When Ariel Sharon met with the foreign minister of Belgium recently, the Israeli leader inquired after the jails there.
It was a joke, but a joke with an edge.
A legal case initiated two months ago that accuses Sharon of war crimes nearly two decades ago will continue working its way through the Belgian judicial system this week, as the officiating magistrate begins questioning witnesses. Israel, which says the case is a preposterous attempt to besmirch its prime minister, has hired a lawyer who said over the weekend that she will attempt to have the case tossed out because of improper jurisdiction.
Indeed, the case represents another pushing of the boundaries of global justice and has given Israelis cause to worry about how far such war crimes prosecutions might go. Israel's best legal minds are examining the treaties and legislation of European countries to "map out" where political and military officers might risk prosecution for alleged crimes against humanity--including in the current Palestinian intifada.
The government has not told leaders to refrain from travel. But it could come to that.
"If any military leaders phoned me up and said they were traveling to Belgium, I'd tell them to think twice about it," Alan Baker, chief legal advisor to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said in an interview. "We know the danger exists. This is a trend, and it could get worse."
And when asked by Israeli radio, the director general of the Foreign Ministry, Avi Gil, agreed that it would be better for Israeli leaders to avoid countries whose legal systems might cause them "unpleasantness and embarrassment."
In addition to the Sharon case is that of Carmi Gillon, a former head of Israel's domestic security agency, Shin Bet, who has been nominated as ambassador to Denmark. Gillon, in an appearance on Danish television this month, defended the use of "physical pressure"--torture--in the questioning of suspected Islamic extremists.
Danes were outraged. Reports from Denmark suggested that Gillon would be arrested if he set foot in the Scandinavian nation. Gillon's diplomatic career may be over before it started. Paradoxically, Gillon also headed the Peres Peace Center, named after Nobel laureate and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who remains the nominee's staunchest supporter.
The potential legal problems for Israelis come in the wake of efforts to prosecute former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and of a Spanish court's unsuccessful prosecution of former Chilean strongman Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Some European countries, like Belgium, are testing the limits of jurisdiction in pressing cases against people accused of war crimes years ago and in other countries.
And in the case of Belgium, which has the most far-reaching law, the victims are not Belgian nationals.
The Sharon case focuses on the 1982 massacre by Lebanese Christian militiamen of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps near Beirut. The militiamen were allied with Israel, which had invaded Lebanon and controlled the camps. Sharon was defense minister at the time and architect of the invasion. An Israeli government inquiry held him indirectly responsible, and he was forced to step down from his post.
Israeli officials say the trend is going too far--and, in fact, Brussels is considering legislation that would bar trying a sitting official. Israel says the "noble concept" of international human rights law is being politicized and manipulated by Palestinians and their advocates, in what Israel sees as a clearly anti-Israel, anti-Jewish campaign.
The complexity for Israeli leaders is that most have served in a military that has fought numerous wars against Arab states and a more insidious war against terrorism. Palestinians have alleged systematic abuse of their human rights through the years, a claim that receives special echo in sympathetic Europe. The last 10 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have added fodder to the claims, with Israeli forces often accused of excessive force in putting down the armed Palestinian uprising.
"Maybe there's the rub," satirical columnist Doron Rosenblum wrote about the dilemma. "The bad 'hood in which we live calls us interlopers and wants to banish us, while the good neighborhood where we feel we belong frowns at the mere thought of having some guy from that 'hood join their club."
Israelis see a certain degree of irony in the way the long arm of international justice is now reaching for them. The Jewish state considers itself something of a pioneer in the field, having enacted legislation that equipped its agents to seize Nazi figure Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and bring him to Israel for trial in the early 1960s. And the Nuremberg trials, which arose from the Holocaust, provided an early model for war crimes law.
Israeli Atty. Gen. Elyakim Rubinstein has warned that the Sharon case will be the "tip of the iceberg" and that a whole array of national decision-makers, commanders who have directed controversial military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and even some Jewish settler leaders may be at risk.