Feb 24, 2021 - World

Scoop: Netanyahu asked Biden to keep Trump's sanctions on International Criminal Court

ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. Photo: Bas Czerwinski/ANP/AFP via Getty

Netanyahu asked Biden in their first phone call last week to keep sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on the International Criminal Court (ICC) in place, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israeli officials are concerned that removing the sanctions would hamper Israel's efforts to stop a potential war crimes investigation into Israel, and that the court's prosecutor could see it as a signal that the U.S. isn't firmly opposed to that investigation.

The big picture: ICC judges cleared the way for a potential investigation last month when they ruled that the court has jurisdiction in the West Bank and Gaza. (Israel isn't a party to the Rome Statute, which set the court's mandate, but the Palestinian territories are.)

  • Israel is very concerned that any investigation could lead to international arrest warrants against Israeli officials and military officers and could boost BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns against Israel.
  • Israel asked dozens of allies to convey a "discreet message" to urge ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda not to move forward with the probe, as Axios reported two weeks ago.

Flashback: While also not a party to the Rome Statute, the U.S. has had its own confrontations with the ICC, which elected last March to pursue an investigation into the war in Afghanistan, which could implicate U.S. troops and the CIA.

  • The Trump administration reacted furiously, imposing sanctions against ICC officials, including Bensouda, and threatening to sanction the court's judges next.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised further steps if the ICC opened a probe into Israel.

The state of play: Israeli diplomats have made the case to their U.S. counterparts that even if the administration disagrees with the sanctions, it should keep them in place as leverage to persuade Bensouda and her successor not to pursue the investigations into Afghanistan or the West Bank and Gaza.

  • The issue was raised in a recent phone call between Ashkenazi and Blinken, Israeli officials say.

What they're saying: “In my phone call with President Biden, we talked about our moral obligation to protect our troops against those who are trying to defame their morality with false claims," Netanyahu said last Thursday at a memorial service for soldiers who were missing in action.

  • His comments went unnoticed, but Israeli officials tell me he was hinting at the possible ICC investigations against Israeli and American soldiers.
  • Netanyahu's office declined to comment for this story, as did the White House and State Department.
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