Israeli politicians may provoke arrest to force law change in Britain 15Feb10 February 16, 2010

Times Online -  15 Februrary 2010


A swift change to the law promised by ministers to prevent Israeli politicians and generals being arrested when they visit Britain is in doubt.

A Cabinet split over timing threatens to postpone any alteration of the rules until after the election, The Times has learnt, even though ministers assured Israel that it was a priority. Such a delay would leave visiting Israelis at risk and could worsen an already sour dispute with Jerusalem.

Tzipi Livni, the Israeli opposition leader whose threatened arrest sparked the dispute, indicated last night that she was prepared to travel to Britain and “take the bullet” if that was the only way to shame the Government into action. “Britain has obligated itself to me personally that this subject will be taken care of and fixed,” she said. “Now is the time.”

Ministers promised to act after a magistrate in London issued a warrant for the arrest of Ms Livni last year, for alleged war crimes in Gaza when she was Foreign Minister. The warrant was withdrawn after she cancelled her planned trip.

The issue embarrassed the Government, and David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said that ministers were looking urgently at changing the law so that Israeli leaders felt free to visit the UK.

It would mean rewriting the principle of universal jurisdiction, under which private citizens can secure arrest warrants for offences such as war crimes committed abroad. Under one proposal, the Attorney-General, rather than just a magistrate, would have to authorise such a warrant.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal, the Attorney-General, went to Israel to reassure political and military leaders that the Government was taking the issue seriously. But it has now become snarled up in the end of the parliamentary session.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, is privately warning against remaking the law over such a fundamental issue in haste. He believes that it ought to be explored by a body such as the Justice Select Committee. That would delay any new law until the next Parliament.

Parliamentary counsel have drafted clauses that could be attached to the Crime and Security Bill currently before Parliament, for its Commons committee stage on February 25 or its report stage in March. But there are fears that it may fall victim to horse-trading at the end of the parliamentary session, which would be even more embarrassing to the Government in its relations with Israel.

A further complication is that 119 MPs, most Labour, have signed a Commons motion against any change, and some Labour strategists do not want to be dealing with a rebellion as the election campaign starts. Mr Miliband wants the issue to be resolved before the election, and officials insisted last night that much work was being done to that end.

Yigal Palmor, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: “If Israeli dignitaries cannot travel unhindered to Britain, than they will not travel. Automatically the political dialogue between the two countries will be reduced. This is not something that London or Jerusalem wants.”

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