By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called Kadima head Tzipi Livni and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman Tuesday evening in an apparent effort to prevent the diplomatic crisis stemming from a British arrest warrant issued against Livni from spinning completely out of control.
According to a statement put out by Livni's office, Miliband expressed his "shock" at the arrest warrant and promised to work immediately to ensure that a similar occurrence would not happen in the future against Livni or other Israeli leaders. Miliband told Lieberman that the warrant was "completely unacceptable."
While Israel has heard such promises numerous times over the last five years, there was a sense in Jerusalem Tuesday night that the wall-to-wall outrage in Israel that accompanied news of the warrant against Livni had registered in London.
Britain's outgoing ambassador Tom Phillips bore the brunt of Israeli anger over the matter, being summoned to the Foreign Ministry and having a conversation on the matter with National Security Council head Uzi Arad.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office issued a statement saying he instructed Arad to deliver a "clear message" to Phillips that Israel expected the British government to "act against this immoral phenomenon which is trying to impair Israel's right to self-defense."
"We will not agree to a situation in which Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni will be summoned to the defendant's bench. 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 said.
Israel has for the last five years - spanning the administration of three different prime ministers - continuously brought up to British government officials the threat of legal action against IDF officers and political leaders visiting Britain.
According to diplomatic officials, the British - from former foreign secretary Jack Straw onward - have all pledged to close the gap in British law that allows for this type of occurrence, but nobody has actually taken action.
Since such a move necessitated legislation, one official said, the British have always said it was not the right time. "They said this in 2006 after the war in Lebanon, and again earlier this year after the Gaza operation," one official said.
While in the past Israel did not press too hard on the issue, that policy seemed to change abruptly when the Foreign Ministry issuing a statement Tuesday morning, surprisingly harsh in the cautious world of diplomacy, saying that Israel rejected the "cynical" move taken in the British courts at the behest of extremist elements in Britain and called on the British government "for once and for all" to keep its promises and work to prevent the manipulation by anti-Israeli elements of the British legal system against Israel.
"The lack of determined and immediate action to correct this distortion harms the relations between the two countries," the statement read. "If Israeli leaders cannot visit Britain in a dignified manner, it will naturally be a real obstacle to Britain's desire to have an active role in the peace process in the Middle East."
The statement pointed out that both Israel and Britain were currently engaged in a common struggle against international terrorism, and that British soldiers were actively engaged in trying to root out terrorism on a number of different fronts around the world.
Diplomatic officials explained that the arrest warrant was made possible because of a fairly unusual legal situation in Britain whereby any individual could go to court and ask for an arrest warrant against an alleged war criminal without the government having to know about it and, as a result, not having any say about whether it should be issued.
One of the ways being discussed to deal with the situation is to pass legislation mandating that the British government would be apprised of any such action and have a say in the matter.
Livni cancelled a trip to the UK last week to address a Jewish National Fund conference after it was learned that a warrant for her arrest had been issued.
The crisis comes at a time of already deteriorating relations between Israel and Britain, with Jerusalem frustrated at London for its abstention in the UN General Assembly on the Goldstone report, its support of the Swedish proposal that the EU recognize east Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and its guidelines to stores and retailers last week to label produce from the territories as either coming from Palestinians or the settlements.
Lieberman said that while Israel was not looking for confrontation, it did expect a more "balanced, objective and less one-sided approach" from the British.
Miliband released a statement Tuesday night saying that "Israel is a strategic partner and a close friend of the UK. We are determined to protect and develop these ties. Israeli leaders - like leaders from other countries - must be able to visit and have a proper dialogue with the British Government.
"The procedure by which arrest warrants can be sought and issued without any prior knowledge or advice by a prosecutor is an unusual feature of the system in England and Wales. The Government is looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed in order to avoid this sort of situation arising again," he said.
Prior to issuing the statement, Miliband met with Israel's Ambassador to Britain Ron Prosor. Prosor, who called the current situation "absurd and unacceptable in equal measure," said Israelis could not continually "be held hostage by fringe groups of anti-Israel extremists, preventing politicians, businessmen and officers from visiting the UK."
"The friendship between Israel and the UK is of crucial strategic importance to both our democracies, and Israel welcomes Britain playing a key role within the Middle East peace process," Prosor said. "Yet such a role will be impossible if senior Israeli figures cannot enter the UK without fear of arrest."
Livni, meanwhile, made clear that she still believed in the justice of last winter's Operation Cast Lead.
"The operation in Gaza was necessary and was meant to restore Israel's deterrence and did restore Israel's deterrence," Livni, who was foreign minister during the 2008 operation, said at a conference at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
"The fact that Israel embarked on such an operation after withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and restraining itself for years in face of rocket fire shows that it was necessaryâ€¦ This is what any normal country that wants to defend its civilians from terror would do," she said.
"I have no problem if the world wants to judge us, but I do have a problem with them failing to apply this judgment to the entire region," she said. "There is no place in the world except here that a comparison is made between someone who kills deliberately and someone who kills by accident."
Later in the day she issued a statement, after talking to Miliband, saying that she did not believe the issue was a personal one, but rather one for the entire state that dealt with the cardinal issue of being able to continue to act against common threats.
Vice Premier Silvan Shalom amplified that message, saying during a conference in Beersheba that "we are all Tzipi Livni."
"It is unfathomable that this will continue. I just returned from Australia where I was met with demonstrations and attempts to disrupt my speeches. It is time to move from defense to offense. It is time that we too take the steps to chase down the real criminals, the Palestinian terrorists who roam around the world unhindered," he said.
Yaakov Katz, Jonny Paul and Ron Friedman contributed to this report.
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