ICC warrant request appears to shore up domestic support for Netanyahu

Prime minister’s political rivals from within government and the opposition have formed a united front against the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor

If the headlines in Israel were anything to go by the request by the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor for an arrest warrant against prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu seemed to have granted the Israeli leader one yet another turnaround in his long and turbulent political career.

“The hypocrisy of The Hague,” blared Tuesday’s front page of Yediot Ahronot, a popular mainstream daily that has often been critical of Netanyahu. Echoing the outrage expressed by Israelis across the political spectrum, and abandoning any semblance of impartiality, the front page denounced “the intolerable gall” of the chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, for what it described as putting Israel alongside the leaders of Hamas who “seek to annihilate it”.

The threat of arrest warrants comes against Netanyahu and his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, as well as three leaders of Hamas on charges of war crimes from the devastating Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7th and Israel’s punishing retaliatory campaign in the Gaza Strip.

It appeared to broadly galvanise Netanyahu’s opposition in his favour. Political rivals in Israel offered support. US officials, who had been critical of his plan to invade Rafah, roundly condemned the court’s action.

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In the hours and days before Netanyahu had appeared embattled, both domestically and internationally. The Israeli public had become increasingly frustrated with the government’s failure, over seven months, to achieve its stated war goals of eliminating Hamas and bringing home the 128 hostages who remain in Gaza – some of the hostages have died. Netanyahu’s emergency war cabinet was on the brink of falling apart.

Two key war cabinet members, Gallant and Benny Gantz, a former military chief, had publicly excoriated Netanyahu in recent days for failing to develop a plan for governing postwar Gaza. Gantz had even issued an ultimatum, saying his centrist party would quit the government if Netanyahu did not come up with a clear strategy by June 8th.

Israel has also been facing significant pressure to end its offensive from the United States, its most important ally. And as Israel’s parliament reconvened on Monday after spring recess, it became the focus of resurgent anti-government protests reminiscent of those that rocked the country for months before the war.

But Netanyahu, a renowned political phoenix, may have been given a lifeline and a new boost of popular support, though some analysts say the effect may be short-lived.

“For now it strengthens Netanyahu,” said Ben Caspit, a biographer and long-time critic of the prime minister and a columnist for Al-Monitor, a Middle East news site. “He is happiest in the role of the persecuted victim,” Caspit said of Netanyahu, adding that the international court’s opprobrium was likely to bring supporters who had grown sick of the conservative leader back into the fold.

Caspit said the chief prosecutor had, in Israel’s view, scored an “own goal” by creating an impression of equivalence between the leaders of Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist group by much of the West, and Netanyahu and Gallant, who would be the first leaders of a democratic country to be indicted by the court.

That perceived affront has rallied Israelis and some of Israel’s foreign allies in a way that even Hamas had failed to do in recent months. About 1,200 people were killed in the October 7th assault, Israel says, making it the deadliest single day for Jews since the Holocaust. More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gaza health ministry, in the ensuing war.

Netanyahu’s political rivals from within the government and the opposition have formed a united front against the court.

In a statement on Tuesday, Gallant described “the parallel” Khan had drawn between Hamas and the state of Israel as “despicable.” And Gallant was likely re-evaluating his options, according to experts.

The court process places Gallant, Netanyahu’s in-party rival, “in the same boat,” said Yonatan Touval, a senior analyst at Mitvim, an Israeli foreign-policy research institute, adding, “Gantz will be hard pressed to leave the government.”

Anticipating criticism about creating equivalency, Khan spoke of the need to apply the law equally to all sides in a conflict. “If it is seen as being applied selectively we will be creating the conditions for its collapse,” he said.

At this stage Netanyahu and Gantz primarily stand accused of using starvation as a weapon of war. Aid organisations and experts have attributed the hunger crisis in Gaza and a looming threat of famine to Israeli military restrictions on supplies entering the coastal enclave, as well as its strikes on aid workers.

At the beginning of the war Gallant promised a “total siege” on the territory, promising “no electricity, no food, no fuel” for Gaza, which is home to about 2.2 million people. But some aid routes were reopened in late October. Under international pressure Gallant and other Israeli leaders have spoken more recently of the need to “flood” Gaza with supplies, and two additional land crossings and a floating pier were added to improve access in recent weeks.

Aid groups say that Israel’s operation in Rafah has further hampered aid access and that the amounts going in are still not enough.

The Israeli military says it has facilitated thousands of aid operations and denies placing limits on food and medicine, blaming aid organisations for not adequately distributing the supplies after they have crossed the border, an assertion that the aid groups dispute. Israelis have also accused Hamas of stealing and selling the aid. Hamas has denied doing so.

Few Israelis seem to want to see children starving to death in Gaza.

“We are Jews,” said Hen Kerman (32), a resident of Beersheba, a city in Israel’s southern desert, who defined herself as being as far-right on the political map as they come. She added, “We don’t have the soul for that.”

Most Israeli Jews, according to a recent poll, hold Hamas greatly responsible for the suffering in Gaza, saying the October 7th assault left Israel with no choice but to go to war. With most Israelis drafted for years of military service at 18, and many going on to serve in the reserves, many of the country’s citizens have personal ties with the military and insistently repeat an Israeli adage that it is “the most moral army in the world”.

Playing on those sentiments, Netanyahu has presented the chief prosecutor’s request for arrest warrants as a threat not just to him and Gallant, but to every Israeli.

In a video statement that he issued in Hebrew for his domestic audience on Monday, Netanyahu said the “absurd and mendacious warrant” sought by Khan in The Hague was “directed not only against the prime minister of Israel and the defence minister but against the entire state of Israel. It is directed against the IDF soldiers, who are fighting with supreme heroism against the vile Hamas murderers.”

He said Khan’s actions would not stop Israel from waging its “just war” against Hamas until it was won.

For Netanyahu the International Criminal Court is “the best opponent he could ask for in order to galvanise support”, said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster and analyst who worked as an aide to Netanyahu in the 1990s. Many Israelis already viewed the ICC as hostile toward Israel, Barak said, and the fact that it did not attempt to adjudicate the role of Hamas until now, he said, added to Israeli antipathy toward the court.

But in the longer term Netanyahu’s attempt to tie his fate to that of all Israelis could backfire, some analysts said.

Israel is not a member of the ICC and does not recognise its jurisdiction in Israel or Gaza, meaning that if the court’s judges did issue warrants Netanyahu and Gallant would face no risk of arrest at home. They could, however, be arrested if they were to travel to one of the court’s 124 member nations, which include most European countries but not the United States.

In one troubling sign for Israel, France, an ally, did not condemn the chief prosecutor’s request for warrants against Israeli leaders, as the Biden administration did, or distance itself, like Britain.

Instead the French government expressed support for the ICC and its independence, saying in a statement that France had warned Israel for months about its obligation to respect international humanitarian law, particularly regarding the “unacceptable” loss of civilian lives in Gaza and insufficient humanitarian access.

Ultimately, argued Caspit, the Netanyahu critic and biographer, Israelis will see that Netanyahu’s leadership “does not help, but harms Israel”. The request for warrants reflects Israel’s gradual slide into becoming a “pariah state”, Caspit said, making it vulnerable to international embargoes and boycotts.

Khan also implicitly criticised Israel’s once-respected judicial system, saying that the ICC was forced to act only when a country’s prosecutors failed to hold its own citizens to account.

“In short, Israel is slowly losing its standing as a liberal democracy whose judicial system can be relied on,” Caspit said. “That should worry all of us.”

Any renewed support for Netanyahu would soon wane, he added, if, for example, the legal process were expanded to include soldiers and “Israelis understand it will not only endanger Netanyahu’s trips to Europe, but also their own”.

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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