Israel Cuts Off Special Dialogue With Britain

JERUSALEM -- Israel has suspended a special strategic dialogue with London as long as Israeli officials visiting Britain face possible arrest for suspected war crimes against Palestinians, officials said Wednesday.

The announcement came as British Foreign Secretary William Hague met with senior Israeli officials Wednesday in Jerusalem. Officials from both countries said the matter would be high on the agenda of Hague's visit, and the British Foreign Office said it was working to resolve the matter.

A number of Israeli officials have been threatened with possible prosecution in Britain under the law of "universal jurisdiction," which contends that crimes against humanity are so egregious that they can be prosecuted even if they were not committed in the United Kingdom.

The two countries announced the dialogue two years ago to boost relations and cooperation on security and diplomatic issues, but Israel put them on hold at the beginning of the year after former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni canceled a trip to London for fear of arrest.

Pro-Palestinian activists have filed lawsuits against Israeli officials to punish them for military operations against Palestinians.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel's relations with Britain are "very good," but the existing law "makes it impossible to conduct dialogue at the highest levels."

British courts have issued arrest warrants for Israeli officials, and though no one has been arrested, the repeated attempts to prosecute have strained ties between the two countries.

The fear of arrest has prompted a number of Israeli political and military officials to cancel trips to the U.K. On Monday, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor became the latest, backing out of a planned speech to a pro-Israel British group after being advised that he risked arrest.

Palmor said the threat of prosecution is at the top of Israel's agenda for discussion with the British foreign secretary.

"It is important that Israeli politicians are able to visit the UK," Hague told reporters, noting that the British parliament is working to change the law so that a "universal jurisdiction" arrest "would have to be one that had a reasonable prospect of prosecution, so that it is not used for trivial or political reasons."

The British parliament discussed the issue of "mischievous arrest warrants" in July and will soon propose a bill to amend the law, according to Britain's Foreign Office.

With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stalled again, British officials said Hague would repeat British criticism of West Bank settlements. He planned to tell Israeli leaders that the "window for a two-state solution is closing" and that the U.S.-led peace process is the best possibility for the two sides to hold talks, British officials said.

The latest round of talks, launched at the White House in September, quickly broke down over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

The British Foreign Secretary's two-day trip to the region includes meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Hague met Wednesday with Palestinians who demonstrate weekly against Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank, which cuts off some Palestinian villages from their farm land. Israel says the barrier is needed to keep out attackers.

Hague praised the idea of nonviolence and listened to the accounts of the activists. The group stood on a hill overlooking an Israeli military prison camp in the West Bank.