Israel received an uncomfortable reminder of international anger over the Gaza war today when lawyers representing 16 Palestinians asked a London court to issue an arrest warrant for its defence minister, Ehud Barak, who is visiting Britain.Now there are a couple of strange things here. The first is that the article claims that in addition to being a war criminal, Ehud Barak is also Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Israeli Labour Party. The thing is, I don't think there has ever been a Deputy Prime Minister of Israel that wasn't a war criminal. Can anyone think of one? How about Labour Party leaders? There was one, wasn't there? He had been the Mayor of Haifa. When Arabs rioted in Haifa over Sharon's visit to Temple Mount, when Barak had lots of Israeli Palestinians killed, the Mayor of Haifa (whose name I can't remember) stopped the police from coming into Haifa and doing the same thing there. But by and large being a war criminal is a prerequisite for holding high office in the Israeli government.
After a day of delays and legal wrangling the bid failed on the grounds that Barak enjoyed diplomatic immunity from prosecution. But the episode triggered a brief storm that is likely to give Israeli officials second thoughts about the risk of prosecution in foreign courts.
Barak was last night addressing a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference in Brighton, and is due to meet Gordon Brown and David Miliband, the foreign secretary‑— triggering new protests.
Furious Israeli officials insisted all day that he was protected by diplomatic immunity and could not be legally detained.
The action related to alleged war crimes and breaches of the Geneva conventions during the Gaza offensive, launched by Israel last December in response to Palestinian rocket attacks and widely criticised. The death toll is disputed, but the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem says 1,387 Palestinians died, including 773 people not taking part in hostilities.
Solicitors asked a district judge at the City of Westminster magistrates court to issue a warrant for the minister's arrest under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, which gives courts in England and Wales universal jurisdiction in war crimes cases.
The hearing was postponed while the court asked the Foreign Office to clarify Barak's status in the UK. The lawyers making the application said they believed a warrant could be issued even if he was in Britain in an official capacity.
Intensive contacts were understood to have taken place throughout the day between London and Jerusalem. Barak is also deputy prime minister of Israel and leader of the country's Labour party.
Lawyers from Irvine Thanvi Natas and Imran Khan & Partners said they believed the warrant that the international criminal court issued in May last year for the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, offered a precedent. Bashir is accused of committing war crimes in Darfur.
But that isn't the strangest thing. The strangest thing is the reasoning being used by the court to allow yet another Israeli war criminal to get away with mass murder. See what the judge said:
Deputy district judge Daphne Wickham said allegations of war crimes had been well documented, but added: "I am satisfied that under customary international law Mr Barak has immunity from prosecution as he would not be able to perform his functions efficiently if he were the subject of criminal proceedings in this jurisdiction."But other holders of similar offices in other countries have been sought, caught, prosecuted and punished.
It's almost as if the powers that be in this country want Israel's officialdom to get away with war crimes. But then given the sheer illegality of the Anglo-American assaults on Iraq over recent decades, perhaps the powers that be here in the UK have a stake in watering down international humanitarian law.
But something has been gained here. The judge could not deny that war crimes have been committed by Israel so the best thing to do was to dream up this immunity scam. Fine. The moral case is clear. Israel is a thoroughly illegitimate state whose existence is predicated on its on-going war crimes. This is actually a point scored for BDS because now Israeli officials, war criminals one and all, are on the receiving end of smart sanctions. Of course they can travel to many, most, western countries, but these humiliations will follow them around. Their war criminal status now means that for Israel's war criminals, highly publicised diplomatic immunity is the only way to travel. But (I know I know, too many buts) what about when the people bringing the prosecutions lower their sights to those pulling the triggers or giving orders on the ground? How many diplomatic passports can Israel issue to a population with a disproportionate number of racist war criminals in its midst?