Ex-Foreign Ministry head: Overhaul will leave Israel, IDF vulnerable at world court

Alon Ushpiz, who quit last month, says Israel won’t be able to claim shield of independent judiciary to protect it and its soldiers from scrutiny by International Court of Justice

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General Alon Ushpiz at a ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General Alon Ushpiz at a ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Senior diplomat Alon Ushpiz, who recently resigned as Foreign Ministry director general, has warned that the government’s controversial judicial overhaul could seriously impact Israel’s international standing and make it and especially its soldiers vulnerable to charges in international courts.

“Israel and its foreign relations need an independent and strong legal system,” Ushpiz said in an interview with the Haaretz daily published Thursday. “We have a clear strategic interest in it.”

Ushpiz, who resigned in January, is a 30-year career diplomat. He served as head of the ministry for the last two and a half years under ministers Gabi Ashkenazi and Yair Lapid, who was replaced by Likud’s Eli Cohen.

Ushpiz noted that Israel has long been able to avoid wide-ranging censure from the international courts — notably including the UN’s International Court of Justice, sometimes known as the World Court — because it was able to point to an independent judiciary that would investigate any reports of abuse.

“Our ability to further Israel’s key interests and defend them are very much dependent on that. These are also issues that definitely relate to our security,” he said.

This was particularly true in protecting Israel Defense Force soldiers from charges of war crimes related to the conflict with the Palestinians.

“The State of Israel, and its various governments, expects state employees to protect in the best possible way a platoon commander or a company commander who is sent to carry out a mission. In order for people who live here to be ready to go on these missions, they need to know that people like me will do everything possible to protect them from legal situations to threaten them, and to have the best tools to do it,” Ushpiz said.

Ushpiz also gave the example of the West Bank security barrier, which provoked widespread international criticism and scrutiny from the international courts when it was built nearly two decades ago — officially to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers from the West Bank.

A section of Israel’s security barrier between the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit, right, and the outskirts of the West Bank village of Bilin, near Ramallah, June 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“The fact that the opinion of the International Court of Justice did not influence our relations with the international community in a practical way stems from the fact that the High Court of Justice took over scrutiny of the route of the barrier and made all sorts of rulings,” Ushpiz said.

“Even the government of Israel — and it was not a left-wing government — made changes to the route in order to adhere to the standard [set by the court.] Since then, we don’t hear anything about it, and until today we have the barrier that protects lives and there is no public or international discourse over it with the international community.”

Ushpiz’s criticism joins that of other former officials who have warned that the proposed judicial overhaul will undermine Israel’s democracy and harm its economy and security.

The reforms, which are being pushed through the Knesset in recent weeks, includes the government granting itself total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, all but eliminating the High Court’s ability to review and strike down legislation, and allowing politicians to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers.

The plans have spurred mass weekly protests in major cities, alarmed warnings from academics, economists, legal professionals and tech entrepreneurs inside and outside Israel, and fierce criticism from the opposition.

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