Is the ICC the new frontier of Israeli exceptionalism?

Is the ICC the new frontier of Israeli exceptionalism?
Comment: Israel may try to sabotage the ICC probe, but subjecting it to the legal tools of the international community tears down the idea of exceptionalism, writes Emad Moussa.
6 min read
18 Mar, 2021
Israel dismisses the ICC as a political tool for Palestinians [Getty]
A long overdue outcome of an extensive, occasionally unmethodical, Palestinian legal diplomacy, the ICC officially determined this month that it has jurisdiction over the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, paving the way to inquiry into possible war crimes in the region. 

Hailed by rights groups as an "historic breakthrough", it's uncertain how the probe will fare, especially with Prosecutor Bensouda due to pass the seat to Karim Khan in June this year, and particularly because Israel - with the US backing - is unlikely to cooperate. 

Israel has already dismissed the ICC's jurisdiction, describing the court as a political tool for Palestinians and "undiluted anti-semitism". Field investigations won't be allowed and backstage lobbying will be Israel's primary counter-strategy to thwart the Palestinian efforts to break free from the current intractability. 

A ruling against Israel or lack thereof may take years. The PA might even fail to follow through - as it did with the investigation into Arafat's death - or succumb to US-led international pressure. With increasing focus on the "Iranian threat" coupled with the recent waves of normalisation, pressure might also come from certain Arab states. 

Enormous odds, indeed, but hardly a shift from the overall trajectory of Palestinian struggle since day one. It's not and shouldn't be a show stopper. 

What matters at the moment is the very process of legal prosecution, which - officially - puts Israel on the stand as a suspect state. It's no longer about cliched political condemnations that Israel can shrug off and repackage as mere anti-Semitism or security considerations.

What matters at the moment is the very process of legal prosecution, which - officially - puts Israel on the stand as a suspect state

The possibility of arrest warrants against Israeli officials is already being felt in Israel. Contradicting all the acts of bravado and defiance, and despite all claims of innocence and righteous victimhood, the ICC's decision has prompted Tel-Aviv to brief hundreds of its current and former senior security officials over the risk of prosecution abroad once the investigation has been launched. So in theory Netanyahu or Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who led the 2014 Gaza onslaught, could be targeted in the inquiry.

That said, Israel's anger at the ICC may be less about the immediate, possibly manageable, aftereffects of the court's decision, such as the arrests of senior army officers, and more about the fear for the foundation of the Israeli state itself. When Netanyahu describes the ICC's decision as Israel being "under attack", he mainly means the court ruling has the potential to jeopardise Israel's long-held beliefs about its legitimacy, hence it's also "anti-Semitic". 

This logic stems from the notion of Israeli exceptionalism. Unlike the known American exceptionalism which is built on optimism, Israel's one is based upon the history of Jews as a persecuted people and, therefore, Zionism as a movement of Jewish emancipation. Emancipation grants Zionism a halo of sacredness, and with that sacredness comes righteousness and a unique sense of entitlement.

The outcome - especially when articulated by a right-wing, ethno-nationalist government - is an ideology that views any criticism, let alone questioning, of the Israeli state as an attack on Jews and their right to exist. Israel is framed as a country with a unique mission, and one that dwells alone under special, often existential, circumstances. 

Read more: ICC gives Israel a month to seek deferral of war crimes probe

Subjecting Israel to the legal tools of the international community tears down this idea of exceptionalism. 

It makes Israel a normal state with normal responsibilities and subject to international accountability. Since 1948, Israel in the international community - to cite Israeli psychologist Ofer Grosbard - has been the "personality-disordered" member. That is, "the member who sits in the group and everyone always picks on him, and everyone has to deal with him, and he thinks he is always right and innocent." 

Being a normal state entails owning up to the geopolitical reality, instead of hiding behind an ideology. This inevitably leads to exposing Israel's to its negative self, to the terrifying fact of being a perpetrator. 

Even for the so-called liberal and left-wing Zionists, the self-appointed defenders of Palestinian human rights and the two-state solution, the idea is too much to bear. You'd think that the ICC investigation would give liberal Zionists a place to stand. But none of the leading liberal Zionist groups, J Street among them, have welcomed the ICC. They have issued hesitant statements saying it's a sad reflection on the occupation that it's come to this; but they've stopped short of endorsing the ICC. 

Leader of Israel's left-wing Meretz Party, Nitzan Horowitz, blamed Netanyahu and the settlers for "dragging Israel to the Hague"; as if Israel's war crimes started and ended with the Gaza onslaughts, or, as if the occupation and settlement expansions haven't been a continuous aggression from the outset, whether under left or right-wing governments. 

Furthermore, against Israel's best efforts, the ICC's decision substantiates Palestinian statehood. 

Being a normal state entails owning up to the geopolitical reality, instead of hiding behind an ideology

Haaretz points out correctly that the judges' ruling wasn't contingent upon Palestine's borders or on issues pertaining to finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They instead considered Palestine's recognition by the UN General Assembly and the fact that the PA joined the ICC in 2015 and deemed these sufficient grounds under the Rome Statute, which determines who is authorised to seek redress from the court.

The ICC's decision has shown that Israel's battle against recognition of the State of Palestine, although tenacious, is fruitless. By granting Palestine a legal status, the ICC indirectly downplays the Israeli framing of the conflict as one over "disputed territories," and instead emphasises Israel's reality as an occupying power with a settler-colonial dimension. 

This alone may facilitate additional legal battles; possibly weakening - if rather cumulatively -  Israel's standing in the international community. 

That said, not until there is a significant power shift in the Middle East, or Israel outlives its usefulness, will measures similar to those taken against Apartheid South Africa be brought against Israel. 

In the end, attacking the ICC and refusing to cooperate won't acquit Israel if it is guilty of war crimes. 

For Palestinians, the only crime they could commit is not diligently following through with the ICC and escalating further. Eternal oppression is not an option.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.  

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.