Since the release of Peter Oborne’s Dispatches documentary, The pro-Israel lobby in Britain, public interest in the subject has grown considerably. With the approach of the 2010 general elections there has been a constant flow of revelations concerning the role of lobbyists acting on behalf of foreign countries in British politics. Claims about the role and influence of the pro-Israeli lobby have elicited a closer scrutiny of its prime movers.
Just who are the people behind this vested foreign interest? What are their beliefs, interests, loyalties and activities? These are but a few of the most recurring questions. One key figure who overshadows all others is the Finnish billionaire, Poju Zabludowicz, mentioned in Oborne’s documentary. On 12th February he gave an interview to Sami Peretz of the The Marker, his first to an Israeli newspaper. MEMO has translated it from Hebrew into English. It examines a wide range of issues from his relations with Israel, to his multiple investments, role in British politics and struggle for public opinion in Europe.
Media interest in Zabludowicz’s activities is not new. On 30 December 2007 the Timesonline published an article by Marie Woolf and Jon Ungoed-Thomas titled, Vegas casino billionaire bankrolls the Tories. The recent resurgence of interest in his activities has been heightened by the controversy surrounding the Tory deputy chairman, Lord Michael Ashcroft.
Zabludowicz and Ashcroft have more in common than just their wealth. They are both ‘non-doms’, meaning they don’t pay taxes in the UK. The Timesonline (2007) quoted a spokesperson for Cameron as saying: “There is no secret about the fact that he (Zabludowicz) is a nondom, but he has given through his UK limited companies. It is completely above board.”
According to Electoral Commission records, Zabludowicz’s company, the Tamares private investment group, which is based in London, New York, Lichtenstein and Tel Aviv, provided £15,000 for Cameron’s leadership campaign in 2005 and donated £55,000 to Conservative funds in 2006 and 2007.
Of course, the Conservatives are not the sole UK beneficiaries of Zabludowicz’s largesse. On 4 January 2009 at the height of the Israeli onslaught in Gaza, Rajeev Syal published an article entitled, How the pro-Israel lobby in Britain benefits from a generous London tycoon in the Observer. The report revealed that “Company accounts show that Zabludowicz, whose fortune was founded on the success of his father’s arms company, donated £937,995 to Bicom in 2007, around half its total income, and £341,694 in 2006”. BICOM is the British Israel Communication and Research Centre which the report described as “Britain’s most active pro-Israeli lobbying organisation”.
Although Zabludowicz is himself not an Israeli citizen he is widely seen as a major player in its political life because his ‘involvement is extremely deep.’ Sami Peretz recalls his personal connection with Israel as one that goes back several decades when his father, Shlomo, a successful arms dealer, worked closely with Shimon Peres to develop the Israeli arms industry. Poju’s fortune has been estimated by the Sunday Times at two billion pounds sterling (about 3.12 billion dollars).
Since the mid 1980s he has been a close friend of Benyamin Netanyahu; so close that Zabludowicz allowed Netanyahu to use his villa in Caesarea for a family vacation during his first term as Prime Minister. During the Israeli prime minister’s last visit to Britain, Zabludowicz organized a meeting for him with the editors of some of the leading British newspapers.
Zabludowicz credits Israel’s economic success to Netanyahu while he was serving as the country’s Finance Minister (2003-2005). “Bibi made great changes and he should continue now, while he is Prime Minister. The capitalist way of thinking is good for Israel and suits the country. Bibi has created a vision which suits not only Israel but also other countries, regarding the question of how to manage economic policy and choosing correct principles. His policies are reminiscent of those of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan…The main principles of Thatcher’s and Reagan’s policies are correct“. (Our emphasis).
Many working class Britons will today recall that Thatcher did not only break the back bone of the trade union movement but she also pursued an economic model that allowed the gap between the rich and poor to grow beyond all recognition.
From the interview it is clear Zabludowicz is not the run of the mill financier. In Britain, he enjoys a de facto ambassadorial status. According to Sami Peretz, his interviewer, “Zabludowicz is the ambassador who finances and personally deals with advancing the status of Israel, but on the other hand he has sharp criticism about the information services provided by Israel.’ He is ‘well-connected to [British] politics, and in recent months he has been one of the businessmen and contributors with very close relations with David Cameron, the Conservative candidate for Prime Minister, who, according to surveys, is viewed as certain to be elected. The evening of the day he is being interviewed, he asks to finish by 18:00 because, at 19:00 he is participating in a meeting of a select few with Cameron.”
The main vehicle which Zabludowicz uses to advance Israeli interests in Britain is BICOM of which he is chairman. Insiders of the outfit believe that their primary achievement is that they are seen as a source of trustworthy and legitimate information. Zabludowicz recognises the need for a strong media machinery. “You have to change the thought processes of a lot of people. Israel can’t be a success story militarily, technologically and literarily but a total failure in other things.”
“National security is the first of our priorities, and in second place, there must be informational public relations. We must know how to defend ourselves in the public relations field. Netanyahu is the best man to begin to change Israel’s approach”.
The method adopted is based on the view that British public opinion is formed in the triangular relations between political decision makers, advisors and the world of academia and the media.
Even by Zionist standards, Israel’s operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-09) was a public relations disaster. The interviewer highlights that The Cast Lead Operation in Gaza took British public opinion by storm, to a greater extent than anywhere else in the West. Even now, more than a year after the end of the operation, the British media continue to relate to it and to its implications. They see the killing and the destruction in Gaza as showing the real face of Israel, and not the declarations of peace given by the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.
The British public in all its shades and colours was appalled by the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of military force used by the Israeli Occupation Forces in the densely populated Strip. Almost one and a half years on, the subject is still being heatedly discussed in the British media, not just on account of the findings of the Goldstone report and Britain’s attempts to renege on its treaty obligations to uphold the principle of universal jurisdiction. Moreover, Israel’s conduct in the Gaza Strip during the onslaught and its continued siege of the territory has exposed its real character, one that is by no means endearing to the British public. However, Zabludowicz has a different view. He believes that “Israel does not have anything to be ashamed of. It is doing the right thing politically and so Israel has to speak up more and to explain more”.
The interview suggests possible explanations for the change of British attitude towards Israel. First of all, the British see themselves as being responsible for the Palestinian tragedy, because of the Balfour Declaration, which paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel. Second, a large cross-section of British public opinion opposes colonialism and view Israel as the last bastion of colonial power. Third, the Muslim minority in Britain has rising political and public influence. Henry Siegman a visiting professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Programme at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies captured the public mood when he wrote of “Israel’s colonial ambitions“ in the Financial Times under the title For Israel, defiance comes at the cost of legitimacy.
A cursory reading of British newspapers’ columns and letters to the editors in recent years shows that commentators have gone well beyond the pale in identifying Israel as a colonial entity but more critically as a bulwark of apartheid rule. In 2005 at the height of the Aqsa Intifada Prof Avi Shlaim wrote in the Newstateman, “The Palestinians do not pose a threat to Israel’s basic security; it is the other way round. Israel is not fighting for its security or survival, but to retain territories it conquered in 1967. The war that Israel is waging against the Palestinian people on their land is a colonial war (our emphasis added). Like all other colonial wars it is savage, senseless, directed mainly against civilians, and doomed to failure.”
On the question of apartheid, Michael Ben-Yair, a former Israeli Attorney General (1993-96) wrote, “In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture. That oppressive regime exists to this day.”
In the face of such damning criticism from Jewish academics, politicians and the media it is understandable why BICOM’s CEO, Lorna Fizsimmons, should point out in The Marker interview that “it’s very difficult to sell Israel.” Another British official did not merely see it is difficult. Worse still, he says, “Today it is impossible to sell the Israeli case in Britain.”
THE STRUGGLE FOR PUBLIC OPINION
There is clearly a struggle unfolding for the soul of British public opinion. In the past few years, Britain has become a centre of international protest activities against Israel and its apartheid policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. Today, Israeli politicians and army officers avoid visiting the country fearing that arrest warrants would be issued for them as war criminals. The interview revealed that the current CEO of El Al Israeli airlines, Eliezer Shakedi, refuses to visit Britain because of his role as Commander of the Israeli Air Force from April 2004 to May 20008 and, as such, was responsible for the alleged war crimes committed during the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006. Initiatives for an academic boycott against Israeli universities and a boycott of Israeli products have also come out of Britain. On the face of it, Peretz says it appears the Palestinian narrative has won the battle for public opinion in Britain.
Significantly, Zabludowicz does not underestimate the enormity of the task. He says, “It’s not enough that Israelis themselves think that they are alright thanks to the achievements of their country. That’s a big mistake. This is a world of television and of the Internet, and Israel must invest more in public relations. I don’t think the government is doing enough about this. No Israeli government has done enough, not just the present one.”
He adds, “In order to change public opinion you have to make a great effort. Switzerland doesn’t have to do anything because it doesn’t have a war with its neighbours. But Israel must. The whole narrative is mistaken at its basis. If you took the Israeli story to Hollywood, it would be a great story; a country which has produced so much talent. But if you ask Steven Spielberg or all the Jews who work in public relations on Madison Avenue in Manhattan how Israel sells its story, everyone will tell you that it’s awful”.
Undoubtedly, if the issue was simply one of presentation, important as it is, Zabludowicz’s task would be manifestly easier. But there are clearly more substantive issues at stake. Israel’s serial breaches of international law, added to its recent cloning of British passports used in the assassination its Palestinian opponents, have all been described as the acts of a rogue state. Hence David Gardner wrote in the FT “Israel hurts its cause when it is seen as a rogue state.”
Zabludowicz argues, “You have to think about what the situation of Israel would look like here if there was no organization like Bicom. I would assume that if Bicom did not exist, British newspaper articles would be even more extreme. Without us, they would be saying that Israel kills people for fun. At the moment, there is no academic boycott. We change the atmosphere. In public relations and in information provision, there aren’t successes every day. Our role is to transmit information all the time.”
He laments, “Look at Sweden, which has always been thought of as our supporter. The situation there is more serious and the attitude towards Israel is terrible. There is a strong negative trend against Israel. Bicom does not carry on a one-day campaign. It’s a long term effort, lengthy and infinite.”
Still, there are other indicators from the interview suggesting that profit and gain are the driving forces of our subject. When questioned about his business ethics he says, “If there is a company which is not in good condition, and salaries must be lowered, I look at the person and I know that he has a wife and children. There is always a conflict.”
And what do you do in such a conflict? “In the end I go with the needs of the business. If there is a dilemma between saving the business or worrying about people, I choose the business.”
Accordingly, just before the global recession, Zabludowicz sold most of his investments in Britain and expanded his investment in Israeli businesses such as British Israel Limited, a company considered the largest shopping mall holder in Israel and controlled by Leo Noe. Mr Noe is a British citizen living in London and a member of the top list of the richest Jews in Britain. One of the big malls totally owned by British Israel is in Ma’ale Adumim, an illegal settlement, built on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank just east of Jerusalem. Peter Oborne describes it, as strategically crucial in ensuring Jerusalem remains in Israeli hands. So much so that Netanyahu launched his election campaign in this settlement in 2005.
Returning to Zabludowicz, he tells Peretz, “We sold everything in Britain two years ago at a good time. Soon the question will arise as to when the right time is to buy again. Now it is becoming a bit more worthwhile to buy again in London. But there are still no bargains. The banks have not put up things for sale and there is not so much supply. In Britain we sold almost everything, and in Israel we invested in British Israel during the crisis. The banks in Israel operate much better in financing real estate. In the last 25 years, real estate in Israel has always been in a different cycle than in the United States and Britain.”
The interviewer ends on the note of an expectant Conservative victory led by David Cameron. But activists for Israel in London say that Israelis have no reason to be enthusiastic. “Here the right is not Fox News” they say “and the basic line towards Israel will not change.” Is this the end of another special relationship? In the given circumstances things seem to be moving toward that end.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.