Israel’s Netanyahu rejects as absurd British arrest warrant for ex-minister on war crimes

By Amy Teibel, AP
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Israel warns Britain on war crimes warrant

JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister on Tuesday called a British arrest warrant against the country’s former foreign minister “an absurdity” and warned that attempts to prosecute Israeli officials for war crimes charges over last winter’s Gaza offensive could harm relations between the two countries.

Benjamin Netanyahu also had his top aide Uzi Arad tell the British ambassador that Israel expected London to work to thwart such attempts, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.

Israel, Arad told the ambassador, “expects the British government to act against this immoral phenomenon that attempts to damage Israel’s right to self defense,” according to the statement.

Netanyahu rejected the notion that leaders and army officers “who defended our civilians bravely and morally against a despicable and brutal enemy could be branded war criminals. We firmly reject this absurdity.”

Britain’s Foreign Office has said it was looking urgently into the arrest warrant against opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who was the foreign minister at the time of the Gaza offensive. It said Monday that Britain was determined to do its best to be a strategic partner of Israel.

“To do this, Israel’s leaders need to be able to come to the U.K. for talks with the British Government.”

The warrant against Livni was the latest in a string of attempts by pro-Palestinian activists to have Israeli officials arrested on war crimes charges, using a law that has allowed Palestinians to go after Israelis in British courts.

Livni was targeted for her role in last winter’s brutal offensive against Hamas in Gaza, when she was foreign minister. She did not directly address the arrest warrant in a speech at a security conference Tuesday, but said of her wartime conduct, “I would make the same decisions all over again.”

Also Tuesday, Israeli Public Information Minister Yuli Edelstein warned that such attempts in Britain to pursue war crimes charges against Israeli leaders were harming relations between the two countries.

Livni’s office refused to confirm media reports that she had been forced to call off a trip to London because of legal concerns. But on Tuesday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said a warrant had been issued for Livni. The ministry said the warrant was later canceled after officials learned Livni was not on British soil.

“We see it as really a diplomatic offense against the state of Israel,” Edelstein told The Associated Press. “I think that it’s high time that the British parliament does something about it. It definitely hurts relations.”

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.

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

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 also canceled trips to Britain in recent years for the same reason.

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