Netanyahu to hold high-level talks on ICC war crimes probe

Defense Minister Gantz, Foreign Minister Ashkenazi to join discussion on how to respond to letter from International Criminal Court on alleged crimes by Israel, Palestinians

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 Netanyahu will hold high-level talks this week on the International Criminal Court’s impending probe of alleged war crimes by Israel and Palestinian terrorists, according to Saturday Hebrew media reports.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi are expected to take part in Tuesday’s meeting, which the Walla news site said will focus on how to respond to a letter sent by the ICC.

The talks will come after the Biden administration announced Friday that it will remove sanctions that former US president Donald Trump imposed on ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and a top aide.

The ICC has sent formal notices to Israel and the Palestinian Authority about its impending investigation into possible war crimes, giving them a few weeks to seek deferral by proving they are carrying out their own investigations.

Bensouda announced on March 3 that she was opening an investigation into actions committed by Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since 2014. The announcement of the investigation came less than a month after the court ruled it had the jurisdiction to open a probe. A preliminary investigation to settle the justiciability question took more than five years.

The ICC announced it would investigate possible war crimes committed by Israel and Palestinians following a request by the Palestinians, who joined the court in 2015 after being granted nonmember observer status in the UN General Assembly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, addresses supporters at the party campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early on March 24, 2021, after the end of voting in the fourth national election in two years. (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

Israel has fiercely condemned the investigation, accusing the ICC of bias, noting that it is demonstrably capable of investigating any alleged Israel Defense Forces crimes through its own legal hierarchies, and saying the ICC has no jurisdiction since the Palestinians do not have a state. Israel is not a member of the ICC, but its citizens could be subject to arrest abroad if warrants are issued.

The ICC probe is expected to focus on three main areas: the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas; Israeli settlement policy; and the 2018 Great March of Return protests, a series of violent demonstrations along Gaza’s border with Israel that left dozens of Palestinians dead.

The probe will also look at terrorist rocket fire from Gaza onto civilian areas in Israel.

Israeli observers noted the significance of the timing of the investigation’s span: On June 12, 2014, Hamas terrorists kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers in the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank. Bensouda’s investigation — based on the request submitted by the so-called State of Palestine — is set to begin from the following day.

The brutal terror attack, which horrified Israelis and drew international condemnation, was a pivotal moment in the lead-up to the fighting in Gaza later that summer. With the investigation set to consider events beginning on June 13, 2014, the crime could be excluded from the court’s investigation.

Bensouda is to be replaced as prosecutor in June by British lawmaker Karim Khan. Israel is said to hope Khan may be less hostile or even cancel the probe.

A demonstrator poses with a Palestinian flag outside the International Criminal Court (ICC) during a rally urging the court to prosecute Israel for alleged war crimes; in The Hague, Netherlands, Nov. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

The Trump administration imposed the financial sanctions and a visa ban on Bensouda and the senior court official last year after she launched an investigation into alleged war crimes by US military personnel in Afghanistan.

The new administration has continued to oppose the Afghan probe, as well as the investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories by Israel and Palestinian terror groups. Neither the US nor Israel are members of the ICC.

Ashkenazi confirmed on Saturday he was updated by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the move to lift sanctions on the ICC officials ahead of the Friday announcement.

“I emphasized Israel’s firm position against the Court’s jurisdiction to him, and Israel’s absolute commitment to protecting its citizens and soldiers. I clarified that the PA’s active involvement in advancing the case and the investigation will harm any chance of progress whether that be at the political level or the situation on the ground. The Palestinians’ activity has a destructive impact on relations with Israel,” Ashkenazi wrote on Twitter.

Ashkenazi said he was also updated by Blinken on next week’s meeting in Vienna on the Iran nuclear deal, which will include indirect talks between the Islamic Republic and the United States.

During their phone call yesterday, Ashkenazi said the two discussed “regional strategic issues and Iran’s perpetual and intensifying violations of its nuclear commitment as well as Iran and its proxies’ regional activities, which escalate and undermine the stability of the Middle East.”

A readout from the State Department said Blinken “discussed regional security challenges,” but did not mention Iran.

A statement from the US State Department on the call said Blinken urged Israel to ensure “equal” treatment of the Palestinians as the new US administration cautiously steps up efforts for a two-state solution.

Blinken “emphasized the administration’s belief that Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

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