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An Arresting Development

Pesach is over, but for Israeli political and military leaders, the prospect of international warrants for their arrest has left the taste of maror in their mouths.

Photo: AP Newsroom


Pesach is over, but for Israeli political and military leaders, the prospect of international warrants for their arrest has left the taste of maror in their mouths.

Over the past few weeks, the lights at the prime minister’s office and the Foreign Ministry have stayed on until the wee hours of the night. Staff are frantically trying to avert International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Karim Khan from issuing arrest warrants for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi over alleged war crimes in Gaza.

Khan visited Israel in December at the invitation of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, after which a case against Hamas leaders was filed with the court, a process still ongoing. But during the visit, Khan promised to conduct an “objective” investigation of both sides. As usual, Israel woke up too late, and is now left scrambling to contain the decision.

The naivete of those among us who see Israel as a member of the community of nations, with equal rights and duties, has been revealed yet again. Only those who deny Eisav’s eternal hatred for Yaakov still expect Israel to be acknowledged for what it is, a democratic state under attack by a murderous terrorist organization.

The anti-Semitism sweeping Europe and American university campuses has never been foreign to international legal bodies. Appeals to those bodies by especially naive Israelis have proven to be a double-edged sword.

For Yahya Sinwar, now entrenched in Rafah, being slapped with an international arrest warrant alongside Netanyahu would be a badge of honor and a cause for celebration. The leaders of Hamas’s political wing, currently residing in luxury hotels in Qatar, already can’t travel freely. Only Israel stands to lose anything by an ICC decision to indict the leaders of both sides.

Once arrest orders are issued, there will be no turning back. Any Israeli leader visiting Spain, France, or other European countries would be subject to extradition by the ICC. While it’s hard to envision this actually happening, we’ve seen many things over the past half a year that seemed unimaginable before Simchas Torah 5784.


Arrest warrants could take two forms. In the first scenario, the court announces its decision publicly, enabling targeted officials to simply avoid countries that are party to the treaty, but effectively turning Israel into a pariah.

In the second, even more hair-raising scenario, the arrest warrants are issued secretly, and the traveling official or prime minister only finds out after stepping off the plane in a foreign country.

You might think that Israeli intelligence would find out in the second scenario. But after the intelligence debacle of Simchas Torah, and the recent failure to predict Iran’s direct response to the airstrike on its Damascus embassy, Israel’s leadership is now leery of the assessments of its intelligence community, from the Military Intelligence Directorate to the Shin Bet and Mossad.

The issuing of arrest warrants would hardly be a minor thing. When the Wing of Zion jetliner (Israel’s answer to Air Force One) took off from Nevatim Airbase on the night of the Iranian attack, to prevent a symbolic hit on the prime minister’s official aircraft, it was the first time that plane had taken to the air since October 7. Unlike some of his ministers, who continue globetrotting on meaningless diplomatic visits, Netanyahu himself has avoided leaving Israel’s borders, even rejecting invitations from world leaders, in a message to the public that he’s here with us.

Nevertheless, a warrant for his arrest would be a severe blow for Netanyahu personally and for the country he leads. The resources he’s invested over the past two weeks to head off the court action have reminded his staff of his obsessive nighttime phone calls with Pfizer CEO Albert Borla prior to the rollout of the coronavirus vaccines.


This is hardly Israel’s first run-in with the ICC. Previously, Israel was able to mobilize the Trump administration against the same hostile prosecutor. The administration threatened to sanction ICC officials, including by banning them from the US.

Is the Biden administration really signaling to the ICC that it won’t react to arrest warrants being issued against Israeli leaders? One diplomatic source explained to me that the answer is complex.

Like Israel, the United States and Great Britain don’t recognize the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction, in contrast to the International Court of Justice, to which Israel sent Aharon Barak to represent it in a case earlier this year.

The ICC has always been considered particularly hostile to US allies, which is why neither the US nor Britain have recognized its jurisdiction, and the current prosecutor has already demonstrated an ability to withstand international pressure.

Why, then, does Israel seem to be pointing the finger at Washington, to some extent? Because ultimately, the United States still enjoys the power and prestige that comes with being the leader of the free world, and has effectively wielded the threat of personal sanctions against ICC justices in the past.

“Half-hearted statements about being opposed to arrest warrants in principle, without proactively threatening to use the tools at the administration’s disposal,” the diplomatic source explained to me, “is equivalent to abstaining from an anti-Israel vote in the Security Council.”

It’s not only political officials and commanders but also rank-and-file service members who may find themselves arrested upon landing abroad. The Netzach Yehudah Battalion recently found itself in the eye of the storm, under threat of sanctions from the administration, making every company commander an easy target for the ICC.

From an Israeli and chareidi perspective, it’s hard to imagine anything more surreal, with the first real threat of arrest warrants over military service coming not against yeshivah bochurim with the legal status of deserters, but against the Israeli defense minister, from the Hague.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1010)

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