Liberal Zionist groups oppose occupation but can’t bring themselves to endorse ICC probe

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  March 5, 2021

The two decisions from the International Criminal Court in the last month to move forward on an investigation of war crimes in Palestine have shaken Israel and suggested that the power politics of Israeli impunity are finally going to change.

These decisions have predictably angered Israel– “undiluted antisemitism” — and its lobby— “spurious allegations”– and been condemned by the American government. They have been welcomed by Palestine, which sought the actions.

But the decisions have put the liberal branch of the Israel lobby in an awkward position. For many years liberal Zionists have offered Israel political support in the U.S. but said that the occupation and Jewish settlement of lands across the Green Line must end in order for Israel to fulfil its promise as a democracy. Americans for Peace Now has diligently monitored settlement activity. J Street has built Congressional opposition to Israeli actions in the West Bank, such as demolitions and annexation.

You’d think that the ICC investigation would give liberal Zionists a place to stand. At last someone is investigating settlements as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

But none of the leading liberal Zionist groups have hailed the ICC. They have issued dithering statements saying it’s a sad reflection on the occupation that it’s come to this, and not a surprise; but they’ve stopped short of endorsing the ICC and have even said critical things about the court.

Torn between supporting Israel in the U.S. and trying to stop Israeli human rights violations, the liberal Zionists have chosen Support for Israel. These same organization oppose reductions of U.S. military aid to the country, and have blasted the nonviolent BDS campaign as antisemitic.

Let’s look at some of the liberal Zionist comments.

Yesterday J Street issued a statement on the ICC investigation that openly waffles. It takes no position on the ICC’s assertion that it has jurisdiction to investigate war crimes in Palestine but says that Israel of course should be accountable under international law. Then it pulls that hope away, saying if Israel would just ask the court to “defer” to Israel’s own legal procedures for addressing violations, “Such a request would freeze the case and could ultimately even lead the prosecutor to close the case if the investigation is deemed sufficient.”

But everyone knows Israel regards the settlements as perfectly legal! And as for investigations of war crimes in Gaza, no one has ever faced accountability.

J Street expresses solidarity with those Israelis:

We understand and deeply sympathize with the fear and concern felt by many Israeli families who have been told by critics of the Court that an ICC investigation could result in the penalization of rank and file soldiers who have served in the IDF.

There is no expression of deep sympathy for Palestinians.

J Street’s balancing act also entails keeping right with the Biden administration. Its statement on the ICC last month seemed to affirm the Biden team’s stiff-necked response.

The Biden administration has already clearly and definitively stated its disagreement with the Pre-Trial Court’s decision on jurisdiction…

The liberal Zionist group T’ruah was also very critical of the ICC while sidestepping the issue of the investigation. Rabbi Jill Jacobs’s statement last month:

“The ICC in its current form is a flawed institution. Some of the worst actors — including leaders of China, Syria, and Russia — cannot be held accountable, as they are not party to the Rome statute. Nor is the United States a member; thus, high level Bush administration officials cannot be charged with war crimes despite the documented use of torture during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as part of the War on Terror.

But as for Israeli human rights violations, they’re… tragic.

The true tragedy is that Israel has reached the point that the ICC would consider investigating possible war crimes. For more than half a century, Israel has carried out a policy of displacing Palestinians from their homes in the occupied territories, expanding settlements, and too easily resorting to deadly and disproportionate force in both the West Bank and Gaza.

T’ruah concludes, forget about the ICC, Jews need to fix the problem!

Rather than focus on the ICC, which should be the last resort for accountability on human rights, Israeli leaders and Jewish leaders around the world should put our energy toward ending these human rights abuses and pursuing a long-term solution that protects the human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.” 

J Street in its latest statement also says with “dismay and frustration” that Jews (and others) should redouble “efforts to reach a comprehensive, mutually agreed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to end over 53 years of ever-deepening occupation.”

Well, it’s gone on 53 years because there’s been no real outside pressure. And things have only been getting worse in the West Bank and Gaza, despite liberal Zionists’ concerns.

Americans for Peace Now also concluded last month that the ICC investigation was a “heartbreaking” result of Israel’s actions; but the investigation provides a moment for reflection, not action. Its president came close to embracing the ICC but couldn’t do so.

Hadar Susskind said: “The ICC’s decision and possible investigations are a sobering reminder for Israel’s leadership and for the Israeli public that the occupation, the settlements, and the ongoing military rule over a large civilian population are untenable. This 54-year-old status quo may seem to them like a situation that can be sustained in perpetuity, but the ICC decision is a clear example of the fact that the international community will not tolerate it…

“The prospect of seeing Israel accused of war crimes in an international tribunal is, to me, heartbreaking. But the response to that should not be hollow cries of ‘antisemitism.’ It should be a national reflection on 54 years of Occupation. It should not be an attempt to delegitimatize international law. It should be a clear-eyed look as to whether the IDF is, as is often proclaimed, ‘the most moral army in the world.’”

The contradiction in that stance is that APN has for years nobly documented Israeli army human rights abuses in defense of settlements. Now it asks for reflection on the army’s morality? What about action?

Americans for Peace Now also calls on American Jews to flip the script.

The ICC’s decision is a clear example of the fact that the international community will not tolerate the occupation. Neither will Americans for Peace Now or the many progressive American Jews who support our organization and Israel’s peace movement.

A New Israel Fund statement in February also equivocated. Daniel Sokatch cheered the effort to impeach Donald Trump as a demonstration of accountability, and came close to approving the ICC investigation of the settlement project. But he called that a “conundrum around power and accountability” and proceeded to meditate on-the-one-hand, on-the-other. Excerpts:

The Court was founded to hold individuals accountable for grave violations of international laws when a country lacks the capacity or will to do so itself. And after over 53 years of prolonged military occupation and settlement, the ICC’s decision around jurisdiction calls into question who is capable of—and responsible for—holding individuals accountable for potential violations of international law in the West Bank and Gaza…

[T]he ICC’s decision about its jurisdiction turns our attention to the role Israel’s own courts play in holding Israeli decision makers accountable for the state’s alleged actions in Gaza and the West Bank…. [The Israeli High Court’s] position—that Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank are political questions that the courts should not rule on— opens the question of whether it is up to the task of delivering justice for those living under Israel’s occupation, and, if not, what alternative recourses to justice exist for the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Sokatch ultimately threw his hands up in the air.

When it comes to Israel and its occupation, the jury is still out on where this critical accountability will come from.

The wishywashyness is understandable because these organizations are in a difficult practical position. Their donors and boards include older Jews who still regard Israel as a miracle and, though critical of the occupation, likely see the ICC probe as singling Israel out. Those donors and others to their right have set the tone for the Democratic Party’s response– the Ted Deutch/Brad Schneider lockstep statements with Israel, and Biden and Blinken’s too. J Street and Americans for Peace Now don’t want to be out of step with the Israel lobby broadly, because they would then lose some political access. Peace Now is a member org of the right-wing Conference of Presidents!

Meantime, the progressive base of the Democratic Party likes the ICC decision, and so do young Jews. The left-wing Jewish communal group IfNotNow has repeatedly praised the ICC probe and bewailed the American response. This was how IfNotNow greeted Tony Blinken’s opposition to the ICC:

The liberal Zionist organizations are afraid of losing that generation. At its last conference in Oct. 2019, J Street made several gestures towards IfNotNow. For now, though, they’ve chosen the conservative generation.

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-2006