(By Maureen Clare Murphy)
The minister newly appointed to coordinate Israel’s response to judicial scrutiny by the International Criminal Court is a settler who has recommended a full takeover of the al-Aqsa mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem.
Ze’ev Elkin of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will be replacing Yuval Steinitz as head of the Israeli task force to thwart an ICC war crimes investigation.
In 2012, Elkin said that without a takeover of the al-Aqsa mosque compound, called the Temple Mount by Jews, “our national liberty is incomplete” (translation from Hebrew by the scholar Tomer Persico).
An erosion of the status quo at the mosque compound, where only Muslims are allowed to pray but others may visit, would likely unleash a fresh episode of violence.
Israel has a history of destroying Arab and Islamic sites in Jerusalem to colonize the city and erase its Islamic heritage and Arab character.
The Temple Mount serves Elkin and other Likud figures “as a national flag around which to rally,” Persico wrote in 2014, adding that “sovereignty over the Mount becomes a totem embodying sovereignty over the entire country.”
An increasing number of Israeli leaders advocate not only a takeover of the al-Aqsa mosque compound, but the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque itself and their replacement with a Jewish temple.
The newly formed Israeli government which appointed Elkin to his new post plans to extend Israeli sovereignty over large swathes of the occupied West Bank in the coming weeks.
Israel’s attorney general has warned Netanyahu that annexation would be indefensible at the ICC.
ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda already condemned such moves, warning that unilateral annexation of occupied territory by an occupying power “has no legal validity.”
Israel’s construction of colonies and transfer of its civilian population into the West Bank, in blatant contravention of international law, is likely to be a primary focus of any future ICC investigation.
“I am not embarrassed of being a settler. I don’t think I need to apologize to anyone about it,” Elkin told the Associated Press in 2013.
Despite this bluster, Elkin and other senior Israeli officials are feeling the heat as an ICC investigation looms.
During the first meeting of the current Israeli government, Netanyahu said he considered the ICC “a strategic threat to Israel” and that preventing an investigation was one of his top priorities.
“This is a strategic threat to the State of Israel – to IDF soldiers, to the commanders, to the ministers, to the governments, to everything,” Netanyahu stated.
New US threat
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, recently returned from a one-day visit to Israel, made a new threat against the ICC on Friday.
Pompeo’s statement references Bensouda’s reaffirmation of ICC jurisdiction over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a position rejected by Israel and the US, neither of which are party to the court.
“The International Criminal Court is a political body, not a judicial institution,” Pompeo said, adding that “if the ICC continues down its current course, we will exact consequences.”
In March, Pompeo threatened to sanction two employees working for Bensouda and their families as Israeli and US officials met to hammer out a joint strategy to ward off investigations that could see indictments of personnel from both countries.
Pompeo’s threats were implicitly endorsed by members of the US Congress who called for the secretary of state to obstruct the court from investigating alleged Israeli war crimes.
A letter calling for “vigorous support of Israel” signed by a bipartisan grouping of 69 senators was authored by AIPAC, the powerful Israel lobby group.
AIPAC backed a similar letter from House representatives, which also faulted the ICC for investigating US crimes in Afghanistan.
A five-year preliminary examination of the situation in Palestine concluded in December when Bensouda recommended the court open a formal investigation. But she requested that a pre-trial panel of judges make a ruling on jurisdiction before the investigation begins.
That decision is expected in the next few months.