columnIsrael News

Don’t downplay the impact of the ICC indictment of Netanyahu

It strengthened the prime minister at home and forced Biden to denounce the move. But the lawfare campaign to make Israel a pariah state is doing damage.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the "Unto Every Person There is a Name" ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 6, 2024. Credit: Ma'ayan Toaf/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the "Unto Every Person There is a Name" ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 6, 2024. Credit: Ma'ayan Toaf/GPO.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic and American political opponents are not all cheering the decision of the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to call for indictments of both the Israeli leader and three members of the Hamas terrorist group. While Israel-haters and antisemites everywhere are savoring the fantasy of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant being put on trial at The Hague for war crimes against the Palestinians, this deeply cynical and immoral move has had some short-term unintended consequences.

As even The New York Times reluctantly noted, the announcement made by ICC prosecutor Karim Khan outraged the Israeli public. The argument that Israel is no better than the barbaric terrorists of Hamas is amoral as well as rooted in the kind of double standards that is indistinguishable from antisemitism. Treating the measured actions of the country that was attacked and whose citizens were subjected to unspeakable atrocities by a genocidal terrorist movement as the moral equivalent of those very terrorists is itself an act of outrageous prejudice and injustice. And it has given Netanyahu an advantage over both his domestic and international opponents.

Still, it would be a mistake for supporters of Israel to discount the impact of the ICC’s gesture and other efforts by the worldwide community to isolate and smear the Jewish state as a criminal enterprise.

The growing tally of moves designed to make it difficult or impossible for Israel to engage in commerce or conduct regular diplomatic activity, or for its scholars to participate in academic exchanges or even for entertainers to appear abroad, such as the campaign to try to force Eurovision contestant Eden Golan out of the recent singing competition, isn’t merely discouraging and unfair. It’s all part of a process by which prejudicial stands against Israel and Jews become normalized and then grow to be a matter of consensus among the supposedly enlightened classes. The next step is international sanctions that could do far more serious harm.

Ignoring the UN

Israelis have always tended to ignore or dismiss such concerns. Part of that attitude stems from a belief that the spirit of Zionism—a philosophy of Jewish self-determination—should impel Jews to focus on the project of rebuilding their homeland and its defense, and not what non-Jews think about it. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, summed up that attitude by famously disregarding the fulminations of the United Nations by using the Hebrew acronym for it, “Um-schmum.”

This attitude has also led to Israel paying less attention to the need to acknowledge and return fire in the information war that Israel-haters have been waging for decades.

But the campaign to isolate Israel is about more than the Jewish state getting a bad image. In the seven months since Oct. 7, the belief that Israel is an evil “white” oppressor state isn’t merely a hateful myth believed by ignorant college students. The mainstreaming of anti-Zionist propaganda that denies rights to Jews no one would think of denying to anyone else comes with a cost both for Israel and the Diaspora.

The United Nations may be a talking shop, but the growing belief in global discourse that support for the Jewish state is a form of racism that can’t be tolerated is clearly beginning to unravel the enormous strides the Jewish state has made in the last decade to normalize relations with the Muslim and Arab worlds, as well as to place it in the first rank of developed economies.

Simply put, the talk of indictments is merely the first part of a campaign whose aim is to do to Israel what the international community did to apartheid-era South Africa. That means a move towards real sanctions that would impact Israel’s economy. It would also lead to measures to make it impossible for Israeli leaders and a host of other figures in its government and other institutions to visit elsewhere or to conduct normal business abroad.

The South Africa precedent

Israel and its friends can indeed point out the myriad differences between Israel and the apartheid regime. Israel isn’t a country where a minority rules over a majority, but a democracy with a large Jewish majority that constitutes the indigenous people of their ancient homeland. Yet in a world in which woke myths about Jews and Israel being racist “white” oppressors of people of color are increasingly accepted, the facts don’t seem to matter. A world in which antisemitism is being revived by a bizarre red-green alliance of leftist ideologues and Islamists is increasingly a place where lies about Israel are not only believed but treated as a justification for actions that can do real damage to the Jewish state.

Institutions like the United Nations, its Human Rights Council and the ICC may be objects of scorn for most Americans and Israelis. But to the rest of the world, they are widely respected, as if they still stood for the idealistic values that motivated their founders to believe that their creation would ensure that the world would never again descend into the barbarism of a world war. The fact that they now exist to prop up the same spirit of barbarism in countries and cultures that have no use for liberal democracy doesn’t stop them from having enormous power to create problems for those who become their targets.

While some in Israel long believed that a willingness to give up territory and embrace a Palestinian state would make Israel loved around the world, the state of affairs since Oct. 7 is a reminder that hatred for Israel isn’t about its actions so much as its existence. The movement to boycott Israel with BDS measures hasn’t done much damage to its economy to date. However, the shocking support for Hamas and condemnations of Jerusalem’s efforts to eradicate a movement dedicated to Jewish genocide demonstrates just how much impact the efforts of the boycotters have had on opinion around the world.

A boost for Bibi

Still, the short-term impact of the ICC announcement not only undermined the anti-Netanyahu protest movement inside Israel but forced the Biden administration to shift its tone of harsh and deeply unfair criticism of the Israel Defense Forces’ conduct of the war. Even President Joe Biden found himself forced to say that Israel was not guilty of “genocide.” And it gave a boost to the efforts of House Speaker Mike Johnson to pressure Democrats to join him in inviting Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress, thus providing him an opportunity to make Israel’s case to Americans without the filter of an often-hostile news media.

As with Israel’s top generals and those in charge of the country’s intelligence agencies, there is a good case to be made that Netanyahu should be forced out of office because of the historic disaster that occurred on his watch. That may well happen after the war is concluded. But the bulk of Israel’s journalistic, legal, academic, business and security establishments have been seeking to topple Netanyahu’s government almost from the moment he won the last Knesset election in November 2022. Up until Oct. 7, their focus was on thwarting the Likud Party-led effort to reform Israel’s out-of-control judiciary. After a few months of unity after the Hamas massacres in southern Israel, the opposition resumed its push to unseat Netanyahu by blaming him for the plight of the hostages still being held captive in Gaza and the war continuing to drag on.

But nothing is more likely to bolster support for Netanyahu than outside pressure from the United States or the international community, which have been demonizing him for positions or actions supported by most Israelis. That was a lesson that former President Barack Obama never seemed to learn during his eight years in office. The pressure from Obama to force Israel to retreat to the 1967 borders and to divide Jerusalem to create a Palestinian state that the Palestinians consistently refused to accept actually helped Netanyahu repeatedly win re-election. His future in office is, at best, unclear. But as long as he can show the Israeli public that he is the only leader with the guts to stand up to the Americans and foreign pressure to adopt positions on borders, Palestinian statehood and the survival of Hamas, it would be a mistake to underestimate his ability to use that to hang on.

It’s also true that the ICC arguably has no real jurisdiction over Israel and that many countries, including the United States, will not recognize its authority. And there is every chance that the Americans will penalize Khan and the ICC for this outrage. Even Secretary of State Antony Blinken—who is as devoted a supporter of international organizations, the United Nations and its agencies as anyone who has ever been in charge of U.S. foreign policy—pledged to work with Congress on sanctioning the ICC.

The same is true for other aspects of the international campaign to isolate Israel such as the decisions of Spain, Norway and Ireland to recognize Palestinian statehood in a vacuum. Since there is no existing state of Palestine, these sorts of gestures are meaningless acts of virtue-signaling as well as an immoral reward to the Palestinians for employing terrorism.

Sanction the ICC and the UN

Meaningless gestures, however, have a way of accumulating and creating a compendium of moves that effectively brand not just Israeli policies as unpopular but illegitimate. Israelis have come to believe that their high-tech prowess, innovations in medical technology and a host of other accomplishments mean respect the world over and that they can’t be made into a pariah state. Their newfound normalization agreements by two Gulf states, Morocco and Sudan via the 2020 Abraham Accords brokered by former President Donald Trump bolstered that belief.

The mechanisms of international law can be mocked, as well as correctly labeled as the product of anti-Israel propaganda. But the reaction to the Hamas atrocities of Oct. 7 should make it clear to Jews everywhere that counting on much of the world to condemn a movement of murderers, rapists and kidnappers bent on Israel’s elimination may be a fool’s errand.

Having downplayed the threat of lawfare against Israel for a generation, many in the pro-Israel community still don’t acknowledge the danger it poses. Even after the current war ends, the impact of the lies about Israeli “genocide” will still be felt. What is needed now is a robust American campaign not just to condemn the ICC and the United Nations, but a decision to defund all institutions that are part of a campaign to aid the Hamas cause of destroying the one Jewish state on the planet. Washington could cut certain institutions and nations off from the American economy, which would give the Biden administration the tools to substantially end this threat on its watch. Relying solely on goodwill, reason, logic and the truth to defend Israel against a malevolent international community won’t be enough. It’s time for supporters of the Jewish state to recognize that as unthinkable as it may be for Israel to be shunned in the same manner as South Africa, it could happen if action isn’t taken to punish the ICC and U.N. agencies who are behind this vile plot.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

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