Netanyahu: Fighting ICC war crimes probe among government’s key objectives

Netanyahu: Fighting ICC war crimes probe among government’s key objectives

At first cabinet meeting, PM says the challenge from The Hague is a ‘strategic threat’ to Israeli military and political leaders

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Chagall Hall of the Knesset after the swearing-in of Israel's new government, May 17, 2020. (Kobi Gideom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Chagall Hall of the Knesset after the swearing-in of Israel's new government, May 17, 2020. (Kobi Gideom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said he deemed a possible war crimes investigation by the International Criminal Court a rare “strategic threat” to Israel, declaring efforts to prevent such a probe one of the new government’s top priorities.

At the first cabinet meeting, minutes after Israel’s 35th government was sworn in in the Knesset, Netanyahu said that The Hague’s intention to launch a investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem was one of the executive’s five main agenda items in the weeks and months ahead.

On April 30, ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asserted that Palestine is a state for the purposes of transferring criminal jurisdiction over its territory to The Hague, which could pave the way for a war crimes investigation against Israel’s military and civilian leadership, but also against Palestinian terrorists. It is now up to a pre-trial chamber to rule on the matter, which it is expected to do in the coming weeks.

“This is a worrying development,” Netanyahu said. “There is a word that I almost never use. Right, I don’t use the word ‘strategic.’ But here I will use this word, strategic. This a strategic threat to the State of Israel — to IDF soldiers, to the commanders, to the ministers, to the governments, to everything,” he said. “We will discuss this in a separate forum.”

The new government’s other main concerns were the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, Iranian aggression, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including plans to annex part of the West Bank, the prime minister said.

Earlier on Sunday, during the festive swearing-in session in the Knesset plenum, Netanyahu slammed the ICC for “persecuting Israeli with exaggerated and absurd allegations.”

The International Criminal Court, or ICC, in The Hague, Netherlands, November 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Higher Education and Water Resources Minister Ze’ev Elkin was appointed to coordinate the government’s response to the challenges posed by The Hague. Elkin, who is slated to become transportation minister in 18 months, is replacing Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz as the head of the so-called Interministerial Task Force for the International Criminal Court.

Officials at the foreign and justice ministries are also involved in Jerusalem’s efforts to prevent the court from opening an investigation “into the situation in Palestine.”

On Saturday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement slamming the court as a “political body,” and threatening consequences if it went ahead with the Palestine probe.

“We do not believe the Palestinians qualify as a sovereign state, and they therefore are not qualified to obtain full membership, or participate as a state in international organizations, entities, or conferences, including the ICC,” he said.

The US top diplomat noted that seven states – Australia, Austria, Brazil, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, and Uganda – had made formal submissions to the ICC arguing why they believe the court does not have jurisdiction to investigate alleged war crimes that occurred on the Palestinian territories.

“We concur,” Pompeo wrote. “A court that attempts to exercise its power outside its jurisdiction is a political tool that makes a mockery of the law and due process… If the ICC continues down its current course, we will exact consequences.”

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)

Last month, Bensouda issued a legal opinion that dismissed other legal opinions not only of seven states but also those of dozens of international law scholars who posited that the “State of Palestine” does not fulfill the criteria of a state that can transfer criminal jurisdiction over its territory to The Hague.

Still, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — but not a single individual state (expect Palestine itself) — posited that Palestine was indeed a state that could confer jurisdiction to the court.

The three judges of the pre-trial chamber — Péter Kovács of Hungary, Marc Perrin de Brichambaut of France, and Reine Adélaïde Sophie Alapini-Gansou of Benin — have no set deadline to hand down their decision, but are expected to do so within 120 days of Bensouda’s decision.

Israel has long argued that the ICC has no jurisdiction over the case, not least because there is no sovereign Palestinian state that could delegate to the court criminal jurisdiction over its territory and nationals.

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