Analysis from Israel

If the International Criminal Court ever had any pretensions of being a serious legal institution, they were effectively demolished by yesterday’s ruling overturning Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s decision not to investigate Israel’s botched raid on a 2010 flotilla to Gaza. Reading the ruling feels like falling down the rabbit hole straight into the Queen of Hearts’ courtroom, for many reasons. But here’s the one I found most astonishing: In a 27-page document devoted almost entirely to discussing whether the alleged Israeli crimes were grave enough to merit the court’s attention, not once did the majority judges mention one of the most salient facts of the case: that flotilla passengers had attacked the Israeli soldiers with “fists, knives, chains, wooden clubs, iron rods, and slingshots with metal and glass projectiles,” causing nine soldiers serious injuries.

That fact appeared only in Judge Peter Kovacs’ dissent. Anyone reading the majority decision would conclude that the soldiers opened fire for no reason whatsoever.

This is not a minor detail; it was central to Bensouda’s decision to close the case. She noted that the soldiers opened fire, ultimately killing 10 passengers, aboard only one of the flotilla’s seven ships – the one where passengers attacked them. That strongly indicates there was no deliberate plan to kill civilians; rather, the soldiers intended to peacefully intercept all the vessels, and the killings were the unpremeditated result of a chaotic combat situation that unexpectedly developed aboard one ship. Or in her words, “none of the information available suggests […] the intended object of the attack was the civilian passengers on board these vessels.”

The majority judges, however, dismiss that conclusion, asserting that the lack of casualties aboard the other ships doesn’t preclude the possibility that soldiers intended from the outset to kill the Mavi Marmara’s passengers. They then offer a string of wild suppositions to explain why soldiers might have wanted to perpetrate a massacre aboard that ship but not the others. Perhaps, they suggest gravely, it’s because the Mavi Marmara carried the most passengers. Or, perhaps because it carried no humanitarian aid. In any event, the soldiers clearly used more violence against the Mavi Marmara than against other ships that also refused their orders to halt, so “It is reasonable to consider these circumstances as possibly explaining that the Mavi Marmara was treated by the IDF differently from the other vessels of the flotilla from the outset.”

But of course, the only way to make that unsupported speculation remotely plausible is by ignoring the fact that the Mavi Marmara was the only ship whose passengers brutally attacked the soldiers. Once you acknowledge this fact, it’s obvious that it’s a far more likely explanation for the ship’s different treatment than any of the majority judges’ outlandish theories.

So how do they get around this problem? Very simply: by refusing to admit the fact’s existence. At no point in those 27 pages do they ever acknowledge that the passengers attacked the soldiers. And then, having obliterated the actual reason why the soldiers opened fire from the record, they can accuse Bensouda of having erred by not considering their alternate-universe theory that the soldiers opened fire out of malice aforethought.

In the Queen of Hearts’ courtroom, the rule is “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.” The ICC judges, in contrast, are perfectly willing to let the verdict precede the sentence; they merely insist that said verdict exclude any evidence which might contradict their preconceived conclusions.

And, in that case, the Queen of Hearts’ approach actually makes much more sense. If you already know what the verdict is going to be, it’s much more efficient to move straight to the sentence. At least that way you don’t waste taxpayers’ time and money on lengthy legal proceedings.

Originally published in Commentary on July 17, 2015

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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