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International pressure over the Israeli government’s conduct of its war in Gaza is intensifying. The International Criminal Court prosecutor last week accused premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister, alongside leaders of Hamas, of war crimes — prompting outrage from Israel and its biggest ally, the US. The International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt its assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah. Ireland, Norway and Spain committed, meanwhile, to recognise Palestinian statehood — a symbolic blow against an Israeli leader who rails against any talk of a two-state solution.

This should be a wake-up call, a moment for moderate Israelis to realise that, despite worldwide sympathy over Hamas’s horrific October 7 assault, their far-right government’s actions are driving the country into greater isolation.

After Karim Khan, the ICC prosecutor, requested warrants for the arrests of Israeli leaders, as well as three Hamas leaders, Israeli and US officials accused him of equating the actions of a democratically elected government with those of a terrorist organisation. President Joe Biden angrily declared that “there is no equivalence — none — between Israel and Hamas”.

Khan’s applications, however, backed by a six-strong expert panel including an American-Israeli judge, did not draw comparisons or assert equivalence between the two sides. Instead, they concluded there was evidence that both Israeli and Hamas leaders were responsible, in different ways, for crimes under international humanitarian law. To have applied the law only to one side would have appeared to be selective justice. The only other option was to act against neither.

Claims that the ICC official is denying Israel’s right to self-defence are similarly flawed. Khan’s application acknowledges that right, but says it should have been exercised in a way compatible with the rules of war. It alleges that Israel’s top leaders have used starvation as a method of war, and collective punishment of Gaza’s besieged civilian population — which they strenuously deny. ICC judges will decide whether they agree the evidence is sufficient to merit issuing warrants.

The ICC applications seek to demonstrate that the laws of conflict apply to elected leaders and their armed forces, as well as to autocrats and non-state or terrorist actors. They may help bolster the credibility of a court whose initial focus on Africa led to accusations that it only targeted developing countries.

The courts’ actions are a blow to the Jewish state still traumatised by Hamas’s atrocities. The initial reaction of many, including the political opposition, has been to rally to Netanyahu’s support. Yet the international pressure over the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza highlights the extent to which Israel’s premier, and the ultra-right extremists he depends on to hold his ruling coalition together, are making it ever harder even for allies to support it.

Israel’s partners are frustrated by Netanyahu’s resistance to allow more aid into devastated Gaza, and determination to press on with the offensive in Rafah — where more than 1mn people had sought sanctuary. They are angered, too, by his refusal to produce a viable post-conflict plan for the strip; his failure to rein in rampaging Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank; and Israel’s rejection of the Biden administration’s plans to take steps towards a two-state solution. That is the only path to providing Israel with the long-term security it requires.

Israel is not a signatory to the ICC, whose judges may reject Khan’s request, and the ICJ has no means of enforcing its order. But the fact Israel has found itself in this position underlines the extent to which Netanyahu has become a liability for his country. He promises total “victory” but his Gaza offensive appears bogged down with key goals unmet. More than ever, Israel requires responsible, sober leadership that the current prime minister is unwilling and incapable of providing.

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