July 29, 2010

British new PM angers Israelis, Palestinians

English.news.cn by David Harris

JERUSALEM, July 29 (Xinhua) -- The past week has perhaps left the Israeli government somewhat confused as to the nature of its relationship with the new British government of Prime Minister David Cameron.

There was a collective sigh of relief in Israel when British cabinet agreed last Thursday to legislate an amendment to the country's universal jurisdiction law. That move was the start of a process that should prevent Israeli leaders from facing arrest in Britain for alleged perpetration of war crimes.

However, in the interim Cameron surprised Israel by launching strong attacks on the Jewish state during his visit to Turkey, an event that in part overshadowed the next leg of his overseas travels -- to India.


As it stands, the British statute books allow for attempts to prosecute Israelis for their alleged crimes against Palestinians. On more than one occasion in recent years, Israeli leaders have been forced to cancel trips to the country because the threat of arrest hung over their heads.

Those who did land on British soil narrowly avoided capture.

In October, Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke at the Labor Party's annual conference alongside then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. On the same day, Palestinians unsuccessfully attempted to have him arrested.

Four years earlier, Doron Almog, a senior Israeli general, was advised not to disembark from his plane at Heathrow because he would face arrest.

As a result of these and other cases, one involving Tzipi Livni, who was Israel's foreign minister at the time, Israel has been pressuring London to make the change.

The Labor government said it would do what it could but then lost the general election. However, Cameron picked up the mantle and promised to introduce the reform.

"At the moment anyone can apply to the courts for an arrest warrant. That is a right that the Government wants to protect," read a statement from Britain's Justice Ministry.

"However, because the evidence necessary to issue an arrest warrant may be far less than would be needed for a prosecution, the system is open to possible abuse by people trying to obtain arrest warrants for grave crimes on the basis of flimsy evidence to make a political statement or to cause embarrassment," the statement continued.

"The government has concluded, after careful consideration, that it would be appropriate to require the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before an arrest warrant can be issued to a private prosecutor in respect of an offense of universal jurisdiction," added Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke.

The move was welcomed by Israel with the country's Ambassador to the Court of St. James Ron Prosor, defining it as "a step in the right direction."

With relations seemingly getting back on track and Israel immediately talking of a possible Britain role in the peace process, Cameron chose to attack Israel regarding its maritime operation to prevent a convoy of boats from bringing aid to the Gaza Strip.

The incident on May 31 led to the killing of nine people on board a Turkish ship. Israelis claimed their officers were attacked by those on board and in order to extricate themselves, the Israelis used live fire.

"What we saw happen, was taking place in international waters and this attack can only be termed as piracy. There is no other word to describe it," Cameron said of the Israeli operation as he answered questions in a joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday.

During his Turkish visit Cameron also referred to the Gaza Strip as a "prison camp." In clarifying that remark he said he had made a similar comment several weeks previously in the House of Commons of the British parliament.


While the Britain-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) welcomed Cameron's comments in Turkey saying they reflected popular British opinion, the organization is exasperated with the universal-jurisdiction announcement.

"Disappointed is not the word. We are incredibly concerned that the British government does not seem to realize that it has a responsibility under international law to prosecute those suspected of war crimes and bring to justice those who have committed war crimes," the PSC's Director of Campaigns and Operations Sarah Colborne said on Thursday.

"What this change will do is to allow those people who have committed war crimes to walk freely in this country," she added.

Likewise the Israelis have been left with a bitter taste in their mouth. The fact that Cameron describes himself as "a critical friend of Israel," means he will not be trusted by the Jewish state in the same way its leaders confided in his two predecessors, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, according to Jonathan Rynhold, a British born senior research associate at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv.

The new strategy of Britain seems to be about appeasement, said Rynhold. He points to the British dialogue with Hezbollah, the south Lebanon-based organization with its own military wing.

"He's gone to Turkey at a time when Turkey has invited (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, is supporting the Iranian position on the nuclear question...is inviting the Sudanese leader who is wanted for genocide, and in that environment he says all of this about Israel. You have to say that is something different and problematic," said Rynhold.

While Israelis and the U.S. pro-Israel lobby were initially concerned about the stance of United States President Barack Obama, in recent months he does appear to have given considerable credence to Israel's diplomatic position.

The British, however, appear to be moving in a different direction, so much so that Rynhold believed this could well make Israel turn to France in place of Britain as one of its main allies in Europe.

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