The circumstances surrounding the visit of one of Israel’s most senior military chiefs to Britain have raised renewed fears over the issue of universal jurisdiction.
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz’s trip to London earlier this month was given “special mission” status by Middle East Minister Alistair Burt in a move aimed at deflecting opposition from anti-Israel groups.
In the first visit of its type for a decade, Lt-Gen Gantz met his UK equivalent, Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards, and Ministry of Defence officials.
Israel did not publicise the trip over fears that an attempt could be made to arrest Lt-Gen Gantz, similar to the situation which led to Israeli Opposition leader Tzipi Livni cancelling a planned visit in 2009.
The Livni incident led to years of parliamentary and legal argument over the application of universal jurisdiction — which allows UK courts to prosecute serious human rights violations, regardless of where they were committed — against Israelis.
It was thought the issue had been resolved when the government changed the law in 2011. The legislation means the Director of Public Prosecutions must consent before an arrest warrant can be granted.
But the granting of the special status to Lt-Gen Gantz led some to question the protection afforded to Israeli officials who come to Britain.
One Israeli diplomatic source claimed that “no one is convinced” by the two-year-old legislation, on either the British or Israeli side.
The issue resurfaced after Mr Burt responded to a question from Labour MP Andy Slaughter in Parliament. Mr Burt confirmed that he had made the decision to approve the status for Lt-Gen Gantz.
The Foreign Office later confirmed that the step was in keeping with a new pilot process introduced by Foreign Secretary William Hague in March.
In a Written Ministerial Statement — which received little publicity at the time — Mr Hague set out guidelines for the government to be informed of visits from foreign dignitaries. He said the special immunity could be applied temporarily for someone sent by a country “in order to carry out official engagements”.
Mr Hague cited a High Court ruling on international laws which provide immunity from criminal proceedings, and the effect of those laws in Britain. The immunity applies only to official aspects of visits, and would not cover meetings with Jewish community groups.
But the new legislation has never been tested to its fullest extent. One communal source said: “At some point there will be a test case — the proof of the pudding will be in the eating”.