this is an antisemitic, anti-Israeli, political and hypocritical body. But at the same time, we must ask ourselves how it can be,” Lieberman said.

“The question is how the most failed government in Israel’s history loses its legitimacy in the most just war,” he added. "There is nothing to stop the war - it must be escalated."

'Target Israel and we will target you'

The US government has responded furiously to Khan’s announcement and both Democrat and Republican lawmakers have called for the ICC to be sanctioned. 

There is a precedent for sanctions. In 2020, Washington imposed sanctions on senior ICC officials, including Bensouda, after the court began investigating whether US forces had committed war crimes in Afghanistan. 

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“The ICC prosecutor’s application for arrest warrants against Israeli leaders is outrageous,” US President Joe Biden said in the statement. “And let me be clear: whatever this prosecutor might imply, there is no equivalence - none - between Israel and Hamas. We will always stand with Israel against threats to its security.”

Lindsey Graham, a US senator, said that he would work “feverishly work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle in both chambers to levy damning sanctions against the ICC”.

He revealed that he and members of the US government, as well as other Republican and Democrat politicians, had “engaged the ICC on this issue weeks ago".

"We were told there would be discussions with Israel before any actions were taken. We stressed that the principle of ‘complementarity’ should be applied in this case,” he added. 

“I feel that I was lied to and that my colleagues were lied to. Prosecutor Khan is drunk with self-importance and has done a lot of damage to the peace process and to the ability to find a way forward. Lying prosecutors never bring about just outcomes,” Graham posted on social media. 

Earlier this month, a group of Republican senators wrote a letter to Khan warning his office: “Target Israel and we will target you.”

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