Rishi Sunak slams 'deeply unhelpful' ICC bid to arrest Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli and Hamas leaders targeted by the ICC prosecutor for arrest (ES Composite)
Israeli and Hamas leaders targeted by the ICC prosecutor for arrest (ES Composite)

Rishi Sunak said on Tuesday that a bid by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to arrest Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for war crimes is “deeply unhelpful” to advancing peace in Gaza.

“There is no moral equivalence between a democratic state exercising its lawful right to self-defence and the terrorist group Hamas,” the Prime Minister told reporters on a visit to Vienna.

“This is a deeply unhelpful development. Of course it is still subject to a final decision, but it remains deeply unhelpful nonetheless.”

Mr Sunak added: “What I am very clear is that this will make absolutely no difference in getting a pause in the fighting, getting aid into the region, or indeed the hostages out.”

But Amnesty International accused the PM of undermining the court in The Hague, which was created to replace a series of ad hoc UN tribunals set up to investigate war crimes including the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian War.

“What is actually deeply unhelpful is to have the Prime Minister undermining the International Criminal Court and effectively opposing the search for justice by Israeli and Palestinian victims of war crimes and other grave human rights violations,” Amnesty UK’s crisis response manager Kristyan Benedict said.

“Raising questions of supposed moral equivalence is disingenuous and deliberately misleading - this is a fundamental matter of the rule of law, justice and accountability, and the UK is placing itself on the wrong side of history in opposing the ICC on this.”

Unlike Israel and the United States, the UK is a signatory to the ICC and would be obliged to execute any arrest warrant should the targeted person visit Britain.

But the Government is casting doubt on the ICC’s jurisdiction over the case. Deputy Foreign Secretary Andrew Mitchell told MPs that the UK has not recognised Palestine as a state, while Israel is “not a state party to the Rome Statute” which founded the ICC in 2002.

The UK did, however, support an ICC arrest warrant issued last year against President Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine, despite Russia also refusing to sign the Rome Statute.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said it was “absurd” to question the difference in approach, stressing that Israel was legitimately acting in self-defence against Hamas while Russia had illegally invaded a sovereign nation.

The ICC’s British chief prosecutor Karim Khan said he had "reasonable grounds to believe" that Mr Netanyahu and Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar bore responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

He also targeted Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant along with Hamas leaders Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh.

A panel of three ICC judges will decide whether to issue the arrest warrants and allow a case to proceed. The judges typically take two months to make such decisions.But Michael Gove, the communities and levelling up secretary, insisted on Times Radio that there was a drive “to hold Israel to standards that we don't hold other countries to”.

“You cannot equate Israel with Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organisation, bent on slaughter. Israel is a state - like all states, an imperfect one, but one that’s trying to defend its people, and trying to equate the two is just nonsensical,” he said.

Echoing strong criticism from the White House, Mr Gove accused the ICC of failing to act over alleged war crimes in Syria, Myanmar, Sudan, Mali and Ethiopia.

He said: “The person currently alive who’s killed more Muslims than anyone else is [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad. So when the ICC go after him with the same energy they're going after Israel, then I'll feel reassured.”

Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron told peers that the ICC prosecutor’s step was a “mistake” and queried its timing.

He said: “On timing I would make the point that the ICC was about to embark on a visit to Israel, which some of us had helped to arrange, and at the last minute decided to cancel that visit and simply go ahead with its announcement.

“It’s clearly thought about the timing, maybe it should also think about the effect,” the former PM said.

“It’s not going to help get the hostages out and it will probably make a change in Israel less likely.”