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Netanyahu asked Biden to maintain US sanctions on ICC — report

Israeli officials argue to US that Trump-imposed measures give leverage to contest charges in Afghanistan, Gaza and West Bank

Chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda at the opening of the court's judicial year with a Special Session at the seat of the court in The Hague, January 23, 2020. (courtesy ICC)
Chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda at the opening of the court's judicial year with a Special Session at the seat of the court in The Hague, January 23, 2020. (courtesy ICC)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked US President Joe Biden to maintain sanctions on the International Criminal Court that were imposed by the Trump administration, according to a Wednesday report.

Netanyahu made the request during his first phone call with Biden last week, the Axios news site reported, citing Israeli officials.

The sanctions were also discussed in a phone call between Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the report said.

Israeli officials have argued to the US that it should maintain the sanctions as leverage against investigations in Afghanistan, as well as the West Bank and Gaza.

Netanyahu hinted at that argument in a speech last week about missing soldiers, the report said.

In a major decision earlier this month, a pre-trial chamber of the ICC determined that The Hague has jurisdiction to open a criminal investigation into Israel and the Palestinians for war crimes alleged to have taken place in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

It now falls to the ICC’s chief prosecutor to decide whether to launch an investigation. Lead prosecutor Fatou Bensouda indicated in 2019 that she intends to do so, but she leaves the post in June and will be replaced by British barrister Karim Khan.

The Trump administration slapped sanctions on Gambian-born Bensouda and one of her top aides last year for continuing to investigate war crimes allegations against Americans, although the court was often criticized in the past for its focus on African crimes.

The Biden administration has signaled a less confrontational line but has not said whether it will drop sanctions against Bensouda, who has attacked the “unacceptable” measures.

Israel is not a member of the ICC and neither is the US. The Palestinians joined the court in 2015.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to US President Joe Biden on February 17, 2021. (Prime Minister’s Office)

Earlier this month, a report said Israel ordered dozens of embassies worldwide to request that their host countries deliver a “discreet message” to Bensouda, over her ruling.

Two senior Israeli officials told the Walla news site that the classified order was defined as “urgent,” including a directive for diplomats to open embassies Sunday, an irregular move, to begin work.

The order instructed ambassadors to start reaching out to heads of government and foreign ministers in the countries they are posted in, to issue public statements of opposition to the ICC’s decision, the report said.

The ICC is meant to serve as a court of last resort when countries’ own judicial systems are unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute war crimes. Israel’s military has mechanisms to investigate alleged wrongdoing by its troops, and despite criticism that the system is insufficient, experts say it has a good chance of fending off an ICC investigation into its wartime practices.

The ICC does not try countries, but rather individuals. Israeli officials said Friday that they do not currently anticipate any immediate threats to senior Israeli political or military figures.

When it comes to settlements, however, some experts say Israel could have a difficult time contesting international law forbidding the transfer of a civilian population into occupied territory.

If Israel and/or Hamas are ultimately convicted of war crimes, and if senior officials are named in such a verdict, they could be subject to international arrest warrants upon travel abroad.

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