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London Mayor Assails Israeli Leader

Denying bias, he calls Sharon a war criminal. Weeks before, he laid into a Jewish reporter.

March 05, 2005|John Daniszewski and Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writers

LONDON — Mayor Ken Livingstone sparked anger from Israel on Friday for labeling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a war criminal less than a month after comparing a Jewish reporter for a British newspaper to a concentration camp guard.

Writing in the left-wing Guardian newspaper, Livingstone responded to criticism for the earlier remark, citing what he said was his long record of opposition to anti-Semitism. But then he launched a harsh attack on the "ethnic cleansing" policies of the Israeli government.

"Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, is a war criminal who should be in prison, not in office," Livingstone wrote. He also lambasted Israel's seizure of Palestinian land for settlements, military incursions into neighboring countries and denial of the right of return for Palestinians, who he said were "expelled by terror."

The comments were reported in Israel just as the Sabbath was about to fall. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the mayor's observations were "not worthy of an Israeli response." The Haaretz newspaper said on its website that the remarks were "unlikely to ease already fraught relations between the mayor and the Jewish community in Britain."

In London, Israel's ambassador, Zvi Heifetz, said the mayor was trying to divert criticism away from his earlier remarks, which several Jewish groups said were deplorable because they trivialized the Holocaust.

"The mayor feels the need to emphasize that he's not an anti-Semite, but only anti-Israeli," Heifetz told the BBC. "We trust the public to know better and see what stands behind his strategy."

Livingstone resisted calls to apologize for his remarks last month that compared a reporter for the Evening Standard newspaper to a concentration camp guard. Prime Minister Tony Blair was among those who urged him publicly to say he was sorry.

It all began at a party Livingstone threw in honor of former Culture Secretary Chris Smith to mark the 20th anniversary of Smith's coming out as the nation's first openly gay lawmaker.

Asked by Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold how the party went, Livingstone at first refused to reply, said Finegold, who captured the exchange on tape.

At Finegold's repeated question, "Was it a good party? What does it mean for you?" Livingstone finally said, "What did you do before? Were you a German war criminal?"

Finegold replied, "No, I'm Jewish, I wasn't a German war criminal, and I'm actually quite offended by that. So how did tonight go?"

"Ah, right, well you might be, but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard. You are just doing it because you are paid to, aren't you?" Livingstone said.

The mayor said later that he would not apologize for standing up to what he considered an abusive reporter. "I'm not going to apologize if I don't believe it. I don't believe I've done anything wrong," he said.

The 59-year-old Livingstone, sometimes called "Red Ken," is given to blunt and controversial statements.

He led the Greater London Council during the 1980s, becoming a nemesis of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She had the council abolished.

Livingstone broke with the Labor Party to run for mayor in 2000 as an independent and was elected handily. In spite of his reputation as a maverick, he has been a popular mayor and secured a second term last year.

As mayor, his major innovation has been introducing the congestion charge, a fee that motorists must pay to drive in central London during peak hours. The fee has curtailed traffic jams, and Livingstone wants to expand the program.

Times staff writer Laura King in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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