A British court issued an arrest warrant for Israel’s former foreign minister over war crimes allegedly committed in Gaza this year — only to withdraw it when it was discovered that she was not in the UK, it emerged on Monday.
Tzipi Livni, a member of the war Cabinet during Operation Cast Lead, had been due to address a meeting in London on Sunday but canceled her attendance in advance. Westminster Magistrates Court in central London issued the warrant at the request of lawyers acting for some of the Palestinian victims of the fighting, but it was later dropped.
The warrant marks the first time an Israeli minister or former minister has faced arrest in the UK and is evidence of a growing effort to pursue war crimes allegations under “universal jurisdiction.” Israel rejects these efforts as politically motivated, saying it acted in self-defense against Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza.
Livni, head of the opposition Kadima party, played a key role in decisions made before and during the three-week offensive. Palestinians claim 1,400 were killed, mostly civilians; Israel counted 1,166 dead, the majority of them combatants.
No one involved in the court episode was prepared to confirm, on the record, what had transpired in a chaotic series of highly sensitive legal moves. But a pro-Palestinian group welcomed news of the abortive move as “long overdue.”
The Foreign Office, clearly deeply embarrassed by the episode, said in a statement last night: “The UK is determined to do all it can to promote peace in the Middle East and to be a strategic partner of Israel. To do this, Israel’s leaders need to be able to come to the UK for talks with the British government. We are looking urgently at the implications of this case.”
Livni’s office said she had decided in advance not to come to the UK but lawyers seemed unaware of that when they approached the court last week. The judge refused to issue the warrant until it was clear Livni was in fact in the country, as he was erroneously informed on Sunday.
The former minister had been scheduled to speak at a Jewish National Fund conference.
“Scheduled meetings with government figures in London could not take place close to the conference and would have necessitated a longer-than-planned absence from Israel,” her office told the Ynet Web site.
It is the second time in less than three months that lawyers have gone to Westminster magistrates court asking for a warrant for the arrest of an Israeli politician. In September the court was asked to issue one for the arrest of Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, which gives courts in England and Wales universal jurisdiction in war crimes cases.
However, a court ruled he enjoyed immunity under the State Immunity Act 1978.
Israeli sources said ministers who wish to visit the UK in a personal capacity have begun asking the Israeli embassy in London to arrange meetings with British officials. These offer legal protection against arrest.
Livni, crucially, cannot enjoy any such immunity as she is an ex-minister. Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, is in the same position.
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