To counter the ICC, Israel needs leadership that truly wants peace

The State of Israel has long been portrayed in the international community as an occupier that refuses to hold talks to end the occupation.

IDF Soldiers clash with Palestinians protestors at the bordr between and the Gaza Strip  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
IDF Soldiers clash with Palestinians protestors at the bordr between and the Gaza Strip
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s decision to open an investigation against the State of Israel on suspicion that political leaders, IDF commanders and combat soldiers committed war crimes, is an action that was based on wickedness, malice, deception and distortion, with a hint of anti-Israel sentiment.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t have asked for more effective, influential and distracting occurrence. The louder the protests and the angrier the responses, the happier Netanyahu is that the spotlight is not shining on him. For as long as this moment lasts he won’t have to deal with Gideon Sa’ar, or figure out why only 200 people attended his recent election rally in Jerusalem.
Right now he has a new predicament, around which he can unite the entire nation. All the Israel-lovers will once again rally around Bibi, thinking he is the only one who can protect us against the antisemitic Israel-haters who consistently distort reality and inflict horrible atrocities upon the Jewish people.
In reality, though, the situation is a bit more complex. The State of Israel has long been portrayed in the international community as an occupier that refuses to hold talks to end the occupation, and that continues to crush the rights of millions of Palestinians who lack basic civil rights. This portrayal is, of course, far from accurate.
It is true that the State of Israel has been controlling the lives of millions of Palestinians for more than 50 years, and there’s no doubt that the Palestinians are not given equal rights or national recognition in the land where they are the majority. They have not been recognized as a sovereign state, and there’s no doubt that most nations around the world are discontented with Israel’s rule over the territories. Israel’s claim that it imposes closures on the territories due to murderous acts of terrorism committed by Gazans are not widely accepted by the international community.
And yet, since I was the last Israeli prime minister to carry out serious negotiations with the Palestinians, I can say with utter certainty and based on my most intense and personal involvement, that at the time, the side responsible for thwarting a peace agreement was indisputably the Palestinians.
Although Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas never explicitly rejected the far-reaching peace proposals I presented to him, neither did he accept any of them. In short, this will be recorded in the annals of history as another missed opportunity for peace.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that in the last 10 years, Israel has been the recalcitrant, aggressive party that lacks flexibility, and this is main reason that not only was a peace agreement never reached, but initial discussions never even got underway.
Granted, there was Hamas, and terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinians. It’s clear that only if the Palestinians are prepared to take the far-reaching political steps necessary to establish a productive and functioning society, will there be any chance for achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
But is this what Israelis really want? Over the last 10 years, the Israeli government has been unwilling to demonstrate even the tiniest morsel of openness in an effort to bring about an end to the conflict with the Palestinians.
IN THE PAST, the international community – including our most loyal allies – exerted significant influence over our political, military and economic endeavors. We were more attentive to world opinion, and we listened carefully to the harsh accusations coming out of France, Germany, the UK and numerous other countries, all of which have long-standing friendships with Israel and have steadfastly stood by us during times of difficulty.
In recent years, and especially since President Donald Trump took office, Israel has been relatively immune to military and economic pressure from abroad. Trump has served as a clear wall of defense protecting Israel’s arrogant and smug policies.
For personal and political reasons, Netanyahu has made provocative declarations about Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley, and the US has expressed full compliance. The American president has officially recognized (west) Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the US Embassy was moved with great fanfare from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. So why not go one step further and recognize the Golan Heights as part of the State of Israel?
The settlements in Judea and Samaria have been a bone of contention that has been subjected to intense scrutiny by every single American president since 1967. Now that they have been declared completely legitimate by Trump, they are no longer considered a violation of international law.
This sense of security, however, is nothing more than a fleeting illusion. The international community has not come to terms with these circumstances, and will never reconcile itself with the Bibi-Bennett-Ben Gvir annexation strategy. It will continue searching for ways to strike out at Israel, and find sensitive spots that will hurt Israel even more than a UN Security Council decision can.
Fifteen years ago, when Arik Sharon was prime minister, the European Union decided to restrict Israel’s trade rights with the EU. According to the new agreement, Israel was required to identify all goods that were produced in territories that were not recognized as part of the State of Israel. All of these products were then denied customs exemptions.
The EU claimed that their Free Trade Agreement had been signed with the State of Israel, and did cover any disputed territories. At the time, as Israel’s minister of industry and trade, and acting prime minister, I made the decision to accept this agreement, since not doing so would have put our entire $12-billion export industry in jeopardy. The export of goods produced in Judea and Samaria amounted to only $120 million.
Many people asserted that protecting 1% of Israel’s exports to Europe justified risking a billions-of-dollars industry, lest heaven forbid, it would appear as if we agreed that the territories were not part of the State of Israel. Despite this resistance, the agreement was approved. Protests in Israel soon died down, and Israel’s economic need to maintain good trade relations with Europe remained clear.
Years later, under Netanyahu’s proud Jewish leadership, Israel violated this agreement, which I personally had signed. We are now currently in the midst of a battle, at the end of which we will once again be forced to sign an agreement stating that the territories are not part of the State of Israel.
Exports to Europe are a relatively negligible matter. Forces that are currently seeking to force Israel to revoke its annexation plan have also initiated a case against Israel in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, claiming Israel has carried out war crimes.
PROF. HERSCH Lauterpacht, a Jew from Zolkiev in western Ukraine, near Lvov, who assisted in the drafting of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, formulated the legal concept of crimes against humanity, and within that the subset of war crimes. How ironic is it that decades after Nazi war criminals were indicted for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials soon after World War II ended, Israeli leaders and IDF soldiers could be subject to malicious claims, based on principles conceived by this Jewish professor, however dissimilar the circumstances and actions may be.
Moreover, boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activity continues. Although these actions do little harm to Israeli exports, they can put Israel in a defensive position with respect to our international standing. European countries could start requiring Israeli tourists to take out visas before being allowed to visit on the grounds that by doing so will enable them to identify when possible suspects of war crimes are coming through their gates.
I imagine that there will be some among us who will propose that we respond in a similar fashion as an act of national pride. It may feel like these are situations that could only be relevant in the distant future, but this scenario could develop quicker than you may think. So long as Israel’s leadership chooses to pursue a policy of near-sightedness and focus exclusively on what affects the political foundation of the imperial family, and not what is the correct form of action for the good of the country, we cannot progress.
There is, however, a way to clean up this mess. Of course, there is no magic wand that will change our reality or rid our world of hatred, hypocrisy and antisemitism at the flick of a wrist, and there’s no certainty that a new, bold Israeli initiative would lead to a genuine peace with our neighbors. But neither can we deny that the time has come to set out on a new path, one that offers a more restrained and thoughtful course, without jeopardizing our security concerns or existence.
If Israel were to courageously initiate serious and respectful talks today, it would not find itself being pushed to the margins of the international community and sued for war crimes at the ICC. Countries would not be considering joining boycotts against Israel, and countries like Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and countries in North Africa wouldn’t condemn Israel in every international forum possible.
In order for circumstances and the general atmosphere to change in the international community, we need a leadership that truly wants peace. We need a leader who has the courage to take chances involving concessions and refraining from the aggressive and patronizing rhetoric that have become the hallmark of this government.
I write these words from the bottom of my heart. No one has the authority to preach to me regarding the State of Israel’s security concerns. The Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, pre-nuclear Syria, and Iran (which knows everything, even if I don’t say anything – and I never have – that could humiliate it in the international or domestic arena) can all attest to the fact that at one time there was an Israeli government that knew how to take risks and to make crucial decisions regarding vital security matters, while at the same time reaching out to our neighbors in an effort to achieve peace.
The charge against Israel in the International Criminal Court at The Hague is a loud wake-up call that cannot be ignored. And I fear that this may be only the beginning.
The author was the 12th prime minister of Israel. Translated by Hannah Hochner.