War Crimes, Racism, Arrests? Israel Feels the Diplomatic Heat

With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon facing a potential war crimes lawsuit in Belgium, and Denmark calling for the arrest of Israel’s ambassador-designate, Israel is beginning to feel like the most unpopular kid on the block.

After years of improved international standing following the signing of the Oslo peace accord with the PLO in 1993, the Jewish state finds itself on the diplomatic defensive once again as the peace process unravels.

In addition to the charges against Sharon and the uproar in Denmark, Israel’s Foreign Ministry is preparing a list of countries where Israeli officials could be put on trial for their roles in defending the country, and an international conference on racism that will begin Aug. 31 may become a forum for some of the most intensely anti-Israel resolutions in years.

The lawsuit in Belgium was filed in June by several Palestinian survivors of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon. The massacre was carried out by Lebanese Christian militiamen who were allies of the Israeli army during the Lebanon War.

An Israeli commission of inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible for Sabra and Shatila because, as defense minister overseeing the Israeli invasion, he failed to foresee and prevent the massacre. Sharon was forced to resign from the Defense Ministry, though he stayed in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio and served in various posts in subsequent Likud governments.

The lawsuit was brought in Belgium because it has a 1993 law on “universal jurisdiction” — the authority to prosecute foreigners for crimes against humanity, torture or war crimes, even if committed elsewhere.

The charges against Sharon are now being investigated by a Belgian court, which will decide whether to press formal charges. In the meantime, the Israeli government has hired a Belgian lawyer for Sharon.

In Denmark, Israel’s appointment of Carmi Gillon — a former head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, as well as the Peres Center for Peace — as ambassador has created a diplomatic storm.

The Danish justice minister, Frank Jensen, last week threatened to arrest Gillon if he sets foot in Denmark.

Israel’s nomination of Gillon sparked outrage in Denmark because he has admitted authorizing the torture of Palestinian suspects when he led Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service between 1994 and 1996. Gillon later went on to become president of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’ Tel Aviv peace center, which fosters cooperation between Jews and Arabs.

Despite the threat, Israel said it would send Gillon to Denmark.

Jensen later backtracked, saying Gillon could not be arrested because he would have diplomatic immunity in Denmark.

Now, most Danish political parties are calling for Gillon’s resignation. That includes two Danish politicians — one of them Arne Melchior, a relative of Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Michael Melchior.

It was an Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, that appealed initially to the Israeli and Danish foreign ministries to cancel Gillon’s appointment.

As Sharon and Gillon deal with their respective troubles, Israel’s Foreign Ministry is drawing up a list of countries that have universal jurisdiction laws on their books.

“The concept of universal jurisdiction is a very noble, honorable concept,” said Alan Baker, a legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry. “The danger is in the fact that Arabs have decided to abuse the concept and utilize the perhaps naivete of European countries.”

According to Foreign Ministry officials, Arab interests may lead to more lawsuits against Israeli officials.

As the 10-month-old Palestinian uprising continues, Arab nations are trying to delegitimize Israel and “carry out its warfare in a different field,” attempting to gain favor among European nations, Baker said.

“We support universal jurisdiction,” he said. “But this whole thing has been blown out of proportion.”

The challenges in Belgium and Denmark — along with the upcoming World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa — have made government officials and Israel supporters extremely uncomfortable.

There has been widespread concern in government circles about the racism conference, whose tentative agenda includes discussion of “racist Zionist practices” and equates the Holocaust with “ethnic cleansing of the Arab population in historic Palestine.”

Arab delegates to the conference, which begins Aug. 31, were the source of the anti-Israel moves. This week, Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Arab delegates preparing for the conference should drop wording from a draft document seeking to equate Zionism with racism.

The United States has threatened to boycott the conference over the issue.

To Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, the whole situation smells suspiciously like a double — or even triple — standard applied primarily against Israel.

“This permits a lot of people to act out against Israel under the guise of international law and under the guise of morality and humanitarian action,” Foxman told JTA during a recent visit in Israel.

“Arafat isn’t on those lists” of people who could be arrested, and neither are the Belgian officers who once acted in a brutal colonial manner,” he said. “This is a one-sided, triple standard against Israel and the Jewish people.”

Foxman spent a good portion of his recent trip to Israel talking about the upcoming conference.

Last week, Foxman and Michael Melchior met with a large contingent of foreign diplomats to discuss the Durban conference and the growing anti-Semitism in the Arab world.

“Events in the Arab world are making me nervous,” Melchior — the son and grandson of former chief rabbis of Denmark — told the diplomats.

“There has been a strengthening of anti-Semitism since the intifada began last year,” he said. “You have to take notice and act accordingly.”

By tracking those countries with universal jurisdiction laws, Foxman said, the Foreign Ministry is playing it safe, to avoid perhaps being sorry later.

The Foreign Ministry also is preparing for the Durban conference. It has a human rights lawyer in Geneva drafting a statement that will “hopefully get rid of all the offensive language,” Baker said.

While Israel is feeling the heat, several countries are coming out against the potential witch hunt, Baker said, citing Germany, Canada and the United States.

The ministry hopes these nations will have enough influence with the Arabs to block future anti-Israel moves.

In the meantime, Baker and his staff are asking officials in various Israeli embassies to obtain copies of their host countries’ legislation in order to be prepared for potential lawsuits.

“Our job as advisers to the government is to be prepared,” Baker said. “We don’t want anyone to ever say, You didn’t warn us.”

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