The Israeli government’s fury at the arrest warrant issued for the former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni has culminated in a threat to end all ministerial visits to Britain. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told the UK government that this would apply even to those not at risk of arrest, until the UK government changes the law allowing private citizens to bring charges against senior Israelis for war crimes.
The 2001 International Criminal Court Act allows magistrates to issue arrest warrants without reference to the Attorney-General where there is a suspicion of war crimes. The pro-Palestinian campaigners behind the arrest warrant application believe the Israeli Opposition leader should be arrested for her membership of the war cabinet which authorised Operation Cast Lead.
Ms Livni cancelled her visit two weeks ago after Israeli officials were tipped off that lawyers representing Palestinians in Gaza were preparing warrant applications in Britain. The warrant for her arrest was issued last weekend when campaigners believed she was still attending the conference.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem regards the arrest warrant as “the final straw” in the ongoing saga of war crimes charges against Israelis visiting London.
For at least two years Israel has received repeated assurances from former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband that the necessary changes would be made to the universal jurisdiction legislation allowing private citizens to press charges against officials of foreign governments for war crimes. Conservative Party leaders also assured the Israeli Embassy in London that they would support such a move in parliament.
Nine months ago, the Foreign Office informed Jerusalem that due to the political climate following the operation in Gaza, the government no longer felt it would be able to secure a parliamentary majority on the matter.
“Brown’s weakness is not our problem,” said a diplomatic source in Jerusalem. “This is something that the British government has to solve. Meanwhile, as long as this street circus is going on in London, we don’t feel we can recommend that any of our ministers or senior officials should visit Britain in the near future — not only those who may be subjected to arrest warrants.”
It is unclear whether this will become official policy but senior officials were certain that ministerial visits to London would not be taking place soon.
On Tuesday evening, Mr Miliband called Ms Livni to apologise. “This is not my personal issue but an issue for all of Israel,” she told him. “The time that goes by without a suitable solution is being abused.” Mr Miliband promised to find a solution. He also spoke to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said on Wednesday in an interview that “the British understand that if this situation continues, the next to suffer will be their own officers over what is happening in Afghanistan.” These intense diplomatic manouevrings culminated in a phone call from Gordon Brown, in Copenhagen, to Ms Livni, expressing his regret over the situation.
Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Tom Phillips, was also called in for a stern conversation in Jerusalem.
On Wednesday, Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague raised the issue with Harriet Harman, who was standing in for Gordon Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions. Mr Hague said: “When the 2001 International Criminal Court Act was introduced it was never meant by anyone in this House to obstruct normal diplomatic business, like the vital work of the Middle East peace process.
“Senior serving politicians, who we need to talk to every day, were not meant to be affected.”
A senior diplomatic source told the JC: “Britain wants to be a player in the peace process but this kind of situation will not help it. We can’t let a country which our ministers cannot visit be involved in our serious affairs.”
Following a “frank” meeting with Mr Miliband on Tuesday, Israeli ambassador to Britain Ron Prosor said: “The current situation is absurd, unacceptable and intolerable and cannot be allowed to continue. This time the shot was fired at Tzipi Livni. She dodged the bullet, but the impact has been felt at the heart of the British legal system and Britain’s reputation in the Middle East.
“We expect the British government to restore sanity to the system. This is an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of our bilateral relations that have been chipped away at by a series of decisions taken under pressure from radical groups. There is a full consensus across the Israeli political spectrum. We are all Tzipi Livni.”
An angry Jewish Leadership Council decided to seek a legal opinion to present to the government in order to prevent “increasing stunts” which were severely affecting the ability of the Jewish community to function. JLC leaders warned the government that an inability to invite Israeli leaders to Britain was probably discriminatory against the Jewish community.
There is aso anger within the Israeli Embassy that the JNF continued to advertise Ms Livni’s appearance at the conference, despite knowing a fortnight in advance that she would not be coming to Britain. The adverts also informed those seeking arrest warrants against Israeli officials that an opportunity for them to strike would arise. For precisely that reason, such visits are rarely announced in advance.
Tayab Ali, who was responsible for the failed attempt to obtain an arrest warrant for Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak in September said: “The position my firm and I are taking in relation to war crimes cases is that in the case of individuals we cannot comment.
“There are lots of lawyers working on this. The number in London and Europe is quite large. I’m small fry in the bigger picture.”