Britain pledged Tuesday to reform the peculiar legal power that lets judges order the arrest of visiting politicians and generals - a threat currently focused on Israeli visitors that, one day, might be invoked against Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin.
Lawyers working with Palestinian activists in recent years have sought the arrest of senior Israeli civilian and military figures under terms of universal jurisdiction. This ill-defined legal concept empowers judges to issue arrest warrants for visiting officials accused of war crimes in a foreign conflict.
Their latest target is Tzipi Livni, Israel's former foreign minister and current opposition leader, who staunchly defends Israel's offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Israel's government confirmed on Tuesday that Livni canceled a planned London trip this month after her office received news of a secretly issued arrest warrant awaiting her arrival.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband later announced that Britain would no longer tolerate legal harassment of Israeli officials in this fashion.
Speaking after meeting Israel's London ambassador Tuesday night, Miliband said the British law permitting judges to issue arrest warrants against foreign dignitaries without any prior knowledge or advice by a prosecutor must be reviewed and reformed.
Miliband said the British government was determined that arrest threats against visitors of Livni's stature would not happen again.
"Israel is a strategic partner and a close friend of the United Kingdom. We are determined to protect and develop these ties," Miliband said. "Israeli leaders - like leaders from other countries - must be able to visit and have a proper dialogue with the British government."
Miliband voices shock over arrest warrant in call to Livni
Earlier Tuesday, Miliband called Livni to express his shock over the arrest warrant and pledged to address the matter immediately.
Livni clarified that she doesn't view the arrest warrant as a personal offense, but rather one that affects Israel as a whole. She added that it also harms efforts to operate jointly against threatening elements.
Livni stressed that Israel and Britain must work to solve the problem according to agreements outlined when she was foreign minister.
Miliband earlier in the day denounced the arrest warrant as insufferable, after Israel warned that the matter could harm bilateral ties.
Miliband made the comments during a meeting with Israel's ambassador to Court of St. James, Ron Prosor. The Israeli envoy asked to discuss the matter with Miliband on Monday, following news that Livni had canceled her trip to Britain after a warrant was issued for her arrest.
Prosor told Miliband that the British government must work immediately to combat the grave phenomenon of arrest warrants being issued against senior Israeli officials.
The foreign secretary said he had spoken with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and with Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw in order to try to resolve the problem.
Miliband called Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Tuesday and expressed concern over the arrest warrant, saying he and other British parliamentarians found it unacceptable. Miliband also planned to call Livni.
He told Lieberman that solutions must be found in order to prevent this situation from repeating itself in the future.
Lieberman expressed disappointment over Britain's abstention during the United Nations vote on the Goldstone report, which accuses Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes in Gaza, and the Swedish proposal to recognize Jerusalem as a shared Israeli and Palestinian capital.
Also Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry summoned the British envoy to Israel to rebuke him over the warrant.
Israel views the arrest warrant with utmost gravity, Naor Gilon, deputy director at the Foreign Ministry in charge of Western Europe, told British ambassador Tom Phillips.
Gilon also called on Phillips to urge his government to change the law that allows for arrest warrants to be issued against senior Israeli officials over alleged war crimes perpetrated in Gaza during the winter conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Netanyahu: We won't allow our leaders to be tried for war crimes
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday issued a statement saying that Israel will not agree to have its leaders be recognized as war criminals.
"We will not agree to a situation in which Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni will be summoned to the defendant's bench," Netanyahu said.
"We will not agree that IDF commanders and soldiers, who - heroically and in a moral fashion - defended our citizens against a brutal and criminal enemy, will be condemned as war criminals. We reject this absurdity outright."
Netanyahu instructed National Security Adviser Prof. Uzi Arad to deliver a clear message on this issue to British envoy Phillips.
Dr. Arad spoke with Ambassador Phillips and made it clear to him that Israel expects the British government to act against this immoral phenomenon, which is trying to impair Israel's right to self-defense.
A statement from the British embassy in Israel said the U.K. is determined to work for peace in the Middle East and to be a strategic partner to Israel.
"To do this, Israel's leaders need to be able to come to the U.K. for talks with the British government. We are looking urgently at the implications of this case." The embassy statement said.
Israel's Foreign Ministry earlier Tuesday called on the British government to end the "absurd situation" in which arrest warrants were being issued to Israeli officials over alleged war crimes in Gaza, warning that ties between the two countries could suffer as a result.
"Only actions can put an end to this absurd situation, which would have seemed a comedy of errors were it not so serious," said the Foreign Ministry.
The ministry warned that in indulging the arrest warrant, the British government was hampering its own efforts at playing a role in Middle East peace negotiations.
"We appreciate the British government's desire to play a central role in the Middle East peace process, and thus we expected it to translate the importance it gives its relations with Israel into actions," said the ministry.
"Israel urges the British government to once and for all honor its promises to take action to prevent anti-Israel forces from exploiting the British legal system to act against Israel and its citizens, the ministry said. The absence of resolute and immediate action to redress this distortion harms relations between the two countries," it added.
Vice Premier Silvan Shalom urged the ministry to make "real diplomatic" efforts to make it clear that Israel would not accept such behavior.
"We are all Tzipi Livni," he said. "The time has come for us to move from the defensive to the offensive. We must use real diplomacy here, to tell Britain, Spain and all those other states that we will not stand for this anymore."
Livni: World can judge us, but don't equate IDF with terrorist
In response to the warrant, Livni said Tuesday that she would not accept any accusation that compared Israel Defense Forces soldiers to terrorists.
"I have no problem with the fact that the world wants to judge Israel," said Livni. "We are part of the free world. The problem starts when they equate terrorists and Israeli soldiers."
Senior officials in Israel confirmed reports on Monday that a British court issued the warrant against Livni for her role in orchestrating Israel's military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip nearly a year ago. The request for the warrant was submitted by a pro-Palestinian organization.
British sources reported late Monday that though a British court had issued an arrest warrant for Livni over war crimes allegedly committed in Gaza while she served as foreign minister, it annulled it upon discovering she was not in the U.K.
The incident was the latest in a string of attempts by pro-Palestinian activists to have Israeli officials arrested.
Pro-Palestinian lawyers attempted earlier this year to invoke the universal jurisdiction law to arrest Gaza war mastermind Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister, but his status as a Cabinet minister gave him diplomatic immunity.
In 2005, a retired Israeli general, Doron Almog, returned to Israel immediately after landing in London because he was tipped off that British police planned to arrest him. The warrant against Almog - who oversaw the bombing of a Gaza home in which 14 people were killed - was later canceled.
Other Israeli leaders, including former military chief Moshe Ya'alon and ex-internal security chief Avi Dichter, have also canceled trips to Britain in recent years for the same reason
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