Before it even aired last night, the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary “Britain’s pro-Israel Lobby” had created shockwaves. Produced by Peter Oborne and James Jones their investigation bravely examines a subject that too few journalists are willing to risk their careers to tackle. Oborne and Jones, however, do not shy away and they “ask a question that has never been seriously addressed in the mainstream press: is there a Pro-Israel lobby in Britain, what does it do and what influence does it wield?”
While numerous studies have been undertaken into the political influence and control of the pro-Israel lobby in the USA, such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s revealing book “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy”, Oborne is right to point out that no equivalent study has ever been undertaken in the United Kingdom. During Israeli war on Gaza earlier this year Rajeev Syal sounded alarm bells in the Observer when he wrote ‘How the pro-Israeli lobby in Britain benefits from a generous London tycoon.’ An earlier attempt in a 2002 New Statesman cover story, received such heavy criticisms and allegations of Anti-Semitism that no one dared to touch the issue in any meaningful way since then.
The Dispatches report therefore covers relatively unchartered territory. It tackles two key issues. The first relates to the “rules of political behavior” which allowed for the staggering fact that, along with the mass of his MPs, the Tory party leader David Cameron attended the Friends of Israel lunch in June where he gave the keynote address, this being only a few months after Israel’s invasion of Gaza and accusations that Israel had committed war crimes, (a fact that Cameron neglected to mention while he was busy praising Israel because it “strives to protect innocent life”!) The second asks “what are the rules of media discourse that ensure that such an event passes without notice?” In other words, it looks at the twin arenas in which the pro-Israeli lobby exerts its most inordinate influence; politics and the media.
POLITICS: A pro-Israel agenda buried deep inside the body of Westminster.
The authors describe just how entrenched the pro-Israeli agenda is within Westminster. All the major political parties have fallen prey to the lobby. Following generous donations from the lobby they find their options are considerably limited to either taking a soft line on Israel or giving unreserved support for its policies.
The report quotes Conservative Party politician and historian Robert Rhodes James as saying that the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) is “the largest organization in Western Europe dedicated to the cause of the people of Israel.” They then estimate that at least 50% of the members of the Shadow Cabinet are members of the CFI and that 80% of Conservative MPs are members. They further point out that “many of the most sensitive foreign affairs, defense and intelligence posts in the House of Commons are occupied by Labor or Conservative Friends of Israel.” This includes Mike Gapes (Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee), Kim Howells (Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee) and James Arbuthnot (Chairman of the Commons Defense Select Committee.) As they point out, it may be true that “there is no prohibition on parliamentarians having membership of such groups, but how many voters are aware of these links?” Given all of this, in addition to David Cameron’s own obvious support for the ICF, the authors came to the logical, if not understated, conclusion that “if a Conservative government wins the forthcoming general election the influence of the pro-Israel lobby is likely to increase.” Indeed Britain may have yet another unelected roving Middle East ambassador in the mould of Michael Levy (aka ‘Mr Cash-point’) – the fixer who brought millions to the Labour Party under Blair.
Orborne and James make the strong case that given the fact that Israel’s soldiers have been accused of War Crimes “there is no question, therefore that the connection between mainstream British political parties and the state of Israel is a matter of legitimate enquiry.” Former ambassador to Jerusalem Richard Dalton told the producers that he could not imagine that this largesse of financial donations would be given without strings attached.
The power of the CFI as a lobbying group is clear. One parliamentary candidate told the authors how he had gone to see Stuart Polak (CFI’s Director) where he was “tested on his views on Israel” and then, presumably the implication is that he passed because, within two weeks he received a cheque from a business man that he had never met. Many similar stories abound of politicians having to pass the Israeli test after which they received sizeable donations. The same type of donations are said to have been received after favorable journeys to Israel that the CIF has funded and arranged for numerous MPs.
After reeling off a long list of pro-Israel groups and individuals to have made sizable donations to pro-Israeli MPs the authors point out that while the emerging pattern of donation giving may be “entirely legal” it, at the very least, “contravenes one of the seven principles of public life, concerning integrity, as set out by the Committee on Standards in Public Life: ‘Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.” In the case of the politicians what is clearly alarming is the fact that the main beneficiary is a foreign country – Israel. Only in October this year a former NASA scientist in the US was caught attempting to sell military secrets to Israel. Although Orborne and James did not explore the issue of dual loyalty their report may well lead to a rigorous debate about this matter.
But how powerful is the lobby in actually influencing individual party and national policy. In 2006 Conservative shadow secretary William Hague is said to have had funds withdrawn from him when he described Israel’s actions in Lebanon in 2006 as ‘disproportionate.’ Since the airing of the programme his office has informed MEMO that he stands by his judgment that the assault on Lebanon was disproportionate and that “No donations to William Hague’s office have ever been ‘withdrawn’. No donations have ever been linked to policy decisions.”
On a national level, one need only look at the British government’s reaction to the Goldstone Report. The Dispatches report states that “Tory sources say that the CFI played an influential role in stiffening the Conservative Party’s opposition to the resolution.” The fact that so many countries throughout the world condemned Israel for its atrocities in the Gaza invasion and subsequently supported the Goldstone Report and Britain abstained is quite telling. Yet even in abstaining the pro-Israel lobby was not satisfied. The Jewish Chronicle announced the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council will meet the prime minister to impress their anger at Britain’s failure to oppose the UN resolution endorsing the report.
The mere subject of the pro-Israeli lobby seems to arouse a certain paranoia among even prominent public individuals. The authors of the report recounted one incident where the Conservative MP they approached to discuss the issue, after taunting them that they would not “have the guts” to make a programme about “the most powerful lobby in parliament by far” was later “so paranoid he insisted we remove the battery from our mobile phones to ensure our privacy during the conversation.” He was not the only one who seemed intimidated. They said that they found it “almost impossible to get anyone to come on the record.”
THE PRESS: Influencing the media.
Oborne points out how much of the media is already towing the pro-Israeli line. As he says “Most of the mainstream British media takes a pro-Israeli line, Rupert Murdoch, whose News International media empire controls between 30-40% of the British Newspaper press, makes no secret of his pro-Israeli sympathies.”
In contrast however, the BBC and the Guardian have been fairer in their reporting and have also endeavored to present the Palestinian perspective. However, as a result “these two organizations have been subjected to ceaseless pressure and at times harassment both from the Israeli government itself and from pressure groups.”
Part of the campaign against them and any others who dare criticise Israel is taken up by the “combative Israeli Government press office director, Danny Seaman”. According to Oborne “Seaman is well known for using tactics such as denying or delaying visas to obstruct correspondents he sees as hostile to Israel.”
The BBC has allegedly become a “hate figure” for pro-Israeli groups and they get complaints about their middle east coverage on a weekly basis. According to Oborne, the reason why the BBC turned on one of its own, Jermey Bowen, was because it “reacted to pressure from pro-Israel pressure groups.” The pro-Israeli lobby may also explain why the BBC refused to air an appeal for the people of Gaza earlier this year. As Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary, said, “I’m afraid the BBC has to stand up to the Israeli authorities occasionally. Israel has a long reputation of bullying the BBC.”
The report also demonstrates how the label of anti-Semitism is flung at anyone who dares to criticise any aspect of Israeli policies. The long list of those whose careers they consider to have been marred by such unjustified allegations include Jeremy Bowen, Orla Guerin, Michael Ancram and Jonathan Dimbleby among others. This inevitably leads to a form of censorship. If reporters are too scared to report the facts for fear of being demonised and labeled as anti-semetic, there is a problem.
Even high profile international organisations seem to think that any subject that risks upsetting Israel should be done with extreme caution, if not avoided altogether, and they told the authors that to even speak publicly about the refusal of the BBC to screen the Gaza Appeal in December would be “too sensitive”. This surprisingly included bodies such as Amnesty International, Oxfam and Christian Aid among others.
Questions to answer
With regards to the outcome of this report, the first step is that Channel 4 must be commended for their bold and principled coverage of the issue, especially in light of the obvious fire that they will now come under from the pro-Israel lobby.
Secondly, the report highlighted some very serious issues that need to be addressed. Disturbing questions were raised about the virtual surrender of the BBC’s upper management to the pressure of the lobby and its forced investigations into its most respected journalists such as Jeremy Bowen, Ola Guerin and Jonathan Dimbleby. Perhaps the time has now come for the BBC to issue a public apology about their refusal to air the Gaza appeal earlier this year.
Furthermore, with regards to the Conservative Party, given the revelations that Poju Zabludowicz is a major donor to the Conservative Party and has now also been exposed as a man who has a major financial stake in illegal West Bank settlement activities, perhaps the Conservatives should consider handing his money back to him. It surely taints the image of the party to be seen to be funded by a man with such an obvious ulterior motive in the region, one that may have a significant impact on their perceived level of impartiality and independence.
The programme also exposed the danger of franchising diplomatic duties to public donors as was the case of Michael Levy, an unelected individual, who could not at the time be held to accountable by parliament. This unaccountability does not bode well or look good for our democratic institutions.
Last night’s report has certainly laid the ground work for what needs to come. The reality is that it probably only touched the tip of the iceberg. While the programme appeared to place a lot of focus on BICOM and the CFI, it completely underplayed the role of the Board of Deputies of British Jews for instance. However, it has certainly opened up public debate on the issue and has underscored the need for further investigation. Perhaps the next step is for a larger more exhaustive study to be undertaken, perhaps in the form of a book akin to Mearsheimer and Walt’s in the USA, which will finally expose the size and power of the pro-Israel lobby in Britain.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.