Netanyahu Blasts ICC War Crimes Probe as 'The Essence of Antisemitism'

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Benjamin Netanyahu walks to get an overview of the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa, last year.
Benjamin Netanyahu walks to get an overview of the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa, last year.Credit: Debbie Hill/Pool via AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu harshly criticized the International Criminal Court prosecutor's statement on Wednesday that her office will open a formal investigation into war crimes in the Palestinian Territories, blasting the move as "the essence of antisemitism." 

"Israel has come under attack," the prime minister said in a statement, defending the "heroic and moral" actions of Israeli soldiers, who "fight against the cruelest of terrorists on the face of the earth."

The decision comes after the court ruled on February 5 that it has jurisdiction in the case. The Palestinian Authority welcomed the move, but it prompted swift rejection from Washington and Jerusalem.

President Reuven Rivlin spoke out against the prosecutor's statement, calling it "outrageous," and stressing Israel "can't accept claims that go against our right and duty to defend our citizens."

Israel's foreign minister also rejected the International Criminal Court's decision, calling it "morally and legally bankrupt".

"The decision to open an investigation against Israel is an exception to the mandate of the tribunal, and a waste of the international community's resrouces by a biased institution that has lost all legitimacy," Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a statement on Wednesday.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who, in his former position as IDF Chief of Staff, could face personal proceedings in this investigation, called it a "paradox." 

"We are not a banana republic. There is a law here, and it is precisely in this kind of occasion that the law stands by us," Gantz said, reiterating that the government will assist any Israelis caught in the ICC's crosshairs.

Israeli military chief Aviv Kochavi argued in a letter to soldiers that the court has "no authority" to probe actions committed by the Israel Defense Forces, adding that it has "always" abided by the law. "Whenever there are any transgressions, we are the first to investigate... and bring those responsible to justice, as needed," he said.

"We won't let any foreign institution intervene in our activity to defend Israel, let alone put IDF soldiers at a legal risk," Kochavi stressed.

Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. and UN Gilad Erdan attacked Bensouda, saying her decision "proves she is driven by hatred."

"By making this decision just before her tenure ends the prosecutor...shows her obsession with going after Israel. She turns a blind eye to the most vicious regimes around the world, who commit heinous war crimes, yet chooses to focus on the democratic state of Israel, which defends its citizens from indiscriminate rocket attacks by terror groups. We will continue working together with the American administration against this shameful decision," Erdan said.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel organization in Washington, called the investigation "a baseless and discriminatory attack on the Jewish state" and called on U.S. President Joe Biden to maintain sanctions on ICC officials instituted by the Trump administration. 

"As the Arab world normalizes relations with Israel, the Palestinians again show they are more intent on demonizing and attacking Israel than pursuing peace," AIPAC said, adding that Biden must continue prohibiting assistance to the Palestinian Authority and the maintenance of the PLO office in Washington due to the PA's support for the ICC probe.

'Despicable'

Several more Israeli politicians also publicly came out against the ICC's decision, which comes just three weeks before Israel's next general election.

Gideon Saar, leader of the New Hope party, called it "despicable," and vowed that his government would "work with allies around the world to protect the IDF, its commanders and its soldiers, and prevent the politicization of international law."

"While our enemies are firing missiles, placing explosives, stabbing and killing Israelis like animals, the tribunal decides to investigate Israel instead of the child killers and suicide bombers," said a statement by Yamina, which currently ranks third in the polls.

In her original request, former ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda named both the Israeli Defense Forces and armed Palestinian groups such as Hamas as possible perpetrators.

The far-right party, which currently ranks fourth in the polls, also joined Netanyahu in caling the investigation "antisemitic," as did its the prime minister's ally, radical far-right alliance Religious Zionism.

"With the help of God, after the election, we will establish a real right-wing government that will continue to ensure that Jews settle in Judea and Samaria, as they have done for thousands of years," a statement said.

The Yesha Council of Israeli settlement leaders echoed the sentiment, arguing the court "proved that it has no desire to bring justice, bur rather terrorize the State of Israel."

The organization claimed in a statement that Israeli settlement in the West Bank are legal.

Bensouda, who will be replaced by British prosecutor Karim Khan on June 16, said in December 2019 that "war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip". The next step will be to determine whether Israel or Palestinian authorities have investigations themselves and to assess those.

Ben Samuels and Yaniv Kubovich contributed to this report.

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