Israel snubs UK minister on peace talks visit

Britain "baffled" by diplomatic insult that postponed annual strategic dialogue as relations, soured by use of forged passports in Hamas assassination, sink to a new low.

JERUSALEM // Israel delivered a calculated snub to the visiting British foreign secretary yesterday by postponing its annual strategic dialogue with its longtime ally.

The move came as William Hague began his first official visit to the region in an effort to revive faltering Middle East peace negotiations.

The postponement of the annual dialogue was announced by Israel's foreign ministry, which is headed by the controversial hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman, and came as Mr Hague, the UK's top diplomat, held talks with Palestinian officials in Ramallah.

It is not known whether the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, approved the announcement, believed to be retaliation for the threatened arrest of top Israeli officials visiting Britain.

The diplomatic insult is also being viewed as a sign that ties between the two countries are still deeply troubled after suspected Mossad agents using 12 forged British passports were among the gang who assassinated a senior Hamas official in a Dubai hotel room in March.

London responded to Dubai police's disclosure of the plot and the illicit use of British passports by expelling an Israeli diplomat. David Miliband, then the foreign secretary, said at the time there were "compelling reasons" to suspect Israeli involvement.

British officials said yesterday they were baffled by Israel's decision to suspend the strategic dialogue. They had publicly announced the British government's decision to amend the universal jurisdiction law, under which British courts can issue arrest warrants for visiting foreign officials accused of war crimes.

Pro-Palestinian activists have used the law to seek the arrest of Israelis such as the opposition leader Tzipi Livni, a chief architect of the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip in late 2008 while serving as foreign minister.

Dan Meridor, a deputy prime minister and minister of intelligence and atomic energy in the current Israeli government, cancelled a trip to London this week because he feared arrest over Israel's raid on a Gaza aid flotilla in May that killed nine Turkish activists.

Gordon Brown, then the British prime minister, promised in January to change the law after an arrest warrant for Mrs Livni forced her to cancel a visit.

A Foreign Office spokesman in London confirmed yesterday that action to limit the law was imminent, saying in a statement that "we share Israeli concerns about the current universal-jurisdiction arrangements, which inhibit Israelis visiting the UK without fear of mischievous arrest warrants".

London's pledge to change the law was not enough to deter the Israeli foreign ministry, however. "The strategic dialogue has indeed been postponed," Yigal Palmor, a ministry spokesman, said.

"The visit by foreign minister Hague is an important phase in the ongoing exchange between the countries, and the question of Israeli officials being unable to travel to Britain will be on the top of the agenda as far as we are concerned," he said

A senior British diplomatic source said yesterday that given the British government's pledge "to amend the application of universal jurisdiction and the fact that William Hague is visiting the country, the timing is most odd".

"It does make one wonder," the diplomat added, "if this might not have more to do with the fragile state of coalition politics in Israel than it does with coalition politics in the UK."

Mr Hague, who arrived in Israel on Tuesday evening, is scheduled to visit Mr Netanyahu, the defence minister Ehud Barak and Ms Livni during his two-day tour of the region. He is expected to press them to reintroduce a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank to kick-start negotiations with the Palestinians.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, suspended Palestinian participation in the recently restarted talks after a partial freeze on such construction expired in September. The Arab League has given the United States until early November to resolve the stalemate.

"We understand the depth of Israeli security concerns. But the strength and depth of our friendship means we can and must talk frankly about the need for the settlement freeze to be renewed to allow talks to resume," a spokesman for the British foreign office said. "Finding a viable solution to the conflict is in everyone's long-term interest."

Mr Hague is also scheduled to meet Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, to finalise Britain's first-ever treaty with the Palestinian Authority. He will also visit representatives from villages in the West Bank where non-violent protests and demonstrations against Israel's occupation occur on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, in another indication of the PA's attempt to build an independent Palestinian state, Mr Fayyad announced on Tuesday that his government had funded renovation of schools in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.

* David Sapsted reported from London