House votes to punish International Criminal Court

The House on Tuesday approved legislation aimed at penalizing the International Criminal Court (ICC) as it weighs whether to bring war crimes charges against Israeli leaders for their conduct in the war with Hamas.

The tally was 247-155, with every Republican voting in favor of the proposal. They were joined by 42 pro-Israel Democrats with a history of backing Tel Aviv even when doing so bucks their own leadership.

Leaders in both parties — including President Biden — have roundly condemned the ICC’s suggestion that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister have committed crimes against humanity in Gaza following Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. But Biden had opposed the sanctions central to the Republican legislation, causing an overwhelming majority of Democrats to follow suit when the bill hit the floor.

Without broad Democratic support, the legislation has no chance of moving through the Senate and onto Biden’s desk.

Still, supporters in both parties were furious with the ICC’s insinuation that the leaders of Israel, a close democratic ally, and Hamas, a terrorist group, had committed equivalent crimes. They said passing the bill, even if only through the House, would send an important message to the world that Washington stands firmly behind Israel’s right to self-defense.

“The idea that they would issue an arrest warrant for the prime minister of Israel, defense minister of Israel at the time where they’re fighting for their nation’s very existence against the evil of Hamas as a proxy of Iran is unconscionable to us,” Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said Tuesday. “And as I said a couple of weeks ago, the ICC has to be punished for this action.”

The bill’s Democratic opponents had different ideas. Virtually all of them support Israel and its right to a strong defense in a hostile region. But they’re also sharp critics of the conservative Netanyahu and his far-right coalition government, which has rebuffed Biden’s calls for a cease-fire, ignored the administration’s red-line warnings about invading Rafah, and opposes the two-state solution championed by the White House.

Additionally, Israel’s military operations have killed more than 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza since Oct. 7, leading to accusations that Netanyahu has done far too little to limit civilian casualties — the same charge that led the ICC’s top prosecutor to recommend war crimes allegations against the Israelis.

“I stand in opposition of this resolution because we need the ICC. In the last 241 days, thousands, thousands have been victims of unimaginable atrocities, and Netanyahu’s violations of international law have threatened the peace of the world,” Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.) said on the House floor Tuesday. “I’m determined to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), would impose travel and financial sanctions on ICC officials. It includes a provision that gives the president the unilateral authority to end the sanctions if the ICC stops engaging in efforts to investigate or arrest U.S. individuals or its allies, or if the court has permanently ended any investigation into protected individuals.

The bill is largely symbolic. The United States does not recognize the ICC, and does not consider Americans to fall under its jurisdiction. But some Democrats said they opposed the GOP bill because it posed a risk of sanctioning some U.S. allies who have ratified the ICC’s charter.

“It would sanction the leaders of some of our strongest allies: the U.K., Italy, Germany, Japan. That’s dangerous stuff,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It could sanction some American companies who might supply software and technology to [the court]. It’s so broad that it becomes very dangerous for us.”

Republican leadership staged a vote on the legislation — which only has GOP co-sponsors — after bipartisan talks over a sanctions bill fell apart. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, had been talking to Democratic counterparts in the House and Senate about legislative ways to penalize the ICC.

McCaul said he wanted the final product to be bipartisan and have a strong chance of becoming law, emphasizing the importance of showing deterrence to the ICC judges as they weigh whether to grant the requested arrest warrants.

Late last week, however, the White House announced that the administration opposed sanctions — despite its criticism of the ICC’s move — a stance that Johnson said gutted hopes for a bipartisan product.

“I worked on it all weekend. I worked on it up until Sunday, late Sunday, in an effort to make it bipartisan. And I think that members of the House and Senate were interested in doing so,” Johnson said Tuesday.

“But the White House gave the red light and said that they would not support sanctions, which was unconscionable to us. And I think that’s why it sort of broke down,” he added. “But we had to move, we couldn’t wait any longer, we need to send this message.”

The push to sanction the ICC comes after the court’s top prosecutor, Karim Khan, a British human rights attorney, recommended charges against several Hamas leaders for their role in the Oct. 7 massacre, and against Netanyahu and his defense minister for their response to those attacks. Among the charges against the Israeli leaders: using starvation as a weapon of war and intentionally targeting civilians.

ICC judges will now decide whether to grant the requested warrants.

The push to sanction the ICC emerged as the latest flashpoint in the long-running tensions in the Democratic Party over Israel, with staunchly pro-Israel Democrats at odds with pro-Palestinian liberals who are outraged at the rising number of humanitarian deaths in the Gaza Strip.

Those disagreements have become more pronounced since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and are expected to grow more inflamed in the coming weeks, as congressional leaders plan to host Netanyahu in the Capitol to deliver an address.

The top four Congressional leaders on Friday officially invited Netanyahu to deliver an address to a joint meeting of Congress, an opportunity he accepted over the weekend. It remains unclear when the speech will take place.

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