Kevin Ovenden assesses the meaning and impact of a prosecutor of the International Criminal Court seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant 

The move by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to seek arrest warrants for prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and defence minister Yoav Gallant is a devastating blow to Israel. A measure of that is the fury with which the government and political class in Tel Aviv have responded. Gallant says that it denies ‘Israel’s right to self-defence’. 

That’s a telling reply to charges of manufacturing starvation as a weapon of war, deliberate killing of civilians, extermination and denying humanitarian relief. Tuesday brought further revelations that Israeli police and security personnel have been tipping off fascistic settlers so they can target trucks carrying aid. That is setting to one side the state’s own illegal restrictions on humanitarian relief. In answering the charges, the Israeli government is in effect admitting that its ‘self-defence’ involves the commission of war crimes.  

Joe Biden says the decision by ICC prosecutor Karim Khan KC is ‘outrageous’. Why anyone should take his view seriously is a mystery, given that the US does not recognise the court, whose decision will also be damaging to Biden in this election year. 

Rishi Sunak says it is ‘unhelpful’. In saying so he breaches the principle to which the UK is formally signed up: defending the court’s ‘independence from political interference’. That indicates the importance of this move, whatever the future developments and despite the fact that the court has sought ‘balance’ by also looking to issue warrants for three Hamas leaders. 

The significance is not that the ICC will somehow stop Netanyahu. Israel will defy the court. The point is that it is already shattering the sense of impunity the Israeli state has enjoyed. Should arrest warrants be issued, it would mean an actual restriction upon Netanyahu’s ability to travel abroad, as there is on Vladimir Putin’s. 

Perversely, the inclusion of three Hamas leaders in the sought-for warrants means that Netanyahu is bracketed with them in perpetuity. Israel’s supporters are enraged, accusing the ICC’s Khan of suggesting a ‘moral equivalence’ between the two. Actually, he has applied abstractly and impartially a single legal standard and the real objection is that it fails to take account of the political reality. That is of occupation, dispossession, 76 years of the Nakba and the difference between the violence of an oppressor, occupying state and the response of the oppressed and occupied people. 

Israel and the ICC 

Israel does not want to be held to a universal standard. The shock is that it is being forced to, in one international body after another. From the International Court of Justice (ICJ) responsible for application of the convention against genocide, through global NGOs and UN bodies, national parliaments and now the ICC. In the eyes not only of the Israeli state but of its Western backers, this was just not meant to happen. 

In an interview with CNN, Khan revealed that when he sounded the alarm last month about threats to ICC staff discouraging them from bringing prosecutions against Israeli leaders, he was told by a ‘senior leader’ that the ICC ‘is built for Africa and thugs like Putin’, not for the West and its allies. 

For decades that is exactly how it has been. That is why there has been much scepticism that the court and its British prosecutor would ever move towards any action, having remained silent for the first six months of Israel’s genocidal war. 

Unlike the ICJ and crimes of genocide, the ICC, rather than another state decides whether or not to bring a prosecution. Cynicism only grew when it became common knowledge that Israel had previously expressed confidence in Khan and as news spread of intense pressure being applied on the court. Some mistaken commentary went on one of those wild goose chases of trying to find ‘links’, like six degrees of separation, to ‘prove’ that Khan was in league with ‘the Zionists’. Well, Israel’s earlier praise for the ICC prosecutor now rebounds against Netanyahu and the Zionist state. It makes it harder to delegitimise the proceedings, if you previously expressed confidence in the personnel. 

Western cheering for the ICC when it acted according to design, such as charging the ‘thug Putin’, presents a problem for those who want to discredit it now that it has gone beyond design specs. Australia’s prime minister is smart enough to grasp this and has expressed ‘confidence in the independence’ of the ICC, even if the last thing the Australian state wants, in its expanded military alliance with the US and Britain, would be a truly independent international court. 

Given all that, we have the ludicrous further extension of the claim from Israel’s leaders that all of this is motivated by anti-Semitism. We are not really meant to believe that a man that was a highly respected English KC and international lawyer last week, has become an outrageous anti-Semite this week. Rather, it is a bunker position to try to hold together hardline and fanatical support within Israel and abroad. 

However, it is wearing ever thinner and increasingly resembling the dogma at the heart of the Zionist project that falsely claims that Jews will never be safe with non-Jews. The growth of the international solidarity movement, its increasing Jewish participation, and ever clearer politics based upon internationalism and universal principles is a rebuke to that propaganda. 

It is having political effects in all sorts of ways. Even in Israel. War cabinet ministers Gallant and Benny Gantz have expressed, in however feeble and hypocritical a way, a sense of discontent in Israeli society. That was apparent in renewed protests last week (of varying political colourations). Those are taking place only because of the resistance of the Palestinian people and the international solidarity with them. 

Moment for the international solidarity movement 

It remains to be seen what the impact of the ICC decision will be. Official politics has railed against the court. It is not only Netanyahu facing charges, but the defence minister Gallant. He is the voice of the army in the government. At the same time, tensions within the society are deep and the court’s bracketing of Netanyahu with Hamas fits a common view in Israel that both are responsible for the ongoing crisis. That evades the fundamental question of the oppression of the Palestinians. Nonetheless, it permits the diversion of the issues solely onto Netanyahu. This is dangerous for him. 

Nothing within the Israeli state and society is moving Palestinian society or global politics. It is the other way around. So now looming is a declared 8 June deadline set by his opponents for Netanyahu to come to a deal over the hostages and a plan for after the war. 

Those are not the parameters of the Palestinians. However, they are not ones that Netanyahu can live with either, just as he cannot live with an arrest warrant in the way that the leaders of Hamas can, already treated by the West as terrorists. 

The renewed crack in Israeli society and politics might readily close over again. The active force here is the Palestinian people, their resistance and global solidarity. 

That is part of the context for the developments at the ICC. Another is that while it may have been designed to fit a post-Cold-War US-led world, that hegemony is breaking down. It is no longer the case that most of the world will accept the US and its allies deciding for themselves what is an international crime, who should be brought to trial and who not. 

This changing international reality means that within those institutions that consider themselves part of the fabled ‘rules-based international order’, there has to be some coherence in how they apply ‘the rules’ as they see them. These rules cannot be simple and obvious instruments of one power and its allies, even if, ultimately, they reflect the imperial relations that still privilege the US and Nato. 

While bodies such as the ICC and ICJ may feel remote and not susceptible to our actions, we collectively are part of a chain of pressures that has an effect. Everything we do now makes a difference. Breakthroughs happen when myriad actions are drawn together in unity in huge concentrations of force. From there, they percolate out to workplaces, neighbourhoods, universities, communities and civic groups, always winning wider forces. 

The legal developments this week can be an instrument for us in doing so. They are also a bitter pill for the increasingly unhinged and isolated hardcore supporters of Israel’s crimes.  

With that thinking in mind, anti-capitalist lawyers in Greece this week began proceedings over Israel’s crimes and the participation in them of Greek citizens who have volunteered to serve in the genocidal Israeli army in Gaza. No one imagines that Athens’ courts will liberate the Palestinians. Just as we did not believe that the courts would stop fascism. Nonetheless, the years-long campaign to jail Golden Dawn leaders as being part of a criminal fascist organisation bore fruit and played its part in developing the mass movement and unity of working people that did throw them back and can destroy racism. 

Palestine is a global issue and rallying point as never before. In building the movement, we must utilise skilfully all manner of instruments – focusing upon the collective mobilisation of people, above all the popular masses in the Middle East, that can free Palestine. We can demand this week of every authority, that, if Israel is in the dock for plausible genocide and its prime minister wanted personally for war crimes, then there can nowhere be any normal relations with such a state. 

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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