Israel adviser switches to top FO job
· QC told Sharon to shun UN inquiry into Jenin battle
· Palestine support group will protest to Straw
By Ewen MacAskill, diplomatic editor
The Guardian, Tuesday 7 March 2006
The British Foreign Office has appointed a controversial Israeli government adviser to one of its most sensitive posts as head of the legal department.
Advice from Daniel Bethlehem QC in 2002 to the then Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, led Israel to block a UN inquiry into the battle of Jenin. The Israeli refusal to cooperate was widely condemned at the time by various human rights organisations.
Mr Bethlehem, who was Israel's external legal adviser, also took the lead for the Israeli government at the International court of justice in The Hague in 2004 to defend the barrier being built along the West Bank. Israel lost the case.
The Foreign Office said: "Our view is Mr Bethlehem has had a distinguished career in international law, including acting on behalf of the UK government in a number of international proceedings. He has also acted for or against a number of other states. His experience in this area equips him strongly for this job."
The legal team 45-year-old Mr Bethlehem will head challenged the legitimacy of pre-emptive action in the run-up to the Iraq war, and the deputy head of the team, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, resigned just before the invasion.
He will have to advise Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, on a host of issues ranging from Guantánamo Bay to the legality of any pre-emptive strike against Iran.
Betty Hunter, spokeswoman for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said yesterday the group would write to Mr Straw. "We are appalled that the Foreign Office is employing someone who has a very distinct bias."
The job was advertised last October. On his appointment, the Foreign Office published a lengthy CV listing 27 international disputes in which he has been involved but omitting Jenin.
Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, ordered an inquiry into Jenin after the Palestinians claimed there had been human rights abuses on a grand scale. The Israeli government insisted that the heavy casualties - on both sides - had been the result of the ferocity of the Palestinian defence of the town.
Mr Sharon initially agreed to cooperate with the UN inquiry. But days later the Israeli government changed its mind after advice from Mr Bethlehem.
Mr Bethlehem, a specialist in international law at Cambridge University, warned in a memo for the Israeli government that if the inquiry's findings "uphold the allegations against Israel - even on a poor reasoning - this will fundamentally alter the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian leadership and may make it impossible for Israel to resist calls for an international force, the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state and the prosecution of individuals said to have committed the alleged acts."
In the memo, a copy of which was leaked to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Mr Bethlehem said the seriousness of the inquiry should not be minimised and that "for all practical purposes, Israel is faced with a war crimes investigation".
The question mark over his involvement in Jenin was raised with the Guardian by a British lawyer, who requested anonymity. Another lawyer, Philippe Sands QC, who knows Mr Bethlehem well, said: "He is a first-class international lawyer and an individual of impeccable integrity. Some may say he has a conservative disposition but he is independent and very much his own man."
A pointer to Mr Bethlehem's view on attacking Iran can be found in his evidence last year to the Commons foreign affairs committee. Although an Israeli pre-emptive strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 was judged to be illegal, a good case could have been made for it both then and now, he said.
Israel launched a huge offensive into the West Bank in spring 2002 after a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. The attack on Jenin began on April 3 and there were heavy casualties on both sides. The Palestinians claimed there had been widescale human rights abuses, denied by Israel. The UN launched an inquiry and Israel initially agreed to cooperate. After a few days, Israel made a surprise, and at the time mysterious, turnaround, saying it had decided to withdraw its cooperation. The inquiry team interviewed Palestinians but was denied access to Israelis. The inquiry, in its final report, concluded there had been no massacre by Israel.