Why Israeli Officials Are Limiting Their European Vacations

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GALI TIBBON/AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Israeli officials have long been accustomed to having to take extra security precautions when traveling abroad. But a new threat is keeping some of them — possibly even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — away from certain countries altogether. The latest menace, though, comes not in the form of terrorists, but of lawyers.

Israel announced Thursday that Sharon has hired a Belgian defense lawyer to prepare a defense against potential war crimes charges against the Israeli leader currently being investigated by a Belgian judge. Sharon scratched Belgium off his itinerary on a recent European tour, and although the Israeli government insists this was simply for "calendar reasons," it would certainly have been politic to avoid the possibility — which currently exists under Belgian law — that Mr. Sharon could have been arrested by the investigating judge. Israel's foreign ministry subsequently announced, "The ministry advises all leaders in Israel not to visit nations whose legal systems are liable to cause them inconvenience and embarrassment."

Lebanon massacre

The cases being investigated against the Israeli prime minister concern the 1982 massacre of some 2,000 Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut by Lebanese militiamen allied with Israel. An Israeli government inquiry the following year had found Sharon "indirectly responsible" for the massacre. The current investigation is being conducted under terms of a 1993 Belgian law which allows for war crimes charges to be heard in Belgian courts no matter where the alleged offenses occurred or the nationality of either the complainants or the accused. Mr. Sharon, for his part, sees the maneuver as simply another assault on Israel. "By attacking me personally they are looking to attack Israel and the Jewish people, but we will stop it," he told reporters.

To be sure, Mr. Sharon isn't the only Israeli leader potentially at risk. Israeli officials claim that cases are also being investigated against army chief of staff General Shaul Mofaz and air force commander General Dan Halutz over actions taken in the course of the current intifada. And the appointment as ambassador to Denmark of the former head of Israel's Shin Bet security police, Carmi Gillon, may be in jeopardy after Danish justice minister Frank Jensen warned that Mr. Gillon could be charged under the U.N. convention against torture as soon as he lands in Denmark. In an interview with a Danish newspaper, Gillon had admitted that under his leadership, the Shin Bet had used "moderate physical pressure" against Palestinian detainees. Although Denmark subsequently indicated that Gillon would not be charged, Danish officials remain hostile to the ambassador-designate. Israeli foreign ministry sources, speaking privately, have suggested it may be politic for Mr. Gillon to withdraw his nomination and end a potentially embarrassing affair, but he remains determined to go ahead and assume the post.

Travel advisory

Neither side has fought by the Queensberry rules in the decades-old struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, and that may pose problems for Israeli officials on a European continent where enthusiasm for cross-border human-rights prosecutions has been aroused by the Pinochet and Milosevic indictments. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres maintains that the same principle could be applied against any Palestinian representative who had been involved in terrorist actions and wreak havoc with European efforts to engage with both sides. That argument may resonate with politicians engaged in trying to revive the peace process, but itís unlikely to deter the lawyers and judges pursuing cases against Israeli leaders. And that has forced Israel's foreign ministry to counsel extreme caution to traveling officials. Any Israeli military and political leaders potentially vulnerable to such charges are being advised to avoid traveling to or through countries where they may be at risk of arrest, including Belgium, Spain and Britain.

At least Mr. Sharon is not alone in navigating the treacherous waters of Europe's new enthusiasm for cross-border justice. On a recent visit to Paris, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger found himself subpoenaed to give evidence to a French judge investigating the killing of French citizens in General Pinochet's Chile. Dr. Kissinger declined the invitation. But it's unlikely to be the last one he receives. And sooner or later, the European indictment will become a standard arrow in the quiver of aggrieved parties across the globe, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.