By Ben White

 

Despite a change in the universal jurisdiction legislation last
year, Israeli officials and military officers are still not visiting Britain
for fear of arrest on war crimes charges, it has been revealed. As reported in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz,
Israel’s Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog (pictured, right) cancelled a scheduled
speaking engagement in London next month, “on the advice of the Israeli
government”.

In 2005, Almog dramatically escaped
arrest on war crimes charges by staying on his plane at Heathrow following a
tip-off that police were waiting for him. Currently, he is in charge of “implementing the relocation” of Bedouin citizens
in the Negev.

In September 2011, following pressure by the Israeli government and
pro-Israel groups in the UK, the law was amended so that “the consent of the Director of
Public Prosecutions will be required before an arrest warrant can be issued”.
Though it was Israel demanding the change, Amnesty International stressed before and after that such a change would “hamper victims’
attempts to bring private prosecutions through the British courts against
perpetrators of torture and war crimes”.

The Ha’aretz article adds some interesting – and disturbing
– details to what was already known, or suspected, about both the change in law
as well as the circumstances of former-Israeli FM Tzipi Livni’s visit shortly
after the bill’s passing.

A “senior Israeli official” speaking to the paper anonymously,
claimed that “the [British] government promised it would be changed so
that only the Attorney General, who is a political figure we can trust, would
authorize universal jurisdiction arrests” (my emphasis). However, the
contentious amendment eventually assigned this responsibility to the Director
of Public Prosecutions.

The paper also notes that “Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew
Gould, contacted Almog and Livni personally after the law was amended to tell
them they could now visit Britain without risking arrest” (and at least in
Livni’s case, on the same day as the amendment).

However, what transpired when the then-Israeli FM answered Foreign
Secretary William Hague’s invitation proved what Almog now says (and what Livni
worried about in an interview even while in
London) – that the changes could not entirely protect an individual with a case
to answer.

As I wrote at the time, “Livni only avoided a warrant
due to a legal assessment by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) that she
was on a ‘Special Mission’.” In other words, the new law was not actually
tested. The Ha’aretz report supports this version of events, noting that
“the visit was still defined as official, in order to guarantee her
protection under diplomatic immunity” (my emphasis).

Uncomfortable questions remain. What was a UK ambassador doing,
personally contacting two individuals suspected of war crimes to assure them
they would be safe from arrest in Britain? In addition, does the decision to go
public about Almog and Israeli disquiet with the status quo presage a new round
of pressure on the British government for a further weakening of our universal
jurisdiction legislation?