ICC war crimes allegations likely to help Netanyahu at polls – analysis

The timing, less than a week before Thursday’s leadership primary in which Likud voters have to choose between Netanyahu and Gideon Sa’ar, could not have been more perfect.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Top on the list of what not to do as a prime ministerial candidate should be coming under suspicion of war crimes by the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
But for a prime minister fighting for his political life as a right-wing leader in Israel, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s statements regarding the possibility that Israeli leaders are culpable for war crimes over settlement activity is nothing short of a Hanukkah gift.
It’s one Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been exploiting for political capital ever since she issued her statement last Friday afternoon.
The timing, less than a week before Thursday’s leadership primary in which Likud voters have to choose between Netanyahu and Gideon Sa’ar, could not have been more perfect.
For another prime minister, the ICC declaration could have been a kiss of death, but for Netanyahu it may have been a windfall that gave him an opportunity to show his voters that he would not cave to international pressure and fear. His voters are less likely to be swayed by Bensouda’s words and more likely to believe it reflected anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiment.
At issue for them is not a war crimes charge but rather the question of how tough Netanyahu can really be under fire.
The war crimes talk provided Netanyahu with the lift he needed over Sa’ar as the two men battle to prove to the Likud party voter that they are the most right-wing of the two candidates.
History is not on Netanyahu’s side. During his first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, he shook hands with former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and divided Hebron, making the majority of the city inaccessible to Jews.
During his second term from 2009 to 2013, he instituted the most wide-ranging freeze on Jewish building in the West Bank in the history of the settlement movement by placing a ten-month moratorium on all settler housing starts in Judea and Samaria.
Netanyahu was also among the last of the Likud politicians to speak of annexation, making a clear statement on the matter only during the second election last summer, when he pledged to apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley immediately upon formation of a government. He also promised to similarly annex all the West Bank settlements.
In a interview with Army Radio on Wednesday evening, Sa’ar bashed the pledge as irrelevant, noting the obvious that Netanyahu had not managed to annex a single settlement in the West Bank during his almost 11 years in office, so it was disingenuous for him to campaign on it now.
Sa’ar also pointed out Netanyahu has failed in the past to make good on pledges, including his promise to take down the illegal West Bank herding village of Khan al-Ahmar located outside of the Kfar Adumim settlement.
Netanyahu’s hesitation to demolish Khan al-Ahmar has been attributed to his fear of an ICC war crimes suit.
In the last days, Netanyahu has campaigned hard to turn voter attention to his more recent right-wing successes. About the eight years during which former US president Barack Obama was in office, Netanyahu said he was able to push back against his pressure not to build. He has not qualified that, but it is correct that during Obama’s last year in office in 2016, ground was broken for some 3,227 settler homes, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. It was the highest- such number new construction projects since 2000. It was a particularly significant feat in light of Obama’s no tolerance policy toward settlement building. But it was not his only success in that score, he also managed to advance 21,469 settler homes during the Obama years of 2012 and 2013, according to data collected by the Left-wing group Peace Now.
In spite of the Trump administration’s lack of concern over settlement building, the number of settler starts and the amount of plans advanced have not been as high as those peak points. When it comes to plans advanced it remains possible, however, that the numbers could still go up this year, where to date, 8,337 housing plans have been advanced. The Hebrew daily Israel Hayom reported Netanyahu intends to bring forward 3,000 more plans at the next meeting of the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria. That meeting could be as early as next week.
In his public statements in the last week, Netanyahu has focused on three of his most significant successes under the Trump administration. This has included the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the relocation of its embassy to Jerusalem. In addition the US recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and declared that it viewed West Bank settlements as legal under international law. All three are steps that would have been considered only a pipe dream just four years ago.
But Netanyahu went a step further, as he took pains to prove to the Likud voters that he did not fear the ICC by pledging to annex the Jordan Valley and the West Bank settlements. He topped that off with a pledge to do so with US support.
These weren’t private pledges. He issued them multiple times on camera, in the most clear way possible, so that there was no room for ambiguity on the matter.
The PMO also announced this week that the inter-departmental committee on the application of sovereignty to the Jordan Valley will meet next week.
It’s the closest Netanyahu can come to action because an interim government is not empowered to apply sovereignty.
Should a right-wing government be formed next year, Israel is likely to have an unprecedented opportunity to apply sovereignty with US support, because of the upcoming 2020 US elections.
It would be difficult for US President Donald Trump to both court the needed Evangelical vote while disavowing such an Israeli move.
So the question of whether or not Netanyahu fears the ICC is a critical one. Only tomorrow’s vote tally will tell if his statements were enough to sway the Likud party members to keep Netanyahu at their helm.