Israel furious at Livni arrest warrant

Netanyahu condemns British plan to apprehend former foreign minister

Israel yesterday reacted furiously to the news that a warrant had been issued in Britain for the arrest of its former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, warning that the move by a London court threatened bilateral relations, and issuing a threat to end official visits to Britain unless there was a change in the law.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called the move "an absurdity". An embarrassed Foreign Office, meanwhile, distanced itself from the legal action, saying that "Israel's leaders need to be able to come to the UK for talks with the British Government" for the good of the two country's relations.

But the British ambassador in Jerusalem, Tom Phillips, nonetheless received a dressing-down from senior Israeli officials. Naor Gilon, deputy director of the European division, told Mr Phillips that "if this persists the situation would force us to consider whether officials should go to Britain or not." According to a statement, Uzi Arad, an aide to Mr Netanyahu, demanded the British Government take parliamentary action to "act against this immoral phenomenon".

The call came as the Israeli foreign ministry confirmed that an unprecedented arrest warrant had been issued by a London court against Ms Livni on Saturday at the behest of pro-Palestinian activists, on the grounds that she was reponsible for war crimes during Israel's devastating Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last winter. Ms Livni said the court had been "abused" by the plaintiffs. "This is a lawsuit against any democracy that fights terror," she told the BBC.

The ministry said the warrant was later cancelled after officials learned that Ms Livni, leader of the opposition Kadima party, was not in Britain after all.

An Israeli official who asked for anonymity said Israel's concerns about universal jurisdiction had been raised with Downing Street by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert when they were prime ministers, and that Mr Netanyahu has also discussed the matter with Gordon Brown.

The issuing of the warrant against Ms Livni comes two months after a lawyer attempted to have a warrant issued against the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, as he visited Britain. Other Israeli officials have faced similar action in the past.

"By a very small change of legislation, the issue could be at least controlled if not totally wiped off the map," the Israeli information minister, Yuli Edelstein, told AP. An Israeli foreign ministry statement warned that Britain could not "fulfil an active role in the peace process" if Israeli leaders are unable to visit Britain.

Last night the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, reassured Israel that it was "a strategic partner and a close friend of the UK" whose leaders "must be able to visit and have a proper dialogue with the British Government". He added that London was "looking urgently" at ways in which the "UK system might be changed in order to avoid this sort of situation arising again".

But Zahava Galon, a former MP from the liberal Meretz party, said the arrest warrant should be a warning to decision-makers: "Before they embark on military adventures, they should know what the consequences may be at the international level and that they may pay themselves."

Ms Livni was stridently hawkish before and during the war, which most Israelis consider to have been a justified response to Hamas rocket fire. She was a key decision-maker in the process and supported the operation throughout.

More than two weeks into the war she told Israeli radio: "We have to prove to Hamas that we have changed the equation. Israel is not a country upon which you fire missiles and it does not respond. It is a country that when you fire on its citizens it responds by going wild and this is a good thing."

Ms Livni was unmoved by news of the warrant. "From my viewpoint I would take all the [same] decisions again, one by one," she said in a speech to the Institute for National Security Research.

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