Biden at odds with allies as U.S. and Israel attack ICC over arrest warrants

In an interview with MSNBC, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country was getting a “bum rap in the international scene.”

The U.S. found itself at odds with some key allies Tuesday after President Joe Biden denounced the chief prosecutor of the world’s top war crimes court for seeking arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders.

France and Belgium, breaking with Biden, were among a number of countries to defend the “independence” of the International Criminal Court after prosecutor Karim Khan accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, as well as others, of war crimes.

Israel sought to contain the fallout from the news, which delivered a new reputational blow even though no arrests were imminent. It called on its allies to vow not to enforce any warrants and dispatched its top diplomat, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, to Paris, according to The Associated Press.

In an interview with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle on Tuesday, Netanyahu said Israel was getting a “bum rap in the international scene” as he branded Khan a “rogue prosecutor who’s out to demonize the one and only Jewish state.”

Echoing Biden’s comments, Netanyahu said Khan’s decision to seek arrest warrants for both Israel’s and Hamas’ leaders reflected a “false symmetry” that he said was comparable to the arrest warrants that were issued for both President George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

He further accused Khan of stoking “antisemitic fires” that he said were already burning across campuses in the U.S. and Europe — an apparent reference to widespread protests led by university students around the world in opposition to Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

Israeli troops have moved in on the Gaza Strip's far-southern city of Rafah, which the army describes as the last Hamas stronghold and where the United States says 800,000 civilians have been newly displaced by the fighting.
An injured boy on the streets of Rafah on Monday as Israeli forces continued their assault on the city in southern Gaza.AFP – Getty Images

But Israel did get public backing from its chief ally, the U.S., after months of mounting tensions between the two countries.

Some human rights advocates criticized Biden for his swift condemnation of the move to seek arrest warrants, which he described as “outrageous” and suggested implied a false “equivalence” between Israel and Hamas.

Speaking at a Rose Garden appearance celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month later in the day, he said that Israel “wants to do all it can to ensure civilian protection” and that “what’s happening is not genocide.”

The U.S. was not alone in rejecting the ICC’s move, with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak saying it was “not helpful to reaching a pause in the fighting, getting hostages out or humanitarian aid in.”

Germany said it had some concerns, particularly about the decision to issue a “simultaneous application” for arrest warrants for Israel and Hamas, which its foreign ministry said gave “the false impression of equivalence,” the German newspaper Deutsche Welle reported. But ultimately, Germany said it respected the court’s independence.

‘Cannot have it both ways’

Human rights advocates criticized Biden’s suggestion that the ICC’s announcement equated Israel with Hamas, while some also accused the U.S. of double standards, given Washington’s emphatic support for the ICC’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over alleged war crimes in the war in Ukraine.

“Biden’s response was deeply disappointing,” Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “There was nothing ‘outrageous,'” he said, about Khan’s decision to apply for arrest warrants “at all.”

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Rejecting Biden’s suggestion that Khan had implied “an equivalence between Israel and Hamas,” Roth said Khan “did no such thing. He simply charged both sides for their separate crimes. And to use Biden’s term, it would have been ‘outrageous’ had he ignored one side’s crime.”

“These charges are not about Israel’s right to defend itself, which no one questions. They’re about how Israel has chosen to defend itself, and no cause, no matter how just, can be used as an excuse to commit war crimes,” Roth said.

Protests against Netanyahu's government in Jerusalem
Israeli police used a water cannon to disperse a protest against Netanyahu’s government in Jerusalem on Monday.Menahem Kahana / AFP – Getty Images

Biden was not alone in accusing Khan of implying a false equivalence between Israel and Hamas, with both Israeli officials and Hamas leaders also accusing him of suggesting their actions in the Israel-Hamas war could be compared.

“Placing the leaders of a country that went into battle to protect its citizens — in the same line with bloodthirsty terrorists — is moral blindness and a violation of its duty and ability to protect its citizens,” Israeli war Cabinet member Benny Gantz said in Hebrew in a post on X.

Hamas separately denounced “the attempts of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to equate the victim with the executioner.”

Neither the U.S. nor Israel recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction, but any arrest warrants the court issues could put Israeli officials at risk of arrest in other countries, including much of Europe.

The warrants would also put Netanyahu on similar footing as Putin on the global stage after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for him in March 2023.

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At the time, Biden welcomed the ICC’s decision, saying he felt it was “justified.” He said the ICC was “not recognized internationally by us, either. But I think it makes a very strong point.”

The apparent disparity in his response to Khan’s bid to seek arrest warrants for Netanyahu and others sparked accusations of a double standard.

Roth said he believed the “different response speaks more to the lack of principle in the U.S. government’s purported respect for the rule of law.”

“It’s not the rule of law when it applies only to one’s adversaries and not to one’s friends,” he said in a nod to U.S. support for the ICC warrant against Putin.

Shibley Telhami, a Middle East scholar at the University of Maryland, said in a post on X that Biden’s “defense of Israeli leaders” was “not surprising, given his posture on Israel and the Gaza war.” But, he said, “his furious attack on ICC and disregard for other [international organizations] has been shocking, out of touch with his own core constituency, and undermines the global order.”

The Kremlin also weighed in, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling reporters that America’s “attitude and their readiness to use sanctions even against the ICC” was “more than curious.”

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