On Friday, human rights activist and Labour Party political candidate, Mick Bowman, was beaten, tear-gassed and arrested by Israeli soldiers while protesting in the West Bank, just north of Ramallah.
Aged 57, Bowman was detained without charge for 24 hours, interrogated by various officials and military staff, and then released. His arrest is now being investigated by Israeli authorities who claim that his alleged treatment was “unacceptable” and “inappropriate.” He has, however, been banned permanently from the West Bank.
For any candidates planning to visit Palestine or Israel in the coming months, there is a safer way to travel: members of Westminster’s pro-Israel lobbies will take you. And, if you’re lucky, pro-Israel donors might also drop some money into your campaign bank account shortly afterwards.
Simon Marcus PPC, the Conservative candidate for Hampstead & Kilburn, recently made one such trip. His constituency is a critical marginal seat, with Labour winning a tiny majority back in 2010. Marcus visited Israel in February 2014 on a “fact-finding visit” paid for by a pro-Israel lobby group called the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI). Marcus has yet to declare the trip on his Electoral Commission expenses.
It is easy to estimate the costs however. In June, electoral records show that CFI paid £1600 for two other Conservative candidates, Craig Willliams and Afzal Amin, to visit Israel and selected areas of Palestine.
Another candidate, Lucy Allan – running in Telford – visited Israel in November 2013 at a cost to CFI of £2,000. Candidates Christopher Green and Royston Smith also attended this trip, again with all expenses paid. Following their visits, both Allan and Marcus wrote positive reviews of their experiences, for an annual magazine called Informed that is produced by CFI.
A copy of Informed was distributed at the lobbying group’s Annual Business Lunch 2014, which was attended by 600 business people, over 100 Conservative MPs, senior members of the Cabinet, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron. The audience was addressed by Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub. The dinner was also attended by 37 Parliamentary Prospective Candidates.
In her piece, Allan described the tragic stabbing to death of a sleeping Israeli teenager on a bus, which took place on the third day of her trip. A heinous crime, to be sure – but there is no mention of the equally horrific punitive home demolitions, the thousands of political prisoners, or the daily humiliation of the Israeli occupation.
Marcus went further: “Israel… could not be any different from the ‘apartheid’ state that ill-informed, hardline anti-Israel activists would have you believe.” He added that he was “deeply grateful to CFI for the extraordinary opportunity they gave me.”
Another Conservative candidate, James Heappy, who also attended the November 2013 trip, later received £3,000 in cash from Henry Davis – who sponsored the CFI’s Annual Business Lunch last year. Davis donated the same amount to David Warburton, a candidate running for Somerset and Frome.
Sir Anthony Bamford, whose company JCB has been described as “complicit in war crimes” by the campaigning group War on Want, gave Heappy £15,000. He also gave candidate Graham Cox £10,000.
These might not sound like large amounts of money – but to prospective candidates, many of whom attract no direct donations at all – it can make all the difference.
A similar campaign was launched in the run up to the 2010 election, with seven Conservative PPCs invited to Israel in 2006, 20 in 2007, and five in 2009. Several of these candidates later received donations of between £2,000 and £5,000 from donors closely linked to CFI. All candidates either won or came close to winning their seats. In many cases, the CFI donors had never met or even stepped foot in the constituency of the candidates they chose to back.
Although the corresponding lobbying group for the Labour Party, Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), has tended to take elected MPs rather than candidates to visit Israel, similar efforts have been made recently. Candidates Nick Bent, Andrew Dismore, Peter Kyle and Joan Ryan were taken to Israel in December 2014, in a similar trip arranged and paid for by LFI.
In what may be seen as career-enhancing moves by young candidates, CFI and LFI also attract high-flyers within their respective parties. Home Secretary Theresa May and David Cameron have both addressed CFI events in the last year, while Chief Whip Michael Gove, Chairman of the Party Grant Shapps and former Chairman Francis Maude were present at the 2014 Business Lunch, alongside ten other Cabinet members. In 2013, the CFI Business Lunch was addressed by then Foreign Minister William Hague.
On the Labour side, Ed Miliband has also given key note speeches to LFI events, most recently in June. The group also arranged for Miliband’s first ever visit to Israel in April last year. In September 2013, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander addressed an LFI event held at the Labour Party’s annual conference. During the previous Labour government, MPs previously appointed as officers at the LFI very often went on to Ministerial roles.
There is nothing wrong with paying for young candidates to visit Israel and inviting them to grand lunches – indeed many other foreign interest lobby groups do the same – but LFI and CFI arrange by far the most trips of any of these groups. Over the election terms of 2001 – 2005 and 2005 – 2010, for example, the two lobby groups organised 13 per cent of all foreign trips for MPs and candidates.
Similarly, there is no suggestion that giving small donations after these trips is in any way illegal. It might however, contradict a standard mandated by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which states that: “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.”
But, as journalist Peter Oborne put it back in 2009: “for a junior or a prospective MP to be taken on such a trip and granted access to which they are not accustomed can be a powerful and persuasive experience.”
Indeed, perhaps the best people to explain the importance of these trips is the politicians themselves. When David Cameron spoke at the 2010 CFI Annual Business Lunch, he commented that:
“What [CFI] do in terms of taking people to see Israel for themselves is absolutely invaluable. Seeing is believing. I will never forget the impression it made on me when you see the landscape turn from desert to fertile pasture, when you see the record of that country in turning poverty into prosperity, when you see the creativity, the energy, the dynamism and yes, the democracy. I will never forget being taken to the Lebanese border and knowing just how precarious Israel’s security is. It is an impression that has stayed with me and that I will never forget”
In November 2013, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers put it like this:
“Ever since my first steps into front line politics, I have very much valued the support and the advice of CFI and – of course – Stuart Polak [Director of CFI] who is such an important part of that.
Like so many other MPs, CFI took me to Israel so that I could deepen my understanding of the country and its people, and the other MPs on the trip included one Boris Johnson and George Osborne, so we certainly had a lively trip.”
And finally William Hague, at the time Foreign Secretary, addressing CFI in November 2013:
“As many of you know, CFI was the first political organisation that I joined as a teenager; in 1976, 37 years ago.
I have been supported and sustained by friendships within CFI, or overlapping with CFI, throughout my career in public life.”
To be sure, the moral decision about accepting expenses and donations from foreign interest lobbying groups is up to the candidate in question (and that applies whether it is from pro-Israel groups, or groups linked to any other country). But what’s clear from the quotes above, particularly the last two, is that – from a career point of view – getting cosy with CFI or LFI simply makes political sense.
And given the increasingly professionalised nature of British politics, it is therefore no surprise that so many young candidates are building strong relationships with the pro-Israel lobby right from the start of their political careers. For the lobby itself, the fruits of this labour will be borne in a few years, when some of these candidates rise up the party ranks and into senior decision-making roles. By then, their investment will almost certainly have paid off.