Livni feared UK authorities would arrest her during a planned 2009 visit in the aftermath of Israel's war on Gaza [EPA]

A UK law curtailing citizens' rights to seek the arrest of foreign politicians for alleged war crimes has taken effect, removing a thorn in British-Israeli relations.

Passed on Thursday, the law amends legislation which Israel had protested about, saying it exposed high-profile officials to the threat of arrest while visiting Britain.
 
Under the old law, private individuals could start criminal prosecutions, including for international war crimes, by applying to a magistrate for an arrest warrant.

Israel demanded changes to the law in late 2009 after reports that former foreign minister Tzipi Livni would have risked arrest on war crimes charges over Israel's 2008/09 war on Gaza, had she not cancelled a visit to London.

Livni's Kadima party said Britain's ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, had informed her of the change to the law.

A Kadima statement said Livni welcomed the decision, telling Gould: "I am happy that the arrest warrant against me opened the eyes of the British and will bring an end to the cynical use of the British legislation against commanders and soldiers in the IDF". 

'Ticket to escape law'

Last year, Israel said it had stopped sending delegations to Britain for routine strategic talks out of fear pro-Palestinian activists would seek their arrest for alleged war crimes.

The new law requires the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before an arrest warrant can be issued in "universal jurisdiction" cases, where a case involves alleged crimes committed outside Britain.

"These new changes to existing law will ensure the balance is struck between ensuring those who are accused of such heinous crimes do not escape justice and that universal jurisdiction cases are only proceeded with on the basis of solid evidence that is likely to lead to a successful prosecution," Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said in a statement.

Activists attempted to obtain warrants under the old law to arrest visiting foreign dignitaries such as former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, senior Chinese Communist Party official Bo Xilai and Livni.

Israel's foreign ministry had said that the legal jeopardy faced by Israeli politicians and military officers could damage Britain's efforts to play a role in Middle East peacemaking.

Human rights group Amnesty International condemned the planned change last year, accusing the government of handing war criminals "a free ticket to escape the law".

Source: Agencies