'Target Israel and we will target you': Republicans tell ICC over warrants

Legal expert warns that Washington blocking an arrest warrant could give 'additional credence to the claims of double standards'

Signatories included Tom Cotton, a far-right senator. Getty / AFP
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A group of US Republicans has sent stark warnings to the International Criminal Court over reports that it intended to issue warrants against Israeli officials over the war in Gaza, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Target Israel and we will target you,” reads a letter from Republicans in Congress addressed to prosecutor Karim Khan at the ICC.

“If you move forward with the measures indicated in the report, we will move to end all American support for the ICC, sanction your employees and associates, and bar you and your families from the United States.”

The letter, sent late last month, was first reported on Monday by Zeteo news.

Signatories included Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and Tom Cotton, a far-right senator.

Reports began circulating in April that the UN court may issue arrest warrants for Mr Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and military chief of staff Herzi Halevi.

Washington was quick to respond to those reports, and Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson told reporters last week that President Joe Biden's administration was advising the court to “stand down".

This puts Mr Biden in a tricky position.

When he assumed the presidency he revoked a Donald Trump-era executive order that imposed sanctions on ICC officials and visa restrictions on the court's personnel.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called those restrictions “inappropriate and ineffective.”

“Reimposing the same or similar sanctions to protest the ICC's work on a specific situation would send the message that powerful states can work to block geopolitically unfavourable investigations,” said Celeste Kmiotek, a staff lawyer for the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council.

“If the US efforts ultimately prevent arrest warrants, it will not only exacerbate the hurdles the ICC already faces in terms of resources and jurisdictional limitations that prevent it from holding certain states accountable, but will also lend additional credence to the claims of double standards."

As for revoking Washington's support of the ICC, that assistance is quite limited, Ms Kmiotek says.

A US law already bars Washington from providing any support to the ICC, although Congress passed limited exceptions allowing the US to support the ICC's investigation in Ukraine.

And in July 2023 Mr Biden ordered the US government to share evidence of Russian war crimes with the court.

“Tangibly, then, the US can only withdraw that limited co-operation related to Ukraine,” said Ms Kmiotek.

Israel does not recognise the ICC's authority, but issuing warrants would mean that the 124 countries signed up to the body are obliged to arrest Israeli officials if they enter their territory.

Washington is not a signatory of the ICC's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, despite having taken part in negotiations to create the court.

But the fact that many US allies are party to the statute could complicate things for Washington, says Ms Kmiotek.

“This will undoubtedly affect how US allies view Netanyahu and the US diplomatic efforts regarding Israel – potentially delegitimising future plans and eroding remaining support for Netanyahu,” she added.

Israel and the US were among only seven countries to vote against the 1998 Rome Statute, alongside China, Iraq, Libya, Qatar and Yemen.

Updated: May 07, 2024, 3:28 AM