Israeli officials routinely face UK legal threats
Tuesday, 15 December 2009

FILE - In this Dec. 31, 2008 file photo, then Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, center, looks at the damage to the classroom of a school, caused by a rocket fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza, in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. Israel says Britain had issued an arrest warrant for former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. A foreign ministry statement on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009 provided no details but urged Britain to make such legal actions impossible.

It's not likely that any Israeli officials will be coming to London this holiday season. Not because British Airways may go on strike, but because they face the threat of arrest while giving speeches, shopping or visiting friends.

Lawyers working with Palestinian activists are increasingly targeting senior Israeli civilian and military figures by seeking their arrest in Britain under the principle of "universal jurisdiction." This holds that alleged war criminals can be nabbed and charged anywhere, not just in a country directly involved in the crime.

Their latest target is Tzipi Livni, Israel's former foreign minister and current opposition leader, for her role during the bloody Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip earlier this year.

She canceled her planned visit this month to London. The issuance of a warrant for her arrest, following earlier efforts to arrest Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other visitors, is curdling relations between Israel and Britain.

"It's about time for Britain to amend its law because, if this is possible, it will very severely damage the relations between the two countries," said Yehuda Blum, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations. "The abuse and misuse of this concept of universal jurisdiction should be discontinued."

Blum, who teaches law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the law was intended for use in cases with no clear jurisdiction, such as piracy in international waters, and should not be expanded for political aims.

"Why not use this against Vladimir Putin over Russia's role in Chechnya?" he said. "There is no end to it. This has caused great consternation and dismay."

Israeli officials, acting under orders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told the British ambassador Tuesday they expect quick action to change the law. In London, chagrined British officials said they were seeking solutions.

"The United Kingdom is determined to do all it can to promote peace in the Middle East, and to be a strategic partner of Israel," the Foreign Office said. "To do this, Israel's leaders need to be able to come to the UK for talks with the British government. We are looking urgently at the implications of this case."

The universal jurisdiction concept, which Spain cited to arrest Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998, has inspired Palestinian activists to go after Israelis in British courts.

This pleases those who believe that Israeli leaders long have violated international norms with impunity, said Chris Doyle, director of a lobbying group called the Council for Arab-British Understanding.

"We cannot talk tough on terrorism and be weak on war crimes," Doyle said. "So I think the use of universal jurisdiction in these cases is a good thing.

"Parties in Israel must realize there is a consequence to their behavior. For decades they've violated Security Council resolutions and international law with little or no consequence," he said.

But Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Center at Oxford University in England, said using the universal jurisdiction doctrine against foreign leaders would prove unworkable.

"Pressures in the long run will weigh against this kind of use of international law because it will inhibit political actions," Rogan said, noting that the demands of diplomacy required leaders to be able to travel abroad.

He said the application of the doctrine would be severely tested if attempted against a major European or American leader.

British court officials declined comment on the case, but the Israeli Foreign Ministry said a warrant had been issued for Livni's arrest. The ministry said the warrant was canceled after officials learned Livni was not on British soil.

Livni, a one-time lead negotiator with the Palestinians, enjoys a dovish reputation in much of the West. But as foreign minister, she staunchly defended Israel's devastating military offensive in Gaza early this year.

Her support for that operation - meant to end years of rocket fire by Gaza militants against Israel - has remained strong, despite persistent international criticism of the hundreds of civilian casualties and allegations of war crimes.

"I would make the same decisions all over again," Livni said in a speech Tuesday.

Pro-Palestinian lawyers attempted earlier this year to invoke the "universal jurisdiction" law to arrest Gaza war mastermind Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister, but his status as a Cabinet minister gave him diplomatic immunity.

In 2005 a retired Israeli general, Doron Almog, returned to Israel immediately after landing in London because he was tipped off that British police planned to arrest him. The warrant against Almog - who oversaw the 2002 bombing of a Gaza home in which 14 people were killed along with a leading Palestinian militant - was later canceled.

Other Israeli leaders, including former military chief Moshe Yaalon and ex-internal security chief Avi Dichter, have canceled trips to Britain in recent years for the same reason.



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