By Rory McCarth and Afua Hirsch, The Guardian – 5 Jan 2009
The government is determined to protect high-ranking Israeli officials from arrest in the UK, the attorney general said, as it emerged that a further visit by the Israeli military had been cancelled.
Speaking at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem today, Baroness Scotland said Israeli leaders should not face arrest for war crimes under the law of “universal jurisdiction”, following attempts by British lawyers last month to obtain a warrant for the former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
“The government is looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed to avoid this situation arising again,” Scotland said. “Israel‘s leaders should always be able to travel freely to the UK.”
Scotland’s assurance comes as the Guardian learned that the Israeli military had cancelled a visit by a team of its officers to Britain after fears they risked arrest on possible war crimes charges.
A group of officers, reportedly from the rank of major up to colonel, were invited by the British army for a meeting on military co-operation but cancelled last week. There were also reports today that Israeli officials feared possible arrest warrants and contacted British authorities to demand a guarantee that the officers would not be arrested.
Last week, British officials reportedly said they could offer no such guarantee and the Israeli military promptly cancelled the visit. The Israeli military, also referred to as the Israel Defence Force, declined to comment. News of the latest cancellation by high-profile Israeli politicians or army officers is likely to intensify debate around the ability of UK-based lawyers to obtain arrest warrants.
In October, Moshe Ya’alon, a former general and current cabinet minister, turned down an invitation to visit London for fear of arrest over an Israeli air strike in Gaza dating back to 2002. Two weeks earlier, lawyers also tried to secure an arrest warrant against Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, while he was visiting Britain. They did not succeed since as a serving minister Barak still has diplomatic immunity.
Israeli leaders have grown increasingly frustrated about the threat of legal action against individuals and said they would be pressing Scotland to change UK law in meetings today in Jerusalem.
“The risk to senior Israeli figures does concrete and immediate damage to bilateral relations”, said the deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, today.
“Organisations that are hostile to Israel try to exploit the legal channels and legal tools to threaten the Israeli and British decision-makers, including the authorities of the attorney general herself, and to thereby create political facts that should be determined around the diplomatic negotiating table.”The UK is one of a number of countries where private prosecutions can be brought for alleged war crimes committed abroad. Following the attempt to obtain an arrest warrant for Livni from a London magistrates’ court last month, the Guardian reported Foreign Office plans to change the legal process so that the attorney general would first approve warrants before suspected war criminals could be arrested. The “safeguards” were to apply to all visiting foreign leaders, not just Israelis, but provoked outrage from lawyers.
“If there is evidence against Israeli leaders and a judge thinks that there is a case to answer, then why does the process need to be changed?”, said Daniel Machover, a partner at Hickman & Rose, whose firm obtained an arrest warrant in 2005 for the Israeli general, Doron Almog.
“In my view, it is not constitutionally proper to give the attorney general involvment at the arrest stage. We would not have a politician standing next to a policeman who decides whether or not to arrest someone, why should we have a politician standing next to a judge?”