by Sheera Frankel in Jerusalem, Sean O’Neill and Sam Coates on RAIN
The Times – 6 January 2010
The Attorney General could be given a veto over arrest warrants for foreign leaders in an attempt to placate Israeli ministers who fear war crimes prosecutions if they visit Britain.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal, who is in Jerusalem, discussed an amendment to British law that would give her office the power to review arrest warrants in private prosecutions against political figures, according to Foreign Ministry sources.
Israel warned that a failure to resolve the situation soon would have consequences for both countries.
Any further deterioration in diplomatic relations could damage Britain’s counter-terrorism effort which has drawn heavily on Israeli experience and expertise, notably in dealing with suicide bombers.
Lady Scotland’s trip coincided with the cancellation of a visit to Britain by an Israeli military delegation. The group abandoned its travel plans after the Israeli officers were told that their hosts, the British Army, could not guarantee they would not be arrested.
Last month Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, cancelled a trip to London after a court was persuaded by Palestinian activists to issue a warrant for her arrest in connection with the 2008 Israeli offensive in Gaza.
Previously, Defence Minister Ehud Barak has abandoned plans to visit the UK fearing arrest and in 2005 Doron Almog, a retired Israeli general, avoided arrest only by remaining on the plane that brought him to Heathrow.
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, apologised to Ms Livni last month and promised an urgent review of the law to prevent a repeat of the situation.
Westminster sources said that no final decision has been taken on how to solve the problem but giving the Attorney General a new power to review private warrants was the preferred option.
It would give the Attorney General the ability to block the arrest of Israeli politicians but would not block action against Nazi war criminals, Afghan warlords or fugitive leaders of genocidal campaigns.
Officials have told ministers that a change to the present legal situation will require parliamentary approval. That advice has delayed the change because the Government fears a backlash from its own backbenchers if it tries to push through an amendment which is seen to favour Israel.
Lady Scotland’s office said last night she had been invited to deliver a lecture in Israel before the row over Ms Livni’s visit and combined her visit with a holiday.
The Israeli foreign ministry confirmed however that she met Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, who made clear his anger and concern.
Lady Scotland refused to be drawn on the specifics of any amendment when she delivered her lecture last night at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“I shall not tonight be talking about the rights and wrongs of any individual case,” she told her audience.
“But you will know that the Foreign Secretary has stated clearly that the Government is looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed to avoid this situation arising again and is determined that Israel’s leaders should always be able to travel freely to the UK.”
Answering questions later, the Attorney General said there would be no dilution of Britain’s commitment to prosecute war criminals.
She added: “We need to make sure that the process that we use to effectively prosecute is just that, effective, and not used for political or other purposes.”
Mr Ayalon told Lady Scotland that if the threat of arrest was not removed from visiting Israeli officials it would “make it difficult for the two countries to maintain a normal relationship”.
He raised the issue of the cancelled military visit and pointed out that most Israeli citizens had served in the military and could be liable to arrest in Britain.
Mr Ayalon said in a radio interview: “These officers were invited by Great Britain, but they will stay in Israel as long as we do not have a 100 percent guarantee that they will not become objects of criminal lawsuits in that country.
“If the British law remains unchanged, this would undermine the good relations between the two countries who share common values and interests. The British must bear in mind that these visits serve both countries.
“Only actions can put an end to this absurd situation, which would have seemed a comedy of errors were it not so serious.”
An official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry added that they were “concerned” that issue has not already been resolved in the month since Ms Livni had to cancel her trip to Britain.
The source said: “The issue with Tzipi was back in December, and we have yet to see real movement on this intolerable situation. We understand that it has been the holiday season, but this is an issue that effectively bans our Israeli leaders from visiting the UK. It has huge consequences.”
But the Government is facing lobbying from Muslim groups and human rights organisations against any change to the legal position.
The Muslim Council of Britain has warned against “selective compliance with the enforcement of international law” which it claimed would “add a further dimension to the double standards that our government is seen to have in relation to the politics of the Middle East”.
Inayat Bunglawala of Muslims4UK said: “We believe no attempt should be made [to change the law]. There’s no reason why Israel should be singled out for special treatment. If they’re accused of war crimes, we have a duty – and legislation – to prosecute.”
The Hamas leadership of Gaza has said that it is assisting European lawyers and human rights groups in collecting data on alleged war crimes committed by Israel during the Gaza War.
A UN fact-finding mission led by Judge Richard Goldstone found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes during the Gaza War. Some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed during the 23-day offensive waged in late December 2008.
Dominic Grieve, the shadow Justice Secretary, said the Opposition would work with the Government to resolve the situation.
“The Government has undertaken to address the issues surrounding arrest warrants for visiting foreign politicians or officials,” Mr Grieve said.
“We will work with them to find the right balance between bringing genuine war criminals to justice, and preventing the criminal justice system from being manipulated for political ends.”