A very special mission

Why was Tzipi Livni's visit to the UK accorded privileged status?

Last month, on the day that changes in universal jurisdiction law went into effect, Israel's former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said she "received a phone call" from UK Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould telling her "there is no longer a warrant for my arrest".

Yet when Livni arrived in Britain on Thursday, something went wrong. In what was billed as a "test case" for a law designed to remove the threat of arrest for visiting Israeli officials, Livni only avoided a warrant due to a legal assessment by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) that she was on a "Special Mission".

In a statement released Thursday lunchtime, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) revealed that it was the Special Mission status of Livni's visit that led the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to refuse to "give his consent to the private prosecutor to make an application to the court for an arrest warrant".

Some incorrectly interpreted this as the DPP blocking an attempt to arrest Livni; in fact, as a spokesperson for the CPS had confirmed to me, what prevented an arrest warrant being issued was the Special Mission status - there was no decision regarding the prospect of conviction.

According to the CPS's statement, the DPP took into account a case earlier this year when the High Court considered, among other things, the "legal effect" of the Special Mission certificate. But by citing this ruling, more questions are raised about what happened Thursday.

Evidence submitted to the High Court included a letter written by the FCO itself in January 2011, which described a Special Mission as "a means to conduct ad hoc diplomacy in relation to specific international business", whose "fundamental aspect" is "the mutuality of consent of both the sending and the receiving States to the Special Mission". In his ruling, Lord Justice Moses said that "the Special Mission represents the sending State in the same way as a permanent Diplomatic Mission represents the State who sends it", and called it "vital" that "the consent which must be previously obtained is consent to a Special Mission" (my emphasis). Moses added: "Not every official visit is a Special Mission".

Yet Livni, a foreign opposition politician who was not part of a wider government delegation, was afforded Special Mission status. How were FCO legal advisers able to make this analysis, if, as appears to be the case, there was no prior agreement between the British and Israeli governments that Livni's visit would be a Special Mission?

While Foreign Secretary William Hague had publicly extended an invitation to Livni to visit the UK, the exact nature of her visit is unclear. According to pro-Israel advocacy group BICOM, it is they who "facilitated" Livni's visit.

Questions remain to be answered. The FCO only stated that Livni's visit had Special Mission status after a request for an opinion by the Attorney General Dominic Grieve. As the Jewish Chronicle reported, when Grieve was in the opposition he promised to "fix the situation if the Tories win power". In February 2010, Ken Clarke and Edward Garnier met with Livni in Israel and pledged to change the law once in government; they are now the Secretary of State for Justice and Solicitor-General respectively.

There are concerns about the timing of the Special Mission announcement. According to Daniel Machover of Hickman and Rose Solicitors, once the original application for an arrest warrant was made on Tuesday 4 October, there was constant contact with the prosecutor until all went silent for a few critical hours on the morning of Thursday 6 October. What happened to those assurances that the change in legislation would not affect the ability for cases to be dealt with in an appropriately timely manner? In addition, the CPS said that the FCO certificate of Special Mission status was received - and dated - Thursday morning. Yet by 7.30am, Livni was already in London and being interviewed on the Today programme. If the certificate's dating is irrelevant, when had the Special Mission status been agreed?

If the British and Israeli governments had secretly agreed that Livni's visit would be a Special Mission beforehand - though there is no indication this is the case - then the idea that this was a "test case" for the new universal jurisdiction legislation is a sham. If, on the other hand, the declaration of Special Mission status was a contingency option adopted as events unfolded, then it suggests that the new legislation does not protect those who actually have a case to answer.

During her visit, Livni told Hague she hopes his "hospitality for me today will herald the arrival of IDF officials" in Britain. Former Israeli general Doron Almog, who previously escaped arrest by staying on his plane at Heathrow, has announced his intention to visit the UK "early next year". The questions raised by this week's visit need answers, and soon.

Ben White is a freelance journalist and writer, specialising in Israel/Palestine

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.