House races to sanction ICC over Israel war crimes allegations

Lawmakers in both parties are racing against the clock to secure a bipartisan bill to sanction International Criminal Court (ICC) officials after they filed requests for arrest warrants for top Israeli leaders, hoping a forceful bipartisan response from Washington will deter the court’s judges from ratifying the charges in the coming weeks.

Congress left Washington on Thursday for a long holiday recess without reaching a bipartisan agreement on exactly how to push back against the ICC’s claims that Israeli leaders have committed war crimes in their fight with Hamas in Gaza. But top House negotiators are vowing to solidify a deal and move on it immediately when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill in the first week of June — a timeline they predicted will put passage of the bill ahead of the ICC judges’ decision.

“This is really for deterrence purposes,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who’s leading the talks, said Thursday. “A deterrent to approve the arrest warrant application.”

McCaul wants the committee to mark up the legislation on June 3, the first day lawmakers are due back in Washington, and he noted that hearings are typically noticed one week in advance, meaning negotiators have only a few days to unveil the legislation.

The Foreign Affairs chair emphasized a number of times that he wants the ICC bill to be bipartisan and bicameral, a departure from other Israel-related measures spearheaded by Republicans in recent weeks that have been written in a way to divide the Democratic caucus, where pro-Israel lawmakers have been at odds with pro-Palestinian progressives up in arms about the mounting humanitarian deaths in Gaza.

“We want something that can become law. We’re not really interested in a messaging bill,” McCaul said. “It has to be bipartisan.”

“Otherwise,” he later added, “you have no deterrence against the ICC.”

Rep. Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, is leading the talks for House Democrats. Like McCaul, he’s stressing the importance of securing bipartisan backing to send the message that Congress is overwhelmingly opposed to the ICC’s determination that Israeli leaders have committed crimes against humanity in their battle with Hamas militants.

“It’s important for Israel right now for bills to come out of our committee which are bipartisan,” Meeks said, “as opposed to trying to come out with partisan bills with the intent of trying to divide the United States Congress. I think that’s the wrong message for Israel, and it’s the wrong message for the rest of the world.”

Outside of the House, support for ICC sanctions is growing. McCaul said he’s in direct talks with several senators, including Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

“I’m trying to flush out with Meeks and Cardin on … what are your issues? So we can work it out,” McCaul said.

He’s also been in touch with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is open to the concept of sanctions against ICC officials.

“That decision, as you said, on so many levels is totally wrongheaded. And we’ll be happy to work with Congress, with this committee, on an appropriate response,” Blinken said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

ICC prosecutor Karim Khan announced Monday he was filing arrest warrant applications for two top Israeli officials — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant — and Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh, alleging they “bear criminal responsibility” for a list of war crimes since Oct. 7, when Hamas launched a terrorist attack against Israel, sparking the fierce fighting in Gaza.

Republicans were quick to blast the arrest warrant requests, with Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) calling the move “baseless” and “illegitimate” and vowing penalties for the international court.

Democrats have been more divided. A number of liberals, including prominent figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have praised the ICC for its effort to enforce international humanitarian laws, regardless of who violates them.

“Whether it’s Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, Hamas’s barbaric terrorism in Israel, or Netanyahu’s use of starvation as a weapon of war — no one is above the law,” Sanders said.

Yet the vast majority of Democrats appear to be lining up in opposition to the ICC charges, which President Biden has condemned as “outrageous.” Those voices are blasting the international court for equating the wartime actions of Israel, a democratic state, with Hamas, a terrorist group. And other Democratic leaders, while no fans of the conservative Netanyahu, have echoed those criticisms.

While neither the United States nor Israel has signed on to the ICC’s charter, Israel’s allies on Capitol Hill maintain that the sanctions are nonetheless a crucial counterweight to the court’s allegations — if only to send a formal message of opposition.

“The first message has to be how absurd the prosecutor who pressed for an indictment is, and the false equivalency — the reprehensible false equivalency — of equating Israel with Hamas,” said Rep. Brad Schneider, a Jewish Illinois Democrat and staunch Israel ally.

“The sanctions,” he added, “should match and have a real bite.”

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) introduced an ICC sanctions bill earlier this month, after reports surfaced that the court was eyeing arrest warrants for Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials. His proposal would impose sanctions on the ICC for engaging in an effort to arrest “any protected person of the United States and its allies.” It has more than 60 GOP co-sponsors.

McCaul said Roy’s bill would have to be tweaked in order to win bipartisan support. Democrats, he noted, are demanding that the president be granted the authority to waive certain sanctions unilaterally — a provision Roy is ready to accommodate, with some limitations.

“I do not support a broad, just blanket, presidential waiver,” Roy said.

He noted, however, that negotiators have “language that we’re working on right now,” calling it a “variation.”

As lawmakers hash out the details behind the scenes, Republican leaders are vowing to take action against the ICC — and are not mincing their words in forecasting those moves.

“This is a rogue agency,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said Wednesday. “I know this majority has taken many steps against it. We’re going to continue to take actions.”

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