Saturday, October 17, 2009

Britain refuses to condemn Israel over Gaza 'war crimes'

BRITAIN was roundly criticised last night after opting out of a controversial United Nations vote that condemned Israel for war crimes.

Peter Gooderham, the British Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, blamed wrecking tactics by other countries for his failure even to abstain.

Britain had been involved in efforts to wrest last-ditch concessions from Israel amid warnings from Jerusalem that the resolution before the UN Human Rights Council would do irrevocable harm to the Middle East peace process.

Those efforts failed, and the Palestinian resolution, which endorsed the controversial Goldstone report into alleged war crimes in Gaza, passed overwhelmingly.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews said that the Government, "by standing by", had helped to undermine peace efforts.

"This is no basis on which to proceed against a country defending itself against eight years of unrelenting rocket attacks, when even that essential contextual background was missing from the report," said the board, the main representative body for Jewish people in Britain.

Israel criticised the events in Geneva as "unjust" and a "diplomatic farce". Gordon Brown, who failed to convince Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, of the need for an investigation into the Gaza conflict in an acrimonious telephone call earlier this week, tried again in a series of frantic calls to Jerusalem yesterday (Friday) as the vote approached.

Britain has been planning to abstain over concerns that the resolution was unfairly biased against Israel, but was unwilling to risk weakening Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, by standing with Washington against it. But that position began to unravel yesterday (Friday) morning when it became apparent that other European members on the council, including Italy and the Netherlands were planning to vote against. That would leave Britain and France, looking exposed and out of step with the rest of Europe.

British officials said Mr Brown and President Sarkozy of France decided to offer their support to Mr Netanyahu if he would move on three concessions that they believed could help to rescue the peace process: a freeze on all settlement activity, an independent Israeli investigation and an immediate lifting of the blockade on Gaza.

Those last-minute efforts, however, were thwarted twice by Egypt, a co-sponsor of the resolution, which refused France's request for a two-hour deferral of the vote. France reiterated the demand, but Egypt refused again, forcing a vote before any concessions could be wrung from Israel. Britain and France therefore failed either to cast a vote or abstain.

"We were very disappointed by what happened," Peter Gooderham, the British Ambassador to the UN in Geneva told The Times, denouncing Egypt's wrecking move as "political".

The intense lobbying surrounding the vote showed the depth of concern over the report's unintended consequences for the future of Middle East peace. More than 1,000 people died in the Gaza conflict, the vast majority of them Palestinians. The report concluded that there were abuses by both sides, but also highlighted the use of phosphorous munitions by the Israelis which are banned in built up areas.

The US, which had lobbied Britain along with other European allies, to vote against, said it had tried but failed to get the Palestinians to reword their text to a form they could back.

Israel said the vote was "unjust" and a "diplomatic farce".

In remarks published in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, Sir Richard said: "This draft resolution saddens me as it includes only allegations against Israel. There is not a single phrase condemning Hamas, as we have done in the report."

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