Middle East

Israel faces unprecedented challenges as legal and diplomatic pressure mounts

Analysis by Abbas Al Lawati, CNN

CNN  — 

It’s been a tumultuous month for Israel. Never before has the Jewish state come under such intense and sustained international pressure from multiple fronts for its policies towards the Palestinians.

This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined the ranks of world leaders branded as international pariahs when he became the target of the International Criminal Court, whose prosecutor is seeking an arrest warrant against him and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant for suspicion of war crimes and crimes against humanity during Israel’s war in Gaza.

The court has previously sought warrants against the likes of Sudan’s Omar Al Bashir, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

And on Friday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to immediately halt its controversial military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, saying the humanitarian situation there is “disastrous” and expected to “intensify further.”

Seven months after Hamas attacked Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking 250 hostages, Israel’s retaliatory war has failed to achieve its goals. Top Hamas leaders remain at large and 125 hostages remain captive in the enclave. Gaza is now in ruins and more than 35,000 Palestinians have died during Israel’s onslaught.

Pressure on Israel to end the war is mounting from all sides: US college campuses, international courts, American celebrities, Israel’s Western allies, and even the families of the Israeli hostages.

But the most significant of those may be the legal and diplomatic action taken against Israel this month.

Israeli officials are scrambling to contain the fallout. They have accused critics of antisemitism and vowed not to relent in the face of international pressure. “Even if Israel is forced to stand alone, we will stand alone, and we will continue to strike our enemies powerfully until victory,” Netanyahu declared in a fiery speech at the opening ceremony of Holocaust Remembrance Day this month.

Palestinian statehood

For years, Israeli officials have opposed unilateral recognitions of Palestinian statehood, fearing it would enable the Palestinians to bring Israel before international courts and weaken its position in future peace negotiations.

The Palestinians have therefore failed to gain full membership at the United Nations due to objections from the US, Israel’s closest ally and primary defender on the world stage. However, a non-binding vote at the UN General Assembly on May 10 showed overwhelming international support for an independent Palestinian state, leaving the US and a few of Israel’s allies isolated. Israel and the US maintain that a Palestinian state should only be established through a negotiated settlement.

But as Israel continues to reject the prospect of Palestinian independence, some states have chosen to act independently.

This week, Ireland, Spain and Norway announced plans to formally recognize a Palestinian state, saying they hope the move would prod other European nations to follow suit.

“We live in a time in world history where doing the bare minimum is both heroic and insufficient. That is why we cannot stop,” Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz said in a video posted on her X page. “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea,” she added, using a pro-Palestinian protest slogan that Israel says calls for its destruction, a charge rejected by those who use it.

The move prompted swift condemnation from Israel, which recalled its ambassadors from all three countries.

Aside from international efforts to end the war, Netanyahu is also under intense pressure domestically to strike a deal with Hamas to bring back the hostages. With hostage-ceasefire talks stalled, relatives of the captives are pressing the prime minister to return to negotiation.

This week, the families of seven female Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas released graphic footage of their abduction to pile pressure on the government to secure their release.

But there were signs that the talks may resume. On Thursday, the Israeli war cabinet directed the country’s negotiating team to resume talks, without saying when they’ll take place, and CIA Director Bill Burns has traveled to Europe to try to get the deal back on track, a US official told CNN, adding that the Israelis are “very engaged.”

Boys watch smoke billowing during Israeli strikes east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 13, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Quandary for Israel’s allies

The cases brought before the ICJ and ICC have tested Western states’ commitment to the rules-based international order as they struggle to navigate the increasing legal actions against their ally in these courts.

This has created a rift between Israel’s Western allies and a growing coalition of Global South countries spanning Asia, Africa, and South America that are increasingly vocal in their calls for Israel to be held accountable for its actions in Gaza.

In a recent case at the ICJ, Germany was compelled to defend its arms sales to Israel against allegations of “facilitating genocide” brought by Nicaragua. Despite the pressure, the court rejected the demand for an immediate halt to Germany’s arms exports to Israel.

Meanwhile, the ICC’s decision to pursue arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Gallant has divided Israel’s Western allies.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Karim Khan, the ICC’s prosecutor, recounted a conversation with a senior leader who remarked: “This court is built for Africa and for thugs like Putin,” underscoring the complexities surrounding international legal proceedings.

While the US and the United Kingdom have denounced the move, European nations such as France, Germany, and others have affirmed the independence of the court and have not ruled out the possibility of arresting Israeli officials if they enter their territory following the issuance of a warrant.

The court is also pursuing warrants against three top Hamas officials: Ismail Haniyeh, Yahya Sinwar, and Mohammed Deif. A panel of judges at the ICC is still deliberating on whether to issue these warrants.

The response to the warrant request has been particularly fierce in the US Congress, where a bipartisan effort to penalize the ICC is underway, potentially including sanctions. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to work with Congress on legislation to penalize the ICC.

“If they do this to Israel, we’re next,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has led the efforts against the ICC in Congress, told a Senate hearing this week – a reminder that however much pressure Israel is under, it still has one very powerful friend.

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