Israel takes part in international court debate for first time in decades

At ICJ in The Hague, Israeli delegation weighs in on territorial dispute it has nothing to do with, in apparent effort to avoid being typecast as a one-issue country

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The Israeli delegation at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, September 5, 2018 (UN Photo/Wendy van Bree. Courtesy ICJ)
The Israeli delegation at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, September 5, 2018 (UN Photo/Wendy van Bree. Courtesy ICJ)

Israel this week participated in a debate at the International Court of Justice in The Hague for the first time in more than half a century, in what Israeli officials described as an effort to get the Jewish state more involved in matters of international law that have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Officials from the foreign and justice ministries took part in oral proceedings regarding an ongoing territorial dispute over an archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

Led by the Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser, Tal Becker, the delegation issued two statements in a public hearing on the question of whether the court should issue an advisory opinion on Britain’s contentious separation of the Chagos archipelago from Mauritius in 1965.

Israel took the UK’s side in arguing that the court did not have the jurisdiction to make pronouncements in the case.

Israel was one of 22 states that participated in this week’s oral proceedings. In February, it had provided a written statement on the matter.

“If I am not mistaken, the last time the State of Israel took part in oral proceedings for this court was almost six decades ago,” Becker told the court in The Hague’s Peace Palace Wednesday.

Becker said Israel respects both Great Britain and Mauritius but argued that their dispute is a bilateral matter that should not be discussed in The Hague. He also said Jerusalem saw the case as having wider implications beyond who controls the tropical cays.

“Israel attaches importance to the present advisory proceedings, as they touch upon matters that transcend the particular circumstances of this case and bear upon the specific settlement of international disputes, in more general terms,” he said. “My presence today here is also testimony to the importance that Israel attaches to international law more broadly.”

Israel Foreign Ministry legal advisor Tal Becker at the ICJ in The Hague, September 5, 2018 (UN Photo/Wendy van Bree. Courtesy ICJ)

In June 2017, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favor of asking the court to provide an advisory opinion on the decades-old dispute between the UK and Mauritius over who has sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, a group of seven atolls in the Indian Ocean.

The International Court of Justice is the UN’s principal judicial organ.

Israeli officials declined to discuss the delegation’s participation on the record. But according to diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, Israel’s argument can be seen as an effort to get the Jewish state involved in international matters, and showcasing its legalists’ skills in international law on subjects that have nothing to do with the various conflicts in the Middle East.

More than before, some officials in the foreign and justice ministries have been pushing for Israel to become more engaged in matters of international law, lest it be typecast as a one-issue country, the sources said.

They also noted that Israel volunteered to offer its views on the Chagos case to support the UK’s embattled position.

In 1965 — three years before Mauritius gained independence from Great Britain — London split the Chagos Archipelago away from Mauritius, forcibly expelled some 2,000 Chagossians, and formally added the contested atolls to its British Indian Ocean Territory.

Mauritius argues that the Chagos archipelago was part of its territory since at least the 18th century and was taken unlawfully by the UK. Britain insists it has sovereignty over the archipelago.

The UK has vowed to return the archipelago as soon as it is no longer needed for “defense purposes.” It is currently leasing its largest island, Diego Garcia, to the US, which has built a large military base there.

In recent years, Mauritius has tried to internationalize the dispute, getting much of the international community’s support. Last year, the UN urged the court to give an advisory opinion on the dispute.

While most of the 22 countries sided with Mauritius in oral arguments, Israel joined the UK and US in positing that the court had no standing to rule on a bilateral territorial dispute.

Becker, the head of the Israeli delegation, delivered a nearly half-hour-long presentation Wednesday encouraging the two parties to resolve the issue between themselves rather than involve the court.

Israel’s deputy attorney general for international law, Roy Schöndorf, also addressed the court on the matter.

The Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, seat of the International Court of Justice (Public Domain/Wikipedia)

Israel’s position on the Chagos case does not only back the UK, but is also in line with Jerusalem’s steadfast views that bilateral conflicts need to be solved through bilateral negotiations as opposed to legal or diplomatic proceedings in international forums.

Israel has a complicated relationship with the court, especially following an advisory opinion it issued in 2004 that declared Israel’s West Bank security barrier to be illegal.

Advisory opinions are not binding, but “carry great legal weight and moral authority,” according to the court’s website.

A decision by the judges is not expected for several months.

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