After a tense day that included intensive consultations between the foreign ministries in Jerusalem and London, a British court on Tuesday rejected a petition urging an arrest warrant for Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the grounds that he committed "war crimes" during the IDF offensive in the Gaza Strip earlier this year.
The court accepted arguments submitted by the British Foreign Office, which said the defense minister was a state guest, and therefore was not subject to such lawsuits. Barak was in Britain for talks with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth and Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
"We do not intend to let terror win," Barak said in a statement issued by his office on Tuesday evening. "We will not apologize in any way for our just struggle against terrorism. We will do everything possible so that the representatives of Israel, security officials and soldiers of the IDF will continue to freely travel the world. The theater of the absurd whereby those who defend their citizens need to be on the defensive has to end. Otherwise, the world is likely not only to give a prize to terrorism, but to encourage it."
The Foreign Ministry, which throughout the day held consultations with the British Foreign Office, had no comment on the decision.
Among Israel's arguments to the Foreign Office were that there was no precedent anywhere for the arrest of a sitting defense minister; that the petition was driven by political motivations; that the arrest would cause irreparable damage to Israeli-British ties; and that it would set a dangerous precedent for other countries - like Britain - that found themselves fighting terrorists.
Israel's ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, said the petition was a "continuation of the demonization and delegitimization of Israel." He said the embassy had worked closely with the British government to get the petition thrown out.
While this was the first such case since the publication of the Goldstone Report earlier this month, diplomatic officials were hesitant to draw a direct line, saying such attempts had been made against Israeli defense officials in the past.
"This petition is based on nothing but bad will, bad faith and Israel-bashing gathered from newspaper clippings and the occasional human rights report," Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. "Its only intent is to harass Israeli officials and promote Israeli-bashing."
The petition was brought by a Gaza-based human rights group, al-Mezan, on behalf of a group of 16 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. Al-Mezan, in turn, instructed two London law firms - Irvine Thanvi and Natas (ITN) and Imran Khan and Partners - to represent the group. During the proceedings, the two firms applied for an international arrest warrant, claiming that Barak had committed war crimes and breaches of the Geneva Convention during Operation Cast Lead.
Despite the petition - and advice that Channel 1 said came from Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, recommending that he leave Britain immediately - Barak decided not to change his plans for the UK visit. His bureau released a statement saying, "No arrest warrant has been issued, and in any event, he has immunity due to his being a minister in the government."
In addition to meeting with Brown and Ainsworth on Tuesday, Barak addressed a Labor Friends of Israel reception during the Labor Party's annual conference in Brighton on Tuesday night. He is scheduled to meet with Miliband on Wednesday.
A loophole in British law - in the International Criminal Court Act of 2001 and the Criminal Justice Act of 1988 - allows private individual complaints of "war crimes" to be lodged against military personnel, even if they are not British citizens and the alleged crimes were committed elsewhere.
Pro-Palestinian groups in Britain and other countries have been trying to exploit that loophole against IDF officers and Israeli leaders. Israel has been working with the British government for years to change the law.
Israeli defense officials said Barak's security detail had not been beefed up as a result of the arrest threat.
Last week the British chief of staff, Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, visited Israel for talks with IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, which focused on the possibility that arrest warrants would be issued against officers for their involvement in Operation Cast Lead.
"Barak is not concerned about being arrested," an official in his office said on Tuesday. "Even though there may be a slight risk, he is purposely staying in England to show them that he is not concerned and that Israelis do not have to run away."
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.