Britain’s expulsion of an Israeli diplomat over the use of a dozen forged British passports in the killing of a Hamas terrorist in January means Israeli army officers could be arrested if they visit Britain, according to a specialist on the United Kingdom and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“I think both sides will want to minimize the impact because British-Israeli relations have been at their lowest point for a long time,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a senior research fellow at the BESA Center and a senior lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University. “But I wouldn’t say it’s a crisis.”
“The biggest damage of all this is that the British government is not going to move forward to prevent the arrest of Israeli army officers when they come to London because the atmosphere has changed,” said Rynhold, who was born in England and has a doctorate from the London School of Economics.
Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced plans to stop politically motivated campaign groups from securing arrest warrants for visiting foreign officials. In December, Tzipi Livni, the head of Israel’s opposition Kadima Party, canceled a visit to Britain after a pro-Palestinian group secured a warrant for her arrest for alleged war crimes committed in Gaza.
In 2005 and 2006, two high-ranking Israeli military commanders had to cancel visits to London because of arrest warrants against them. One, retired Maj.-Gen. Doron Almog, was actually aboard a plane to Israel when told of the warrant. He remained on the plane and returned to Israel.
Under the present system in Britain, a single individual can secure an arrest warrant from a British magistrate. Brown said he would propose that the law be changed so that the Crown Prosecution Service evaluates the merits of all cases brought under international law.
In a column he wrote for the Daily Telegraph on March 3, Brown explained that Britain would “continue to take action to prosecute or extradite suspected war criminals — regardless of their status or power. … But the process by which we take action must guarantee the best results. The only question for me is whether our purpose is best served by a process where an arrest warrant for the gravest crimes can be issued on the slightest of evidence.”
Following Brown’s announcement, Livni issued a statement praising the move as important news for every country “fighting terror,” and saying that the “British legal system has been abused by cynical elements in the United Kingdom.” The proposed change, she said, “sends out a vital message that when something correct must be done, the entire political establishment gets on board, even if this means going through the absurd situation of an arrest warrant being issued for me.”
But the decision taken Tuesday by Foreign Secretary David Miliband to expel an Israeli diplomat over the use of 12 forged passports in the killing of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai will now mean a change in the law will be delayed, Rynhold said.
“It has been shelved at least until the elections in a few months,” he said.
But Rynhold said one should not expect the Israeli-British relationship to deteriorate further because the two countries exchange “a lot of intelligence about Iran, and Britain doesn’t want to hurt that. … Their relationship is very close.”
He pointed out that when the Bush administration announced that its intelligence experts concluded Iran had stopped building a nuclear bomb, Israel refuted the claim and Britain backed Israel.
In announcing his decision, Miliband stressed that Britain had no evidence to say that Israel had killed Mabhouh. But he told Parliament that there were compelling reasons to believe Israel was responsible for the misuse of British passports, and he said he sought assurances from Israel that this would not happen again.
Britain later issued a travel advisory to all citizens traveling to Israel and the Palestinian territories. It warned of the “possibility that your passport details could be captured for improper uses while your passport is out of your control.”
Asked why Britain took these highly unusual steps when Israel has never acknowledged any complicity in the killing, Rynhold replied: “It’s such a clear violation of international norms, there has to be some reaction to it.”
Israel’s relationship with Britain has had its difficulties over the years, beginning with the eight-month delay in Britain’s decision to recognize the state in 1948; the U.S. recognized it in 11 minutes. But things improved in the 1950s and ‘60s when Britain and France were Israel’s prime weapons suppliers. Britain and France worked with Israel in the 1956 invasion of Egypt, and French planes and British tanks made a difference in Israel’s 1967 war against its Arab neighbors.
That all changed when Britain imposed an arms embargo on Israel and other combatants in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The U.S. re-armed Israel at the last minute and has been the Jewish state’s primary weapons supplier ever since. n
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