An announcement on reform of the law that allows magistrates to grant arrest warrants for visiting Israeli military figures and politicians is imminent and could come within weeks.
Senior figures in the Jewish community now believe that responsibility is likely to be passed to the Attorney General following intense UK government embarrassment over the arrest warrant that was granted for the former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
Attorney General Baroness Scotland told an audience at the Hebrew University this week: “The Foreign Secretary has stated clearly that the government is looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed to avoid this situation arising again and is determined that Israel’s leaders should always be able to travel freely to the UK.”
Jewish Leadership Council Chief Executive Jeremy Newmark confirmed: “Intensive conversations continued right through the holiday period. These culminated in the Attorney General making a welcome commitment in Jerusalem earlier this week. At this point the ball remains in the government’s court and we anticipate hearing the details of their proposed remedy very soon.”
The JC understands that the one serious stumbling block to agreement over new legislation remains the Justice Secretary Jack Straw. As Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw bolstered the influence within government of the Muslim Council of Britain, which is fiercely opposed to reform. A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The government is looking at this issue urgently. No decisions have yet been made.”
Chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel, James Arbuthnot MP, said: “It is vital that the law is amended immediately in order to prevent it being exploited for the sake of the political agendas or vendettas of those people petitioning our courts.”
However, Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve stopped short of committing a Conservative government to reform of the law: “The government has undertaken to address the issues surrounding arrest warrants for visiting foreign politicians or officials. We will work with them to find the right balance between bringing genuine war criminals to justice and preventing the criminal justice system from being manipulated for
But Baroness Scotland insisted that the government was “determined that Israel’s leaders should always be able to travel freely to the United Kingdom”.
Lady Scotland was speaking at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at the end of a day in which she had been told by Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, that it was “intolerable” for Israelis to face arrest for war crimes if they visited the United Kingdom.
“This will make it difficult for the two countries to maintain a normal relationship,” Mr Ayalon added in a statement issued by his office.
But responding to a question from the JC, Lady Scotland said: “Energetic efforts are being made to find a suitable, proportionate, lawful, effective, human-rights-compliant resolution.”
The day had begun with a well-timed report in the Israeli media — widely thought, although denied publicly, to have been leaked by Mr Ayalon — that four senior Israel Defence Force officers had called off an official visit to Britain last week because the government could not guarantee that they would not face arrest.
Although the report in the Israeli media maintained that the officers had been invited by the British Army for talks on co-operation, a source in the British Embassy in Tel Aviv insisted that they had been invited by King’s College, London to an academic seminar. The source also said that the British government had not responded to the Israeli query whether it could guarantee that the officers would not be served with arrest warrants, before the Israeli decision to cancel the delegation.
Among the officers who were invited were Brigadier General Herzi Halevi, who commanded the paratroopers’ brigade during Operation Cast Lead and now occupies a senior operational post in the Intelligence Corps, and Colonel Itai Virov, former commander of the Kfir brigade.
Last month, a magistrate in London issued an arrest warrant for Tzipi Livni over war crimes allegedly committed in Gaza a year ago. The warrant — thought to have been obtained by pro-Palestinian activists — was withdrawn when it was discovered that the former foreign minister had cancelled her planned trip to London.
Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, English courts may try foreign citizens for war crimes committed abroad.
An arrest warrant may be issued even for offences — such as war crimes — that cannot be prosecuted without the Attorney General’s consent. Reformers argue that a law officer’s consent should be required for such cases before an arrest can be made.
Lady Scotland is not the minister responsible for policy in this area and she is known to be disappointed that the Foreign Office has yet to decide how to proceed.
She had raised expectations of an announcement at the Hebrew University by including the word “lawfare” in the title of her Lionel Cohen lecture. The term is often used to mean the use of law as a weapon of war, although the Attorney General chose to define it more broadly.
Answering questions from reporters afterwards, Lady Scotland said the Foreign Secretary had made it “absolutely clear that we attach enormous importance to Israel as a strategic partner on a whole range of issues”.
She continued: “That means we need to be able to talk to senior Israelis both here and in the United Kingdom.”
The law officer explained that both Britain and Israel supported the principle of universal jurisdiction, which had denied a safe haven to Nazi criminals and Afghan warlords alike.
It was important to ensure that prosecution processes were not used for “political or other inappropriate purposes”, she explained.
When parliament had agreed that the Attorney General’s consent should be required for prosecutions in cases of
universal jurisdiction, it was decided that no such consent should be needed before an arrest warrant was issued.
“If you are going to have the same test as for a prosecution,” she asked, “then when would you ever start an investigation?
“You have to make it possible to prosecute but you must also make the procedure such that it is less amenable to abuse.”
Asked why it should be possible for individuals to obtain arrest warrants in cases whether there was no chance that the Attorney General would ever consent to a prosecution, Lady Scotland said that any new restrictions should be both “robust” and “proportionate”.
Sitting in the front row of the audience while she made her speech was Lord Pannick, QC, chairman of the legal group of the British Friends of the Hebrew University, whose legal opinion, published in the JC last month, advised that an arrest should only be made if the Attorney General had given her prior consent.