Netanyahu’s worst fear of an ICC arrest warrant is likely to unite Israel around its leaders

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister
Benjamin Netanyah arrives at the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, on Monday in Jerusalem - Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

An arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court in the Hague is the thing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feared most.

Ever since rumours reached Jerusalem in mid April that the court was building a case against him he is said to have become “unnaturally afraid and worried”, allowing the matter to dominate his thinking.

The issue was an “overriding concern” for Mr Netanyahu and “more urgent than anything else,” said his biographer Anshel Pfeffer in early May.

Now the nightmare has become real. The decision of the ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan to seek arrest warrants for Mr Netanyahu and his Defence Minister Yoav Gallant will surely be granted by the Court in the coming weeks.

A distinguished panel of legal experts appointed by the prosecutor’s office has already unanimously concluded there are “reasonable grounds” to believe “war crimes and crimes against humanity” have been committed.

Murder and extermination, the use of starvation as a weapon of war, the deliberate targeting of civilians, other inhumane acts - there is good evidence for all of it, the experts say.

If the judges agree, arrest warrants will be issued and both men will risk detention if they leave Israel to travel to or through any of the 124 countries that are signatories to the Statute of Rome, including the United Kingdom.

Others in the same shoes include the Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, whose forces were responsible for tens of thousands of child deaths, rapes, and abductions between 2002 and 2005.

While the Court’s action will be seen by many as a win for justice, it is likely to entrench positions in the short term, making a political solution more difficult.

The fact Mr Netanyahu faces corruption charges in Israel has long been cited as a reason for his clinging to office. The prospect of a trial at the Hague is hardly likely to loosen his grip.

Israel also remains in the grip of war fever. Few Israeli’s objected when Mr Gallant ordered a “complete siege” of Gaza in October while declaring “we are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly” - and there are not many who disagree with his sentiment today.

This was evident in reaction to the ICC announcement on Monday, with Israeli concern focused on the perceived equivalence with the actions of Hamas - whose Gazan leaders figured on the same charge sheet.

Israel’s foreign minister Israel Katz said the move was “scandalous” and tantamount to attacking the victims of 7 October, while Benny Gantz, the Israeli politician most likely to succeed Mr Netanyahu, described it as a “deep distortion of justice and blatant moral bankruptcy.”

Even Yair Lapid, the left leaning Israeli opposition leader, condemned the announcement as “a terrible political failure.”

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government in front of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset
Israelis protest against Mr Netanyahu's government in front of the Knesset on Monday - Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

Israel will “not accept a comparison to Hamas,” he said. “It is not possible to issue arrest warrants against Netanyahu, Sinwar and Deif. There is no such comparison, we cannot accept it and it is unforgivable”.

The Israeli leader will also take comfort from the fiercely critical US reaction to the ICC judgement.

Like Israel, the US  - Israel’s largest arms supplier - is not a signatory to the Rome convention and does consider itself bound by its rulings.

“Let me be clear: whatever this prosecutor might imply, there is no equivalence — none — between Israel and Hamas. We will always stand with Israel against threats to its security,” said US President Joe Biden in a statement.

His Secretary of State Antony Blinken added that the US administration “fundamentally rejects” the ICC prosecutor’s decision, arguing that the Court was operating outside its jurisdiction and had not allowed Israel’s own prospectors enough time to deal with the matter internally.

“These and other circumstances call into question the legitimacy and credibility of this investigation,” he said.

“Fundamentally, this decision does nothing to help and could jeopardise, ongoing efforts to reach a ceasefire agreement that would get hostages out and surge humanitarian assistance in, which are the goals the United States continues to pursue relentlessly”.

While the judgement is clearly going to entrench views in the short term, overtime lawyers believe it will help deter war crimes in Israel, the occupied territories and beyond.

Already in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) there is worry among ordinary soldiers and reservists that they too could eventually be subject to war crimes charges, and this is being reflected up the ranks.

But the bigger long term impact is likely to go far beyond this particular conflict.

As the expert panel who reviewed the ICC prosecutor’s case noted: “There is no conflict that should be excluded from the reach of the law; no child’s life valued less than another’s. The law we apply is humanity’s law, not the law of any given side. It must protect all the victims of this conflict; and all civilians in conflicts to come”.