The pro-Israel lobby in Britain: FULL TEXT
Dispatches investigates the pro-Israel lobby in Britain which is working in support of the interests of the State of Israel. We have obtained a full copy of this by Peter Oborne and James Jones.
Here are some extracts of the 27 page document – The pro-Israel lobby in Britain: full text Click Here to download the full document.
Chapter Two: The Pro-Israel Lobby at Westminster
The senior Tory MP David Amess recently put down a question in the House of Commons to enquire what the British government was doing to improve British relations with Israel. The reply came from Ivan Lewis, foreign office minister with special responsibility for the Middle East: “Israel is a close ally of the United Kingdom and we have regular warm and productive exchanges at all levels… We shall continue to foster a close relationship with Israel.”
This conversation was not quite the simple public exchange that it seemed. Neither politician mentioned that both of them had very close links to pro-Israel organizations. David Amess is the secretary of the Conservative Friends of Israel, which has been described by the famous Conservative Party politician and historian Robert Rhodes James as “the largest organization in Western Europe dedicated to the cause of the people of Israel.”
The Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan once remarked that “there are three bodies no sensible man ever directly challenges: the Roman Catholic Church, the Brigade of Guards and the National Union of Mineworkers.” It is tempting to speculate that today he might have added the Conservative Friends of Israel to that list.
Conservative Friends of Israel
The Conservative Friends of Israel is beyond doubt the best connected, and probably the best funded, of all Westminster lobbying groups. Eighty percent of Conservative MPs are members. The leader of the Conservative Party is often expected to appear at their events, while the shadow foreign secretary and his team are subjected to persistent pressure by the CFI.
CFI’s director, Stuart Polak, is a familiar face in Westminster and well-known to everyone in the Tory establishment. Robert Halfon, the CFI’s political director and Tory candidate for Harlow, is sometimes regarded as the brains of the operation. Both are well-liked by Tory MPs.
Labour Friends of Israel (LFI)
Whereas the CFI has the luxury of working with the grain of the Conservative Party, the Labour Friends of Israel has tended to face a considerably tougher job. There is a much stronger Labour tradition of supporting Palestinian causes since the 1967 war, where Conservatives are more likely to instinctively assume that Israel is in the right. The visceral anti-Americanism of many Labour MPs also plays a role here.
The LFI was founded in 1957 at a public rally at that year’s Labour Party Conference. It describes itself as “a Westminster based lobby group working within the British Labour Party to promote the State of Israel”. It has very close ties with the Israeli Labor Party, and British Labour Party figures like Philip Gould have given training to Israeli politicians in electoral strategy. For that reason the LFI is perhaps less unquestioning in its support of the Israeli government than the CFI. The two lobby groups both work closely with the Israeli embassy and even share supporters, such as the businessmen Victor Blank and Trevor Chinn, but they work independently within their respective parties.
Chapter Three- The Pro-Israel Lobby In The Media
Many supporters of Israel have come to believe that they are a beleaguered minority in Britain. They are convinced that press and politicians alike are ranged against them and that the media routinely distorts the actions and intentions of the Jewish state. This belief is sincerely held, but it is difficult to support on closer examination.
Most of the mainstream British media takes a pro-Israel 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.16 Indeed one well-regarded Times correspondent, Sam Kiley, took the extraordinary step of actually resigning from the paper because of interference with his work on the Middle East.17
In addition to the Murdoch press, the Telegraph Media Group and Express Newspapers have tended to support Israel. So has Associated Newspapers, though to a less obvious extent. There are, however, two important media organisations, which have consistently sought to report fairly from the Middle East and present the Palestinian point of view with equal force to the pro-Israeli government line. These are The Guardian and the BBC. These two organisations have been subjected to ceaseless pressure and at times harassment both from the Israeli government itself and from pressure groups.
The Guardian was more closely involved in the creation of Israel than any other British newspaper. Its editor C.P. Scott was instrumental in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, introducing Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Zionist movement and later the first President of the state of Israel, to leading members of the British government.
However, the paper now finds itself at the centre of an international campaign accusing it of anti-Zionism and even antisemitism. Through much of the last decade, The Guardian has been in dispute with the Israeli government and in particular the combative Israeli Government press office director, Danny Seaman. In 2002, Seaman publicly boasted that he had forced The Guardian to move correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg after she had been transferred to Washington. “We simply boycotted them,” claimed Seaman, “the editorial boards got the message and replaced their people.”
The BBC and the Pro-Israel Lobby
The case of the BBC is extraordinary. The organisation has become a hate figure for pro-Israel groups, who resent its global reach and supposed sympathy for the Palestinians. We have spoken to BBC journalists and recently departed staff who say that rarely a week goes by without having to deal with complaints about their coverage of the Middle East. This year has been particularly difficult for the Corporation. The BBC refused to screen an aid appeal from Britain’s top charities for the people of Gaza, resulting in millions of pounds less money being raised. It reacted to pressure from pro-Israel pressure groups by publishing a report, which criticised its own Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen. Finally, it refused to disclose a report by Malcolm Balen into its Middle East coverage which cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds to the licence fee payer. Through a Freedom of Information request we discovered the BBC had spent over a quarter of a million pounds on legal fees relating to the case.19
1. The Balen Report
This report has its origins in the spring of 2003, when the BBC’s relationship with Israel completely broke down. The Israeli government imposed visa restrictions on BBC journalists and refused access to Israeli government figures after a documentary about its nuclear weapons entitled “Israel’s Secret Weapon” was shown on BBC World. The Israeli Government press officer, Danny Seaman, compared it to “the worst of Nazi propaganda”.
2. Punishing Jeremy Bowen.
In April this year, in an important success for the pro-Israel lobby, the BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, was criticized by the BBC Trust for breaching their rules of accuracy and impartiality in an online piece, and their rules of accuracy in a radio piece. Bowen’s critics have seized on his humiliation, demanding that he be sacked and insisting that the episode proved the BBC’s “chronically biased reporting”. The real story behind the BBC Trust’s criticism of Bowen reports is rather different: it demonstrates the pusillanimity of the BBC Trust and the energy and opportunism of the pro-Israel lobby.
The story begins with an essay written by Bowen to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War for the BBC website. Though many people viewed Bowen’s essay as a fair and balanced account, erring if anything on the side of conventional wisdom, this was not the reaction of two passionate members of the Pro-Israel lobby, Jonathan Turner of the Zionist Federation and Gilead Ini, who lobbies for CAMERA, an American pro-Israel media watchdog organization.
The Gaza Humanitarian appeal
The BBC has a long tradition of showing humanitarian appeals, including those that are seen as politically sensitive, such as the Lebanon appeal in 1982, and has helped raise tens of millions of pounds for people in need around the world. But in January 2009, Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, took the unprecedented decision of breaking away from other broadcasters and refusing to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Appeal for Gaza, claiming it would compromise the BBC’s impartiality. ITV and Channel 4 screened the Gaza appeal, but Sky joined the BBC in refusing. The BBC’s decision had an undeniable impact. Brendan Gormley, Chief Executive of the DEC, told us that the appeal raised about half of the expected total: £7.5 million. In the first 48 hours of the appeal phone calls were down by 17,000 on the average.
Thompson also cast doubt on the charities’ ability to deliver aid on the ground despite assurances from the DEC and his own charitable appeals advisers that this was not the case.
We asked Charlie Beckett why the BBC had refused. He replied: “If there was no pro-Israeli lobby in this country then I don’t think [screening the appeal] would have been seen as politically problematic. I don’t think it would be a serious political issue and concern for them if they didn’t have that pressure from an extraordinarily active, sophisticated, and persuasive lobby sticking up for the Israeli viewpoint.”
The rise of BICOM
BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, is Britain’s major pro-Israel lobby. Founded in 2001 as an equivalent to America’s hugely influential AIPAC, it is bankrolled by its Chairman Poju Zabludowicz, a Finnish billionaire and former arms dealer. Over the past three years Zabludowicz has given over two million pounds in donations. This year, they sent thirty representatives to the AIPAC conference in America, a sign of BICOM’s growing ambition.
Incredibly, almost no one we interviewed for the film had even heard of Zabludowicz, a key player at the heart of the pro-Israel lobby in Britain. Our questions continually met with blank expressions from senior politicians and people in the Jewish community. Zabludowicz fiercely guards his privacy and does so with great success despite his wife being a renowned art collector, and counting Madonna and other A-list celebrities among close personal friends.
Chapter Four – Conclusion and Recommendations
A Short Summary of Recent Relations Between Britain and Israel Since 1997 there has sometimes appeared to be an assumption at the highest levels of British government that the interests of Israel and Britain are identical. For example, during Israel’s catastrophic invasion of the Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the Blair government failed even to call for a ceasefire.
The idea that British and Israeli foreign policy interests should be the same is, however, relatively new. While Britain played a famous role in the creation of the Israeli state, for a long time after World War Two it was never afraid to criticise Israeli foreign policy.
For example, the Conservative foreign secretary (and former prime minister) Sir Alec Douglas Home called at Harrogate in October 1970 for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 242 and for Israel to abandon the territories occupied in the aftermath of the Six Day War in June 1967. This firm sense that Britain could confidently challenge Israeli foreign policy persisted for some time afterwards.
Growing Importance of the Pro-Israel Lobby
Sir Richard Dalton, former British ambassador in Tehran and consul in Jerusalem, told us that when he was a young diplomat in the 1970s, Britain felt able to act purely in its own interests. Throughout his career he has seen that change as the influence of the pro-Israel lobby has grown. “One of the frustrations is that my colleagues and I are not pro-Palestinian, pro-Arab, pro-Israel, pro-anything. We want what is best for Britain. “But there is a pro-Israel lobby and it’s active in trying to define the debate in order to limit the options that British politicians can choose to options that would be acceptable to that lobby.”
He told us that increasingly politicians are afraid to express publicly what they may say in private. That means Israel is not subjected to the same public scrutiny as other countries. He cited the Lebanon war as an example: “The Israel lobbies appear to want to censor British politicians from saying that elements of the Israeli action were disproportionate and they appear to be willing to use financial pressures as a way of enforcing that decision.” Even more significantly this senior diplomat felt that his own actions when serving as Consul General in Jerusalem in the late 1990s were limited by the influence of the lobby at home in Britain.
The Need for Openness
The pro-Israel lobby does nothing wrong, or illegal. It is not sinister and it is not unusual. It cannot be too much stressed that British public life is populated by all kinds of interest groups, many of them extremely active at Westminster.
While this pro-Israel lobbying is lawful, it is emphatically not transparent. We have shown in this pamphlet that journalists very rarely declare their BICOM funded trips to Israel. We have also shown how patterns of donations from CFI members to Tory candidates are sometimes opaque. Indeed, the financial structure of the CFI as a whole is obscure. It does not declare its funding, the identity of its donors, or its annual turnover. Despite being composed almost entirely of MPs and Conservative party members it is registered not as a members’ association, a lobby, a company, or a charity, but as an unincorporated association. This means it does not exist as an organization, but merely as a collection of individuals.
The Pro-Israel lobby and British-Jewry
There is one final set of questions to be asked. Who does the pro-Israel lobby represent? Is it mainstream British-Jewish opinion or the state of Israel or neither? More likely, it exerts pressure for a particular set of interests within Israeli politics. Globalisation has led to a wide and welcome recognition that we all have multiple legitimate interests and identities. There are countless good reasons for the interests of Israel to have a place in UK politics and vice versa, not only because of interests of State, but also because there are many British subjects who have direct legitimate interests and concerns for what happens in Israel and vice versa. The reason we need to ask who or what is represented by the UK’s pro-Israel lobby is precisely so that we can understand what effect UK policy does actually have in Israeli politics and whether these legitimate interests are effectively being promoted.
Summary and Conclusion
Israel is a wonderful and extraordinary country with a rich and flourishing democratic history. Founded in terrible circumstances in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust and World War Two, it has a profound right to exist. But this moral legitimacy does not mean that the foreign and internal policies of Israel should be exempt from the same kind of probing criticism that any independent state must expect. Nor does it mean that the rights of Palestinians to their own state can be ignored.
The pro-Israel lobby, in common with other lobbies, has every right to operate in Britain. But it needs to be far more open about how it is funded and what it does. This is partly because the present obscurity surrounding the funding arrangements and activities of organisations such as BICOM and the CFI can paradoxically give rise to conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact. But it is mainly because politics in a democracy should never take place behind closed doors. It should be out in the open and there for all to see.