By Ray Hanania
US President Joe Biden’s decision to remove sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump on International Criminal Court (ICC) officials is a significant reinforcement of his promise to seek a fair and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Even though Biden engineered a “partnership” with Arab Americans during his presidential campaign last year, when he promised to engage with the community and support the two-state solution, many were skeptical. This is because Biden said he would not reverse several key Trump decisions, including his predecessor’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the recognition of Israel’s annexation of the occupied Golan Heights.
Although he lifted many restrictions on the Palestinian Authority (PA), released millions of dollars in financial aid that Trump had cut, and reinforced his commitment to a two-state solution, many felt that was not enough to make a real difference. However, removing the sanctions against ICC officials and allowing the court to move ahead with its probe into alleged war crimes committed in the Occupied Territories should ease those concerns. This move demonstrates that Biden is trying hard to meet the needs of both the Israelis and Palestinians, not just the former.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained that, in revoking Trump’s executive order 13928 “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Associated with the International Criminal Court (ICC),” he was “ending the threat and imposition of economic sanctions and visa restrictions in connection with the court.”
Blinken also said he was lifting the specific sanctions imposed by Trump on ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and Phakiso Mochochoko, the head of the Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division of the Office of the Prosecutor. To ensure there was no confusion, Blinken also terminated the separate visa restrictions placed on other ICC personnel in 2019. “These decisions reflect our assessment that the measures adopted were inappropriate and ineffective,” Blinken said.
Trump had tried to use the sanctions to force the ICC to end its investigation into allegations that Israel had committed war crimes during several conflicts in the Gaza Strip, as well as its scrutiny of violence by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian civilians, including in the West Bank. The ICC probe has been hailed by Palestinians as their only path toward justice, as America has consistently failed to keep Israel’s anti-peace policies in check.
But the ICC investigation was never just about Israel — even though that seems to be the only thing anyone prior to Biden was concerned about. It is also looking into possible war crimes by Hamas, the Islamist militant organization that controls the Gaza Strip and that has used violence as a means to undermine the long-term peace accords between the PA and Israel.
Biden’s decision to lift the ICC sanctions has certainly caused consternation among Israelis, and will undoubtedly also cause the president much grief. After all, when you anger the Arabs, there are few political or public relations consequences. But, when you anger Israel, the massive multimillion-dollar Israeli PR machine kicks in and it can damage any American politician’s public image, as well as potentially bring their career to an end.
Maybe because Biden has been so strongly pro-Israel over the years, he feels this gives him the strength to withstand Israel’s criticism.
Back in the 1970s, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat reached out to Israel’s Menachem Begin to forge the peace agreement between the two countries, many argued that Begin was the right person to impose that peace on Israel because of his tough anti-Arab stance. Begin was the leader of one of the most notorious terrorist organizations, the Irgun, during the pre-state British Mandate period. The group murdered hundreds of Palestinian civilians and even captured and killed British soldiers.
The fact Biden has been so strongly pro-Israel actually gives him the ability to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to achieve peace — something that Trump refused to do and that the Israelis have vehemently opposed. Even though the sanctions only applied to the ICC and its officials, the impact on a potential Israeli-Palestinian peace accord could be momentous.
Blinken reiterated Biden’s opposition to the ICC’s investigation, saying: “We continue to disagree strongly with the ICC’s actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations. We maintain our long-standing objection to the court’s efforts to assert jurisdiction over the personnel of non-states parties such as the United States and Israel.” But he also said that Biden believes the issues being examined by the ICC “would be better addressed through engagement with all stakeholders.”
Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians should distort and manipulate Biden’s message. The Israelis will be angry, believing that the ICC probe must be stopped, while the Palestinians believe the probe needs to push ahead, even though they have as much to lose in an ICC investigation as Israel.
Biden, who supports the international rule of law, is trying to bring the Israeli-Palestinian situation away from “conflict” and back to the negotiating table, where it belongs.
The administration’s message is clear: Peace can only come through honest, face-to-face discussions between both sides, not through one-sided actions that skirt the international rule of law and the principles of human rights.
The ICC’s investigation into allegations of war crimes is important. But more important is the need to prevent war crimes being committed by all sides. Biden seems to be headed in a nuanced and very important direction.