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Hague offers Israel hand of friendship

● Israel pulls out the stops for Foreign Secretary’s visit

    William Hague meets the parents of the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, Noam and Aviva, in Jerusalem
    William Hague meets the parents of the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, Noam and Aviva, in Jerusalem

    William Hague's first visit to Israel as Foreign Secretary was hailed this week by both Israeli and British officials as a resounding success.

    In the run-up to the visit there had been trepidation on both sides that it would set back relations. But both Israeli and British officials said that they had worked hard over the past two months to make Mr Hague's visit warm and positive, an ambition mirrored in the full turnout of Israel's political elite to welcome him.

    Nevertheless, on the first morning of Mr Hague's meetings, one Israeli diplomat noted wryly: "It is absurd that when senior Israeli officials have to travel to London for the annual strategic dialogue they run the risk of being arrested."

    Israel Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor announced on the first morning of Mr Hague's visit that Israel would be suspending the annual strategic dialogue with the UK until the universal jurisdiction law, that allows private citizens to obtain arrest warrants against senior Israeli officers and politicians visiting London, was changed.

    But this was said not to reflect the approach of the Israeli Foreign Minister or his inner circle, and was dismissed by a British source as coming from an Israeli "rogue briefer".

    An official Israeli spokesman later clarified the situation, saying: "We are only delaying the dialogue, not cancelling or suspending it in any way."

    A few hours after the announcement, Mr Hague and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman met. They issued a joint statement, noting that "both ministers expressed their appreciation for the breadth and intensity of official exchanges between the two governments, and affirmed their shared commitment to an early meeting of the High-Level UK-Israel Strategic Dialogue".

    A senior Israeli diplomatic source made clear that there had been no row: "We are very pleased with the leadership that Britain is showing in Europe, together with France, over the Iranian nuclear issue, and we are certainly going to continue full co-operation on security matters and intelligence-sharing."

    A member of Mr Hague's entourage also tried to soothe feelings. He said: "It is our clear intention to change the law and the matter will be brought to Parliament in the next few weeks with a view to voting it through during the current session."

    On Wednesday morning, Mr Hague participated in a high-level "round table" breakfast briefing on Iran's nuclear programme, chaired by Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor with the participation, among other senior officials, of Mossad Chief Meir Dagan and the head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Agency, Shaul Horev.

    But Mr Hague's decision to include in the Palestinian part of his itinerary a meeting with activists involved in the protests against Israel's separation fence, raised some eyebrows in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

    The Israeli government sees the protests as violent and illegal, and was not pleased by Mr Hague's decision to meet the activists, but no official protest was lodged. "The meeting was only with activists who are involved in strictly non-violent protests," said one British diplomat.

    "The UK government has objected numerous times in the past to the fact that the separation fence is on Palestinian land, to the east of the Green Line, so this meeting is no signal whatsoever of any change in British policy."

    But despite these mishaps, both sides described the visit, as "very
    successful."

    Mr Hague got the full treatment, including meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

    Most incredibly, his meeting with his opposite number, Avigdor Lieberman, who last month berated other European foreign ministers that "Europe should sort out its own problems before telling us what to do", was all smiles.

    The two signed a film co-production agreement and focused in their joint statement on the "strength and depth of current partnerships in areas such as business, science and innovation," while glossing over differences between the two governments on the diplomatic process and the West Bank settlements.

    Mr Hague spent time with the parents of the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, expressing his personal sympathy and that of the British government and people. "I promise we will not forget Gilad," he told Noam and Aviva Shalit, explaining to them why Britain did not speak to Hamas, which has kidnapped the Israeli sergeant and refuses to allow Red Cross visits.

    Later the Foreign Secretary, who visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial, took part in a dinner for Israeli and British scientists and on Thursday headed to northern Israel to see Techjet, a company in the Tefen industrial park, half of which is owned by Rolls Royce.

    He left Israel for meetings with the Egyptian government on Thursday afternoon.

    "There was no point in either side making a big fuss during the visit," said one Israeli diplomat. "The only thing that matters now is what Obama will do after the mid-term elections and how Netanyahu will respond. Neither Hague nor the British government have any influence on that."

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