LONDON // Tzipi Livni, leader of the main opposition party in Israel, says she will travel to London soon, specifically to get arrested. Ms Livni describes the move as an attempt to force the UK government to fulfil its promise to take "urgent" action to protect visiting Israeli officials and military leaders from arrest on war crimes warrants obtained by Palestinian groups in British courts.
Last December, Ms Livni cancelled a trip to London when one group obtained an arrest warrant for crimes committed during the invasion of the Gaza Strip just over a year ago, when she was foreign minister and vice-prime minister. Although an embarrassed UK government promised to amend the law to protect visiting Israeli officials, several of whom have been the subject of warrants in recent years, no action has been taken so far. It has now emerged that Gordon Brown's cabinet is split over the issue, with the justice secretary, Jack Straw, unwilling to hastily abandon the principle of universal jurisdiction, under which individuals can secure arrest warrants for offences such as war crimes committed abroad. Ms Livni told The Jewish Chronicle, a British newspaper, yesterday that she had received invitations from a number of groups in the UK and could make her trip within weeks.
"I will do this not for me, not for provocation, but for the right of every Israeli to travel freely," she said. "I am not going to be restricted by extremists because I fought terror." She claimed that the British system was "being abused by extremists for political reasons". "Belgium and Spain have changed their laws, and the British know that they have to do so," she said. If the British did not act, she said she would consult the Israeli foreign ministry on the exact legal situation before travelling. "My intention is not to stay in Israel forever. I don't think as a decision-maker, who made decisions against terror, that I should plan never to leave Israel. "The British fight terror, too. They do not remain in Britain. They travel," she said. After the December incident, David Miliband, the foreign secretary, led the chorus of apologies from British ministers and promised swift action via an amendment to the Crime and Security Bill currently going through parliament. That bill completes its committee stage in the House of Commons on February 23, which represents the last date amendments can be made. Mr Straw, however, is worried about abandoning the principle of universal jurisdiction in a rush, fearing it could have implications that have yet to be thought through. His preferred route would be to hand over the issue to the Commons' select committee on justice for a thorough inquiry on the ramifications. Such an inquiry would take months, however, and Israel wants action to protect its politicians and other officials immediately. Daniel Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, was in London yesterday and was expected to discuss the issue with his UK counterparts. He had travelled only after being assured by the British foreign office that, as a minister, he would have diplomatic immunity from arrest. The foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, gave his backing to Ms Livni's plan to undertake a trip to London, in remarks quoted by Israeli Army Radio. "I have no faith in someone who comes out with charges of war crimes against Livni or against other Israeli officials. "In every conversation between Palestinians and international representatives, they begin the discussion with their lack of faith in our honest intentions." Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, was quoted by The Times as saying: "If Israeli dignitaries cannot travel unhindered to Britain, then they will not travel. "Automatically, the political dialogue between the two countries will be reduced. This is not something that London or Jerusalem wants." Baroness Patricia Scotland, the UK's attorney general, has already travelled to Israel to assure political and military leaders that her government is taking the issue seriously. It was believed that the government would amend the current bill before parliament to put the power to issue international warrants in the hands of the attorney general, rather than magistrates' courts, as now. However, such a move has not gone down well with the government's own backbenchers and more than 100 Labour MPs have now signed a Commons motion saying that they do not want the existing law on universal jurisdiction changed. With the government only a matter of weeks away from a general election campaign, the last thing ministers want is a sizeable rebellion by their own MPs. "The government is between a rock and a hard place," one diplomat in London said. "On one hand, they don't want to make already strained relations with the Israelis any worse. "On the other, there are genuine concerns about being too hasty in changing the law. On top of that, there are the political considerations of how to handle rebellious backbenchers. "The mix is already toxic enough. Can you imagine how much worse it would become if Livni were arrested when her plane touched down at Heathrow?" firstname.lastname@example.org