When It Comes to Its Morality, Israel Prefers Not to Be Tried

For a country that insists it’s done nothing wrong, Israel sure acts like it has something to hide.


Israel has the most moral army in the world. This claim, made famous by former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, has become one of the biggest cliches spouted by Israeli officials in recent years, a truth so self-evident it apparently requires no proof.

Israel drops aerial bombs on densely-populated areas, thereby leading to the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians? Not possible, Israel has the most moral army in the world. Israel demolishes the homes of Palestinian terrorists and their families, in violation of international law? Irrelevant, Israel has the most moral army in the world.

For a country that frequently boasts about its own morality, though, Israel sure does everything in its power to avoid its good deeds seeing the light of day.

This was clearly evident this week, as Israel reacted to the Palestinian request  to join the International Criminal Court at The Hague by freezing  $127 million in tax revenues (collected on behalf of the Palestinians) and pressuring Congress to halt $400 million in aid that the Palestinians receive from the United States. And earlier this week, Foreign Ministry Director-General Nissim Ben Sheetrit told Haaretz that Israel’s response would be “much harsher and more comprehensive” than the mere freezing of tax revenues.

Part of the Israeli anger stems from the (justified) fear that the Palestinians will use their new ICC membership to “drag Israeli soldiers and commanders to the International Criminal Court”, in the words of Netanyahu. To counteract such risks, Israel reportedly might prosecute Abbas and other Palestinian officials for alleged war crimes using the ICC.

While the ICC has so far only investigated issues related to African countries, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is probably too sensitive an issue for the court to pick up (in 2012 the ICC decided not to investigate Palestinian claims of Israeli war crimes allegedly committed during Operation Cast Lead, and in November the ICC halted its investigation into the events surrounding the 2010 Gaza flotilla), still, Palestinian membership in the ICC opens up the possibility of investigating both Israeli and Palestinian offenses, now that both fall within the jurisdiction of the court. But even without an official investigation being opened, the mere possibility of it, the shadow of the ICC, might affect Israeli actions in the West Bank, which might ultimately be what angers Israelis officials so much.

“The Palestinian Authority is the one that should fear the ICC,” Netanyahu said this week, promising to “take measures to defend the soldiers of the IDF, the most moral army in the world.”

To Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, the Palestinian ICC bid was no less than an act of terror, only this time with lawyers instead of suicide vests: “The Palestinian Authority has chosen to engage Israel, and we will not remain idle,” Netanyahu said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman added to Netanyahu’s outrage, saying that “the only ones committing war crimes in this conflict are the Palestinians, this even a deaf-blind-mute judge will know. So Abbas had better not threaten us, the country with the most moral army in the world.”

Like an accused who vehemently maintains his innocence yet settles to avoid going to trial, Israel has a history of doing everything it can to keep its innocence from being scrutinized. It refused to cooperate with the Goldstone Report, deriding the UN investigation into the 2009 Gaza war as one-sided and prejudicial, in the same way that it now boycotts the UN fact-finding mission into the 2014 Gaza war (headed by William Schabas who is, to be fair, hardly an impartial investigator ).

Whether it’s the UN, the ICC or human rights organizations, Israel has repeatedly and consistently banned, rebuked and attempted to circumvent international attempts to investigate its actions in the occupied territories. In November, for instance, it barred  three members of the Schabas committee from entering Gaza to collect testimonies.

This, of course, largely stems from the feeling prevalent among many Israelis that “the world is against us”; that human rights organizations are irreparably biased against Israel, that the UN voted for the existence of Israel only to delegitimize it ever since, that the ICC has much bigger fish to fry and that anti-Semitism plays a big part in the criticism directed toward Israel, and in the traction this criticism gets. The game is rigged, in short, so why even bother to play?

This is not entirely unfounded. Human rights organizations often ignore the complex realities Israel faces and its precarious position security-wise. The UN Human Rights Council is a rather strange organization that is incredibly biased against Israel, and every Israeli action or statement or flaw is endlessly analyzed, scrutinized and condemned anyway, so in that sense Israel has already been tried, convicted and hanged even before its “trial” began.

Yet it is worth taking Israel’s feeling of unwarranted persecution with a grain of salt, and remember that defendants don’t usually have the power to cut off their accuser’s power, wages or water supply.

Of course, in an alternate universe, Israel could have behaved differently, maybe even used the Palestinian ICC bid to its advantage. If it indeed operates in accordance with international law, as it claims, if it truly has an independent judicial system able to prosecute soldiers and officers guilty of wrongdoing and bringing them to justice, if it truly abides by its own ethical codes and has ample evidence to support this, it could have engaged its detractors in an open, transparent process – and maybe, just maybe, even won.

If it is truly moral, it could have taken on international scrutiny and gained a moral upper hand that would have helped it defend itself against boycotts and arguments against the legitimacy of its existence – at least among those willing to listen.

The problem is that Israel lacks much of these things: Its judicial system often fails to hold the army accountable, its ethical code often clashes with the realities of war, and it is difficult to maintain your moral fiber while maintaining control of millions of people.

“Sunlight”, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis famously said, “is said to be the best disinfectant.” But too much of what Israel does nowadays depends on the shadows surrounding it. Any scrutiny, local or international, threatens not only Israel’s ability to act with impunity, but also its sense of righteousness.

Over the years, as Israel veered more to the right and the occupation of the West Bank has become normalized, Israel has grown used to protecting the darkness that shrouds many of its actions – from building in the settlements to the conduct of its soldiers in the West Bank – as ferociously as it protects its borders. It claims its morality to be so absolute that it can bear any investigation, no matter how exhaustive, but then seeks to avoid any questions being raised.

For this reason, despite the fact that the ICC is not likely to investigate Israeli leaders any time soon, Israel has already lost the fight. Even without its military officers being prosecuted, in the court of international public opinion it has long since lost.

One cannot expect to avoid sunlight so much, after all, without being seen as someone who has something to hide.