Make Israel and Netanyahu Pariahs Like Russia and Putin

Photograph Source: thierry ehrmann – CC BY 2.0

Russia and its president have become pariahs in the West. Politically, several Western countries, companies and the European Union sanctioned Russian President Vladimir Putin, members of his government and Russian citizens as well as Russian banks with various forms of economic boycotts and embargoes following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Legally, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled against Russia on issues involving financing terrorism as well as calling for an immediate halt to its military operations in Ukraine. In addition, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued warrants for Putin’s arrest because of Russia’s abducting Ukrainian children. What about Israel? While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not technically similar to Israel’s invasion of Gaza, the ICJ has ruled Israel committed “plausible genocide” in Gaza and ordered Israel to halt its military offensive in Rafah while the ICC has asked for arrest warrants against the Israeli prime minister and defense minister. Isn’t it time for countries, international organizations and companies to sanction Israel like Russia? If Russia and Putin have become pariahs, why not Israel and Netanyahu?

Since the comparison between sanctioning Israel like Russia may seem exaggerated; a brief analysis of decisions by the ICJ is helpful. When in March 2022 the ICJ ordered Russia to stop its war in Ukraine, it ruled:

“The Russian Federation shall immediately suspend the military operations that it commenced on 24 February 2022 in the territory of Ukraine.”

The recent May 24 ruling of the ICJ concerning Israel’s continuing military offensive in Rafah in defiance the Court’s January 26, 2024, provisional measures said:

“The State of Israel shall, in conformity with its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and in view of the worsening conditions of life faced by civilians in the Rafah Governate; Immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

One may argue about the subtleties of the differences between the two rulings and the fact that the Court may have given Israel some leeway since the Russian order is more direct, as Amanda Taub analyzed in a recent New York Times article. The article’s conclusion, however, citing Trinity College law Professor Michael Becker, cuts through the subtleties of the differences, “I interpret this language [concerning Israel] to mean the military offensive in Rafah needs to be halted, period,” Becker said.

In other words, Israel has not followed the provisional measures the ICJ ordered in January. In addition, the demand for arrest warrants by the ICC prosecutor Karim Khan for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant further certifies Israel’s refusal to obey international law.

The obvious conclusion to presentations of ICJ or ICC rulings against Russia is that they have not been obeyed. Russia continues its war with Ukraine. Neither court has the physical power of enforcement to stop Russia or arrest Putin. And even if an ICJ judgment against Russia is brought to the U.N. Security Council, Russia would inevitably block any action as the U.S. would do concerning Israel.

What is left? If Russia and Putin are being sanctioned by countries, international institutions and companies for disobeying the courts, why shouldn’t Israel and Netanyahu be sanctioned in a similar fashion for disobeying? The issue here is similar punishment for similar disobedience.

What would pariah status mean for Israel? Russian membership in international organizations such as the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Council of Europe have been suspended. It has been estimated that forty-two international fora have suspended Russian participation. In addition, economic sanctions on Russia have affected its banks as well as its holdings in foreign countries.

There has been some movement to sanction Israel. As argued in Aljazeera by Shahd Hammouri, Lecturer in International Law at the University of Kent¸ “Individual countries have started to take action. Colombia has suspended all arms trade with Israel, the UK has stopped maintenance for Israeli F-35 fighter jets on its soil, the Canadian parliament voted to freeze new licences of weapons sale to Israel, and the Walloon regional government in Belgium has blocked the export licences for ammunitions to Israel. The Norwegian government has advised against trade with Israeli settlements.” She added; “Companies have also responded to international appeals and legal proceedings…Itochu Corporation, one of the largest Japanese trade conglomerates, decided to cut ties with Israel’s arms company Elbit.”

Even the European Union is considering sanctions against Israel. “EU foreign ministers have for the first time engaged in a ‘significant’ discussion on sanctioning Israel if it doesn’t comply with international humanitarian law, Irish Foreign Minister Micheál Martin said,” as reported by Nathalie Weatherald May 27 in Politico. “There was a very clear consensus about the need to uphold the international humanitarian legal institutions,” Martin told reporters.

So while students have called for and are calling for universities to divest endowments investing in Israeli companies or participating in joint research projects with Israeli universities, why don’t countries, international organizations and companies sanction Israel in the same way Russia is being sanctioned?

The argument here is not just that no one is above the law. The argument here is for equality of treatment. If Putin and Russia are being punished, Netanyahu and Israel should be punished for the same disobedience in a similar fashion. In addition, in order to be consistent, if Netanyahu has been invited to address Congress, Putin should also be invited to address Congress. Equal rewards as well as equal punishments for war criminals.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.