Feb 10, 2021 - World

Potential war crimes probe pulls Biden into Israel-Palestine conflict

Animated illustration of President Biden being squeezed between a Palestinian and Israeli flag.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

The decision of an International Criminal Court panel to clear the way for a potential war crimes investigation of Israel is forcing the Biden administration to wade into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict much earlier than anticipated.

Why it matters: The ICC ruling infuriated the Israeli government — and it also underscored their reliance on the Biden administration, senior Israeli officials tell me. After the decision was announced on Friday, Israel immediately opened urgent consultations with U.S. officials.

  • On Monday morning, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Jerusalem met Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to discuss the matter.
  • Hours later, Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke with Ashkenazi and reassured him the U.S. would help Israel oppose the ICC ruling, Israeli officials tell me.

The big picture: Unlike the Obama and Trump administrations, the Biden administration doesn't see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a foreign policy priority and has little expectation of progress.

  • On CNN on Monday, Blinken summed up President Biden's initial approach to the issue as "do no harm" — to ensure that neither side takes unilateral steps that would further obstruct a path toward peace.
  • Biden doesn’t think there's a realistic chance of renewing negotiations between the parties anytime soon and therefore isn’t planning to appoint a special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But just three weeks into Biden's term, Israeli officials are warning of a deep crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations if the ICC prosecutor takes up the war crimes investigation, which was initially requested by the Palestinian government.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now desperately needs Biden's backing on an issue of acute importance to Israel.
  • The State Department has already disputed the ICC's decision that it has jurisdiction to investigate the matter.
  • The Israeli government is now hoping the Biden administration will pressure the court’s member states and the prosecutor not to pursue the probe.

What to watch: That reliance could give the U.S. leverage when it seeks to deter the Israeli government from taking provocative steps like further settlement building, or it could gain Israeli approval for the reopening of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.

  • But the ICC ruling could also complicate the Biden administration's efforts to renew ties with the Palestinians — in particular, the plan to reopen the PLO office in Washington, which the Trump administration closed in 2018.
  • An existing U.S. law requires the secretary of state to certify to Congress that the Palestinian Authority is not pursuing action against Israel in the ICC in order for the PLO to be permitted to have an office in Washington.

The state of play: Palestinian leaders have welcomed the ICC ruling and called for an investigation as soon as possible. It's unclear whether the Biden administration has had any talks with Palestinian officials on the issue.

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