Ian Deitch
The Statesman
November 4, 2010 - 12:00am

Israeli officials should not fear arrest warrants initiated by pro-Palestinian activists when they travel to Britain on official business, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Thursday.

Hague's comments sought to reassure Israeli leaders after they suspended an annual strategic meeting in Britain last month due to fears they could be arrested under the principle of "universal jurisdiction."

Pro-Palestinian activists in Britain have sought the arrest of Israeli officials under the principle, which allows courts to prosecute alleged war crimes from elsewhere in the world.

No cases have gone ahead, but Israeli officials have canceled trips due to arrest fears. The issue has caused tension between the two countries.

Hague said officials traveling to Britain will not face arrest.

"We are quite clear that there is no problem in any official traveling to London," Hague told Israeli channel 10 TV.

A spokesman for the British Foreign Office said Hague's comments did not reflect a change in British law regarding universal jurisdiction, but sought to clarify that officials on state business are immune to arrest.

Speaking on condition of anonymity under departmental protocol, he said the government intends to amend the law so special interest groups cannot misuse it in ways that damage Britain's foreign relations.

"We are acting to correct it and everyone should well know by now," Hague said. "We will do that, but we will do it in our own way, to our own timetable."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement after meeting Hague that he welcomes the "explicit commitment by the British government to amend the law regarding universal jurisdiction."

Israeli officials said Wednesday they had suspended their "Strategic Dialogue" meeting with London as long as Israeli officials visiting Britain faced possible arrest.

On Thursday, however, an official said the annual meeting will be relocated to Israel this year to avoid the threat of arrest. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue and did not give a date for the meeting.

Pro-Palestinian activists have used universal jurisdiction to pursue past and current Israeli officials linked to military operations targeting Palestinian militants that have killed civilians.

Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor canceled a trip to London this week, fearing arrest, and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni canceled a trip to Britain earlier this year. Last year, Palestinian activists tried unsuccessfully to have Defense Minister Ehud Barak arrested during a visit to Britain.

When Britain's new Conservative-led government took office in May, Hague promised to "act speedily" to clarify the law.

Speaking in Cairo after meeting Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Hague said amending the law will facilitate British diplomacy and permit Britain to pursue criminals.

"The international laws of universal jurisdiction will continue to apply in the U.K.," he said. "If a war criminal sets foot in the United Kingdom, they will still be arrested."


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