Israel and Britain moved last night to limit the damage of an Israeli diplomatic ambush that threatened to overshadow the first official visit to the Middle East by William Hague, the Foreign Secretary.
British officials were infuriated yesterday when Mr Hague arrived in the region to be confronted with the news that Israel had unilaterally cancelled a series of high-level "strategic dialogue" meetings between the two countries. The move was a protest against the UK's failure to block arrest warrants being issued against Israeli generals and politicians visiting Britain.
The news of the cancellation was broadcast by Israel Radio yesterday, which cited anonymous sources in Israel's foreign ministry. It was quickly confirmed by the ministry.
British officials were taken by surprise by the move and were particularly disturbed by the cancellation as Mr Hague was intending to announce later this week that the Government would legislate this year to prevent private individuals from issuing arrest warrants. The warrants – which have been issued against Israeli politicians and generals accused of war crimes – have been a source of tension since 2005 when Doron Almog, a retired Israeli major-general, decided not to land at Heathrow after being tipped off that he was facing an arrest warrant from a private prosecution in an English magistrates' court for alleged war crimes.
A number of prominent Israeli figures have subsequently cancelled trips to the UK, including the leader of the opposition, Tzipi Livni, who was a member of the Israeli government when it ordered the military onslaught on Hamas-controlled Gaza in 2008-09.
This week it was disclosed that Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, Dan Meridor, had cancelled a private trip to London after being advised that he could face private proceedings over the interception of a Gaza-bound Turkish vessel in May.
Speaking in Ramallah yesterday after meeting Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mr Hague said that the British Government was resolving the warrants issue "in our own Parliament and on our own timetable", adding he would raise the issue with Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
A later joint official statement by Israel and the UK said that both Israel and Britain now looked forward to an "early meeting" of the strategic dialogue. British sources said that the Israeli foreign ministry had indicated to Mr Hague and his entourage that the report was "regrettable" and had "unintended consequences".