Recently disclosed documents, containing minutes of meetings and multiple email exchanges between the director of the UK attorney general’s office (AGO) and Israeli diplomats, appear to show them discussing whether the law could be harnessed against Israel’s critics in the UK. Among the issues mentioned were some ongoing criminal court cases, as well as legal developments that limited freedom of protest in this country. As the meetings coincided with the trials of numerous Palestine Action activists, the group understandably suspects its cases were among those discussed.
The documents, obtained through a freedom of information request by Palestine Action, are heavily redacted. The non-redacted text seems to show the AGO standing its ground: in one meeting, AGO director Douglas Wilson explains to the Israeli officials “the sensitivities of engaging” with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) “on individual [criminal] cases”. In a follow-up, Wilson reiterates that his office was “unable to intervene on an individual case or comment on … active proceedings”, and that “the CPS makes its prosecution decisions … independently”.
At the same time, and possibly to reassure the Israelis, Wilson cited recent legal developments in the UK. One was the attorney general’s referral of the Colston statue protest case to the court of appeal, which ultimately led to judges limiting protesters’ ability to rely on human rights defences in court. Also mentioned on at least two separate occasions was the draconian Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Act, which he described as “[strengthening] police powers to tackle non-violent protests”. In response, the Israelis expressed their “many many thanks” for “this most helpful” and “much appreciated” advice.
Why would the AGO refer foreign diplomats to British anti-protest legislation and rulings? And why were Israeli officials tempted to try their luck with the UK’s legal system in the first place? The answer to both questions might be the same: Israel spotted a like-minded government, one willing to wage a legal war on protest and especially on pro-Palestinian activism.
Indeed, the use of the law to suppress Palestinian life and pro-Palestinian sentiment has become a feature common to Israel and the UK. For instance, as part of its long record of using the law to perfect its regime of control, Israel has banned various forms of peaceful Palestinian activity in the West Bank, such as waving flags, crimes punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Meanwhile, recent British governments have endorsed – and then pressured universities to adopt – the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which equates legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. So controversial is this document that even its own author has since opposed its implementation, as have hundreds of Palestinians, Israelis and others worldwide. And now, 12 years after Israel passed an anti-boycott law, the British government is pushing its own, which would deny public bodies the right to decide not to purchase from or invest in Israeli companies.
In a statement to the Guardian following the disclosure of his exchange with the Israeli representatives, the AGO claimed that the redacted details “would be likely to prejudice the UK’s relations with Israel” (the Freedom of Information Act allows the non-disclosure of information that might damage foreign relations). But a more likely reason for the redaction might be that the UK did not want to be seen as vulnerable to a foreign state’s interference. Or perhaps the aim was also to conceal how similar the two countries have become.
The AGO, by choosing not to redact its insistence on the independence of the British legal system, cast itself as a bastion of justice. Could the redacted parts paint the AGO in a less favourable light? After all, history has proven that UK authorities are not above invoking foreign relations to protect their reputation.
In 2010, for example, the Foreign Office cited foreign relations as grounds for not disclosing records of a 2003 phone call between Tony Blair and George Bush, a decision upheld by an appeals court. In 2016, the Iraq inquiry exposed the real reason why the records had been kept secret: the two politicians had agreed to pretend to seek a UN resolution green-lighting the invasion, knowing such a resolution would not materialise, then blame France for preventing it.
Here lies yet another similarity between Israel and the UK: the two countries have long utilised similar legal tools to prevent unwanted disclosures, and the Freedom of Information Act’s foreign relations exemption is among them. For instance, the Israeli supreme court has repeatedly relied on this exemption in its decisions to dismiss petitions to reveal information about Israel’s arms export to other oppressive states. Coincidentally, the pro-Palestinian activists whose trials the Israeli diplomats might have sought to influence are being prosecuted precisely for taking direct action against the UK offices of Israel’s largest weapons manufacturer, Elbit Systems.
Foreign relations are at the heart of the recent disclosure about possible Israeli meddling, just not in the sense the AGO claims. Rather, the new details that have emerged, and the fact that potentially more damning details were redacted, throw into sharp relief what these relations now look like: two countries using the law to suppress pro-Palestinian protest and to cover up unflattering information. No wonder Israeli officials seem to have expected a warm reception from Britain’s legal system.
Hedi Viterbo is a senior lecturer in law at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of Problematizing Law, Rights, and Childhood in Israel/Palestine and co-author of The ABC of the OPT: A Legal Lexicon of the Israeli Control over the Occupied Palestinian Territory.