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Summary of Spinwatch Report: The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre: Giving peace a chance?

May 10, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Preface – The national interest, pro-Israel advocacy and anti-Semitism

  • BICOM and its staff/donors are part of the British establishment, notably the right of the Labour Party. The interests of the individuals and groups involved are more relevant than Israel’s “national interest”.
  • No group is all powerful, but lobbying involves ties between powerful people.
  • Zionism and the Israeli state should not be conflated with Jews or Judaism.
  • BICOM focuses on the British media, targeting opinion-forming elites and repackaging standard pro-Israel arguments.

Chapter One – Shlomo Zabludowicz and the business of war

  • Finnish financier Poju Zabludowicz is BICOM’s chairman and principal donor. His wealth comes from his arms-dealer father, Shlomo Zabludowicz.
  • Shlomo, a Polish Holocaust survivor, made his money decades before BICOM was formed. He had a close relationship with Shimon Peres and other politicians in Israel and played a key role in the formation of the domestic arms industry from the 1950s.
  • He sold arms to repressive regimes including Shah of Iran.
  • From 1980, business declined, and he sought deals and employed lobbyists in Washington. A US contract was won in 1985.
  • The Zabludowiczs diversified into high-tech joint ventures and property. When Shlomo died in 1994, his wealth was divided between Poju and his sister Rivka.

Chapter Two – Poju Zabludowicz and the business of peace

  • In the 1990s, Israel’s economy moved away from arms and towards high-tech.
  • Business interests hoped to benefit from the 1990s peace process, especially through the lifting of the Arab League boycott and secondary boycott (whereby companies/countries that dealt with Israel were also boycotted).
  • Businessmen/politicians believed stability would bring foreign investment.
  • In 1993, a superficial peace agreement that did not deal with the most significant issues (Jerusalem, right of return, settlements) was signed. It was criticised by Israelis and Palestinians – but satisfied international investors.
  • UK’s Conservative government saw opportunity of investment in Israel. Politicians said that Arab boycott was incompatible with peace process.
  • Based in London, Poju Zabludowicz began lobbying for business interests.
  • His assets – dozens of companies – are collectively called the Tamares Group. Thoroughly transnational, but with close ties to Israel. Made billions through lucrative privatisation deals in Israel.
  • Zabludowicz, over the years, has funded right-wing Likud Party (1980s), and left-wing Peres (big donor over the years). Friend of Netanyahu’s. Arguably shows that he is a businessmen and opportunist, interested in retaining links with power-brokers and maintaining Israel’s international reputation, rather than in ideology.

Chapter Three – The Second Intifada and the establishment of BICOM

  • 1990s peace talks reduced the business stigma around Israel.
  • John Major ended arms embargo against Israel and worked to end the Arab boycott. Imports and exports between UK and Israel doubled in the decade.
  • In 1999, the hard line precursor to BICOM, BIPAC (British-Israel Public Affairs Committee) was closed
  • The business sector was concerned about the PR void this left.
  • Ultimately, the peace process failed, and in 2000, riots in Palestine turned into the Second Intifada. Israel responded with a harsh crackdown. High intensity violence from both sides continued until 2005. It was widely acknowledged to be a PR disaster for Israel.
  • Soon after the Intifada broke out, Israel’s ambassador to the UK reportedly called together 50 leading Jews to ask them to mobilise support for Israel.
  • This became the Emergency Co-ordinating Group, which organised trips for journalists to Israel and “countered slanted media coverage”.
  • BICOM grew out of this temporary group, and was officially formed in April 2001, with Zabludowicz as chairman.

Chapter Four – BICOM and British Zionism

  • BICOM works with partner organisations, mainly the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA), the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC).
  • UJIA: Funds educational and charitable projects in Israel, and programmes to foster young British Jews’ connection to Israel. It pre-existed the state of Israel, and financially supported BIPAC. Its work is mainly cultural/educational, but it has mobilised behind Israel during controversial armed conflicts such as the 2006 Lebanon war.
  • Board of Deputies: The official representative body of UK Jewry. Oversaw the Emergency Co-ordinating Group, along with the UJIA. Dates back to 18th Century; seen by some as too uncritical of Israel. Also works on countering anti-Semitism, interfaith issues, preserving Jewish cemeteries, etc.
  • JLC: BICOM’s most important partner organisation. Headed by former UJIA chairman Mick Davis. Established in 2003, after several years of efforts by Henry Grunwald (head of Board of Deputies) to capitalise on political connections of wealthy/influential community members. Umbrella group for political/non-political Jewish organisations.
  • There is considerable crossover at the level of leadership between BICOM, JLC, and UJIA. BICOM focuses on media, JLC and Board of Deputies on political lobbying, while UJIA is not directly political.
  • Parliamentary lobbying groups: BICOM has strong links with these groups, especially Labour Friends of Israel. Several directors of BICOM have been members of LFI, which became more prominent under Blair and Brown. Lorna Fitzsimons (BICOM director 2006-12) is a former Labour MP.
  • Conservative Friends of Israel includes around 80% of Tory MPs. High level of cooperation with BICOM.
  • There is tension between BICOM/JLC and older UK Zionist groups. The Israel lobby (such as it exists) is not monolithic. Some of these older groups (ie. Zionist Federation) see JLC as insufficiently supportive of Israel.
  • BICOM/JLC are liberal-styled and associated with a wealthy elite.
  • BICOM has closer links to Israeli universities and think-tanks than to some of these more traditional UK Zionist groups.

Chapter Five – BICOM strategy, elite networks and the media

  • BICOM is the most sophisticated pro-Israel advocacy group, employing PR professionals and lobbyists, and using pollsters like Populus.
  • Fitzsimons (former director) has said that “foreign policy is an elite issue” not influenced by public opinion. Other BICOM leaders have noted the public is less supportive of Israel than politicians. This is reflected in its strategy – targeting journalists, politicians, opinion-formers.
  • Aim is not to change public opinion, but to create favourable policy-making environment. Tactics: building/sustaining support in politics/media, isolating those who campaign against Israel, and mobilising supporters of Israel.
  • BICOM focuses on relationship-building. It has paid for politicians to go to Israel (as well as journalists).
  • Zabludowicz and his corporate vehicle Tamares Real Estate Investments have donated £314,000 to the Conservative Party since 2005.
  • Michael Lewis, former vice-chair of BICOM, is also a major Tory donor. In 2001, his family investment company Oceana donated £30,000. Oceana has also donated to Michael Portillo (£2500, 2001), Harlow local party (£3000, 2004), and Liam Fox (£5000, 2005). More recently, Lewis has given money to Adam Werritty (Fox’s unofficial adviser).
  • David Menton, an associate of Zabludowicz and BICOM donor, is a Labour donor. Donated £2477 to Michael Dugher’s constituency in 2011, and paid for him to attend a Herzliya conference in Israel.
  • In 2011, BICOM paid for 3 Labour MPs to visit Israel. (Michael Dugher, Jim Murphy, Stephen Twigg).
  • Media strategy is to focus on credibility; avoiding hectoring/overreaction, and putting arguments in tone/language that resonates with opinion-formers.
  • Mirrors conventional PR strategy: providing content and access, rather than complaining about critical coverage. Jonathan Cummings, BICOM’s Israel director: “harassing the media is a counter-productive tactic”.
  • A least 60 journalists – from BBC, Sky, the Times, Independent, Sun – have been on BICOM trips. A delegation of bloggers was taken on a trip in 2012.
  • After 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, BICOM developed a crisis strategy: providing context to explain Israel’s extreme violence. This was very successful during Operation Cast Lead in 2008.
  • Various studies have shown a pro-Israel media bias, not the other way around.
  • Rupert Murdoch has business interests in Israel and supports conservative Israeli politicians. This is reflected in his newspapers.
  • BICOM and other lobby groups work to discredit activists/writers (Jewish and non-Jewish) critical of Israel. The term “delegitimisation” is used to suggest that critics are motivated by antipathy towards Israel itself – presented as a new form of anti-Semitism.
  • Attempts to legally challenge boycott motions have been supported by the JLC, Zionist Federation, and reportedly the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • BICOM aims to win back support from liberals/leftist British Jews. Mobilising support from the Jewish community is important as it helps identify Jews en masse with Israel, problematising non-Jewish criticism.

Chapter Six – Funding and finances

  • BICOM’s accounts for the year’s ending April 2002 and 2003 reported respective incomes of £373,674 and £460,921. Since then, its accounts have provided no information about income or expenses, disclosing only assets and liabilities.
  • In 2006, its budget was reportedly £1.2m: double its 2003 budget.
  • Zabludowicz remains the main backer. In 2007, he underwrote a £300,000 “fighting fund” in response to the UCU’s boycott motion. His total donations to BICOM then increased nearly threefold (£341,694 in 2006; £937,995 in 2007; £837,616 in 2008).
  • In 2009 BICOM’s budget increased by 12.5%, in 2010 by 25%, bringing expenditure to around £2m. Zabludowicz’s donations since 2010 have not been disclosed but monthly accounts show the group depends on him.
  • A board member said there were 120 donors. Few details are known.
  • Donations by company directors are detailed in BICOM accounts.
  • Michael Lewis (director 2006-7) donated £25,000. Others have donated smaller sums.
  • South African born Lewis manages his family’s wealth in various trusts and offshore accounts (including Oceana Investment Corporation). His Jersey Fund has committed £5.9m to Synova Capital, a private equity fund in which Zabludowicz is the main investor.
  • His family has donated to the UJIA, and to the University of Oxford (£3m to fund the appointment of a Professor of Israel Studies). He has invested in pro-Israel German media company Axel Springer.
  • Isaac Kaye: reportedly a “key backer” of BICOM, and a board member. South African born multi-millionaire and donor to Labour Party and UJIA. He has business interests in Israel, where he founded venture capital firm Israel HealthCare Ventures.
  • David Green: another “key backer”, Green is a British businessman and treasurer of BICOM.
  • David Menton: director and donor of BICOM and business associate of Zabludowicz, working for the latter’s Tamares Capital. With Zabludowicz’s funds, launched Synova Capital with his brother-in-law Philip Shapiro in 2007. Political donor in US (Hillary Clinton) and UK (Labour).
  • Edward Misrahi: vice-chair of BICOM since 2011 and a former banker, Misrahi has invested in Synova Capita since 2009. Has donated to various Zionist non-profit organisations.
  • In June 2005, BICOM arranged a trip to Israel for 20 British businessmen/financiers, reportedly raising £1m. The group met with PM Ariel Sharon, deputy PM Peres, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
  • A fundraising dinner in January 2008 for 100 guests raised £80,000.
  • BICOM depends on its donors, who have considerable influence through the board of directors (chaired by Zabludowicz).
  • Donors are most likely committed to defending Israel, but also gain status and prestige through the connection to BICOM.

Chapter Seven – BICOM’s views and arguments

  • BIPAC lost donor support because of its hard line.
  • Business figures (like Zabludowicz) have a financial interest in preserving the impression of progress towards stability because the peace process had increased economic ties with Israel.
  • Zabludowicz stated in 2011 that “convincing people [in UK] that Israel seeks a lasting peace with its neighbours” was the key to increasing support, “even if peace continues to be elusive”.
  • Over the years, BICOM has refined its message. In 2005, its website said it wanted to “bring about a significant shift in opinion in favour of Israel”. Now, it says it wants a “more complete understanding” and makes reference to “Palestinian statehood” as well as “peace and security” for Israel.
  • Despite this non-specific support for Palestinian statehood, BICOM was outspokenly critical of the Palestinian bid for non-member state status at the UN in 2010.
  • While BICOM has ties to the right of the Labour Party in the UK, it has supported hawkish right-wing governments in Israel.
  • BICOM supports Israeli rejectionism on: withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, the status of Jerusalem, West Bank settlements, and the right of return for refugees.
  • It refers to Jerusalem as “the capital of Israel” although no country officially recognises it as such (even the US embassy is in Tel-Aviv).
  • West Bank settlements are internationally accepted to be illegal. BICOM supports the Israeli government’s line unilaterally rejecting this and refers to settlements as “communities” and “neighbourhoods”.
  • BICOM selectively cites international law regarding Palestinian violations, but ignores or argues against it on Israeli violations.
  • It also ignores a range of systemic human rights abuses in Israel, saying only “as in other societies, minority groups still suffer from inequalities”.
  • Although presented in a careful and reasonable tone, BICOM’s views are far from moderate.

Chapter Eight – The Fox-Werritty scandal and the decline of democracy

  • In 2011, Defence Secretary Liam Fox was forced to resign after a scandal involving his friend and adviser Adam Werritty.
  • For nearly 10 years, Werritty’s consultancy interests mirrored Fox’s political career. He eventually became director of Fox’s charity Atlantic Bridge.
  • The scandal had three elements; Werritty’s contact with the Sri Lankan government; Werritty’s extensive involvement in the stand off over Iran’s nuclear programme; and lobbying (venture capitalist Henry Boulter used contact with Fox to pressure US conglomerate 3M in a business dispute).
  • Individuals linked to BICOM were involved in all three strands. Former BICOM communications director Lee Petar facilitated Boulter’s meetings.
  • Werritty’s Sri Lankan and Middle Eastern engagements were funded by Pargav, a not-for-profit organisation which shares backers with BICOM.
  • Sir Gus O’Donnell’s report into the allegations against Fox identified Pargav’s donors. They included Tamares (Zabludowicz’s company) and Oceana Investments (Michael Lewis’s). A third donor was Mick Davis, chief executive of Xstrata, linked to BICOM through the JLC, which he chairs.
  • The donors linked to BICOM were only one group, but deserve scrutiny because Werritty was involved in western policy in the Middle East.
  • Tamares was one of several companies whose donations to Werritty were linked to Sri Lanka. According to the Independent, Tamares stressed that it had paid him to promote peace and reconciliation between adversaries. Werritty and Fox’s actions actually emboldened a hard line government.
  • Werritty and Fox’s activities in the Middle East were significant to the regional struggle between Iran and Israel.
  • In 2009, Werritty went to the Herzliya Conference in Israel as BICOM’s paid-for guest. He also organised a panel discussion on Iran in London with Fitzsimons as a speaker.
  • In February 2011, Werritty and Fox attended a Herzliya Conference in Israel. They met with senior Israeli officials and intelligence officers, and discussed sanctions against Iran. They also met the head of Mossad (either Dagan or his successor Tamir Pardo).
  • Meeting were also held with the UK ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, on the Iranian nuclear issue. The British government has been reluctant to acknowledge these meetings, and stressed that Gould always acted in line with government policy. This raises questions about Werritty’s influence.
  • Lee Petar, a former communications director of BICOM, was later a lobbyist at Tetra Strategy, a firm whose clients included Tamares.
  • In March 2011, Petar introduced Werritty to Boulter, whose private equity firm the Porton Group was engaged in a legal dispute with 3M. This led to a meeting between Fox and Boulter in June 2011. Boulter used this meeting to suggest that a proposed knighthood for the 3M head might not go through.
  • Boutler’s threat led to the exposure of Werritty and Fox’s relationship, and Fox’s resignation. Pargav’s donors distanced themselves from Werritty and his excessive spending.
  • Fox and Werritty’s activities entangled public and private interests. The involvement of some BICOM personnel shows that such an agency and its major players must be examined.

Chapter Nine – Conclusions

  • BICOM aims to defend Israel by encouraging a skewed perception among journalists, politicians, and policy-formers.
  • It uses moderate language to appeal to the centre ground, but actually expounds more hard line views than suggested.
  • The interests of chairman Poju Zabludowicz are transnational, but closely tied to the Israeli corporate-state nexus.
  • For businessmen, a close relationship to the Israeli state presents significant business opportunities, but also carries a reputational risk which could impact on dealings elsewhere.
  • BICOM presents even illegal actions by Israel in a positive light, strengthening backers’ relationships with state officials while minimising any harm to the country’s international reputation.
  • The organisation should not be understood simply in terms of Israeli national interest, but of transnational elite networks of big business, finance, politics, PR and the media (NOT Israeli/Jewish power).
  • BICOM is highly secretive about its activities and is therefore unaccountable.
  • Journalists should be obliged to disclose gifts in kind or trips funded by groups which have a direct interest in managing media coverage.