A wine-spattered copy of the parliamentary guest list for the Conservative Friends of Israel’s “Annual Business Lunch”, which took place in December last year, has made it onto my desk. For those of you who don’t know, CFI is a pressure group for pro-Israel interests in Westminster; between two-thirds and four-fifths of all Conservative MPs are believed to be members.
In a previous investigation I looked at how money from a broad range of pro-Israel donors shows on the balance sheets of Britain’s Conservative and Labour Parties. In the interests of balance, therefore, it should be pointed out here that Labour Friends of Israel is a similar operation to CFI.
It should also be said that plenty of other countries operate lobbies in Westminster, typically made up of British citizens sympathetic to their cause. A quick glance of Companies House records reveals “Conservative Friends” of Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Poland, for example. There are also Labour and Liberal Democrat “Friends of Palestine” and/or “the Middle East” groups. No equivalent Conservative pro-Palestine group exists, although there is a “Conservative Middle East Council”.
The original guest list of the CFI Business Lunch enables us to delve into the right wing world of the pro-Israel lobby. It unveils the sympathetic eyes and ears at the very top of the Conservative Party, and a clear pattern of political donations from individuals linked directly to CFI.
The Conservative Friends of Israel website boasts that the December 2014 Annual Business Lunch was its biggest yet; over six hundred businesspeople attended along with more than 150 parliamentarians. The guest list in my possession makes no mention of the non-parliamentary guests, but confirms the accuracy of the 150 claim. Of these, 128 are serving MPs. The remainder are predominantly Peers in the House of Lords, although one member of the Greater London Authority and an MEP were also there.
Most striking is the number of Cabinet Members who went to the CFI event; 13 in total. These include Home Secretary Theresa May, Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps, Chief Whip Michael Gove, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, Secretary of State for Work & Pensions Iain Duncan Smith and his deputy Esther McVey, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and Matthew Hancock, who holds ministerial positions at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Energy and Climate Change, as well as being Minister for Portsmouth, a major naval base. Also in attendance were rising star and Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss and Secretary of State for Wales Stephen Crabb.
It should be noted that Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond did not attend, although in 2013 his predecessor William Hague was the guest speaker. Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox was there in December, although the current incumbent, Michael Fallon, was not.
To confirm quite how sincere the support from the Conservative Party is, the Guest of Honour at the CFI lunch was Prime Minister David Cameron, who gave a keynote speech alongside Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub.
CFI officials have made generous donations to the Conservative Party since the 2010 General Election: CFI Treasurer Stephen Massey, who is registered as a director of the organisation at Companies House, has given £32,000; Director David Meller has given £19,000; and Deputy Chairman and company director Hilda Worth has given £86,000. Conservative Party donors sitting on the CFI Executive Board, either currently or in the past, include Edward Lee (£84,700) and Howard Leigh (£55,000). Donations from businessman Sir Timothy Sainsbury, who has been both president and vice-president of CFI, amount to a more modest £15,000. Leonard Steinberg served as CFI vice-president from 2003 to 2008, and died in 2009, but his widow Beryl has given £55,000 to the Conservative Party since the last General Election.
The host of the business lunch in December was property magnate Sir Michael Heller; he has boosted the Conservative Party coffers to the tune of £105,000, although telecommunications entrepreneur and CFI member Charles Wigoder is the most generous to the party, giving £247,000. South African-born Michael Lewis, who has business interests in retail and bio-tech firms, gave £120,000 and is an ex-board member of CFI.
Along with the guest list, I also acquired a copy of CFI’s annual magazine “Informed”, which was distributed to all who attended the lunch. “Let me say to you very clearly,” David Cameron is quoted therein, “with me you have a British Prime Minister whose belief in Israel is unbreakable… I will always stand up for the right of Israel to defend its citizens.”
Home Secretary Theresa May also offered her support, as did Conservative parliamentary candidates Lucy Allan, standing in Telford, and Simon Marcus (Hampstead & Kilburn). Parliamentary records show that CFI have paid for both of them to visit Israel on carefully choreographed visits, with opportunities to meet Israeli citizens and no doubt carefully-vetted Palestinians.
A full page in “Informed” is dedicated to the alleged threat to Israel from Iran’s nuclear programme. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was shown recently to be exaggerating this threat hugely, after Al-Jazeera and the Guardian obtained files showing that Israel’s spy agency Mossad believed that Iran is “not ready” to produce a bomb, possessing just a fraction of the enriched uranium required.
Another section emphasised Israel’s “strategic vulnerability” but neglected to mention its close operational ties with the Lebanese, Egyptian and Jordanian governments, as well as the Palestinian Authority. Also absent was the fact that Israel is the biggest spender on military hardware in the Middle East and is the only nuclear-armed power. CFI also claimed that 70 per cent of Israel’s population is threatened by Hamas rockets.
A Daily Express article from earlier in 2014 was re-printed in the brochure by Andrew Percy MP; “What Would We Do?” was published originally during Israel’s offensive against the people of Gaza last summer. Percy repeated the tired claim that Hamas “seeks the total destruction of Israel and its people” and declared rather pompously that, “in the fight between terrorism and democracy, I support democracy.” He forgot to mention that the Hamas-led Palestinian government won free and fair democratic elections in 2006. The Conservative MP also wrote that aligning with Hamas or people “who pick this conflict” doesn’t make sense. It is debatable whether any Palestinian, belonging to Fatah or Hamas, could honestly say that they had “picked” the conflict.
The final page of the brochure details meetings between CFI, parliamentarians and Israeli officials and politicians, including General Michael Herzog; Israel’s Minister for Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Dr Yuval Steinitz; Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman; Deputy National Security Advisor Eran Lerman; and Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub. These were not official government-to-government meetings; this was the Israelis meeting with a political entity in Westminster.
Does any of this matter? Yes, it does. When David Cameron addressed CFI’s Annual Business Lunch in 2009, shortly before his election victory the following year, he made no mention of the Palestinian lives that had been lost as part of “Operation Cast Lead” 2008/9. Not one mention. In that offensive, 1,370 Palestinians were killed by Israel. At the time, a leading British journalist who attended the same function wrote: “I found it impossible to reconcile the remarks made by the young Conservative leader with the numerous reports of human rights abuses in Gaza. Afterwards I said as much to some Tory MPs. They looked at me as if I was distressingly naive, drawing my attention to the very large number of Tory donors in the audience.”
Cameron made it clear at last year’s CFI lunch that the Conservative Party had as much to gain from CFI as CFI did from the party. “This amazing organisation, bigger today than I have ever seen it, works both ways. This group is a friend of the Conservatives.” For the past 40 years, CFI has been there for this party, bringing us together, getting behind our candidates, he added.
Pro-Israel groups have every right to make their case to politicians, though their blatant exaggerations and distortions of the truth, as well as the use of financial means to back favoured candidates, borders on the immoral. It is, perhaps, of greater concern that no such sophisticated lobbying effort exists for the Palestinians; the pro-Palestine lobby pales into relative insignificance beside the likes of Conservative Friends of Israel. The struggle to protect Israel and its founding ideology of Zionism continues at home and abroad. If Palestine is also to be protected, its supporters need to step up to the mark.
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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.