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With Gove now on the backbenches, the pro-Israel lobby isn’t getting value for money

August 15, 2016 at 11:44 am

The Henry Jackson Society is a neoconservative London-based think tank set up in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings. Earlier this year it contributed towards the expenses for former Justice Secretary Michael Gove and his family to attend pro-Israel events in the United States. On a trip to receive an award from the right-wing online magazine The Algemeiner, parliamentary records show that Gove, his wife and two children, as well as a member of staff, received thousands of pounds worth of flights, taxi journeys, accommodation and dinners.

The Algemeiner itself paid £124 for Gove and his entourage to travel in taxis, £2,525 on flights and a dinner costing £856. There was also a huge reception at which Michael Gove, Bernard Henri-Levy and Rupert Murdoch were the speakers. The Henry Jackson Society then topped up the contribution by paying for accommodation, amounting to £2,764 for the week’s lodgings. The Lisa and Michael Leffel Foundation, which is famed for its association with a number of pro-Israel causes as well as support for Israel soldiers’ charities, also took Gove and his political adviser out for a separate meal costing £185. The pair were wined and dined for a third time by Alisa Swidler, also a small-time Tory donor, at a cost of over £200.

Gove, who has made a flushed retreat to the backbenches following a bungled attempt to become prime minister in the wake of Brexit, and then being fired as Justice Minister by the new Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, has long been a celebrity amongst Algemeiner staff. In 2013, they opined that his views were “more favourable to Israel than those of any other mainstream British politician, current or past.” He has won awards from their editorial board consistently for championing the cause of Israel in London and, particularly of late, trying to delegitimise the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The Henry Jackson Society’s world view has become well-established in Westminster, although the group is small and not well-regarded by many Tory MPs; its pro-Israel stance is well known.

Since Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon, when the Conservatives were still in opposition in Westminster, the then planning minister Michael Gove allied with George Osborne in convincing the formerly ambivalent David Cameron that British support for Israel must be redoubled, despite the ruling Likud Party’s ties with far-right parties. Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague sparked a bitter rift between neoconservative figures like Gove and more sombre realists. “In some instances, such as attacks on the Lebanese army or on parts of the civil infrastructure, Israeli actions have been disproportionate,” Hague wrote, “and our Foreign Office should not be afraid to say so; our position in international affairs may often be linked to that of the United States but it does not have to be identical to it.”

According to one friend, this incensed Gove, who was on the cusp of publishing his first book as a Member of Parliament; he called it “Celsius 7/7” (his right-wing echo of Michael Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9/11”), which called for a strengthening of ties with Israel. The mood at the Henry Jackson Society was equally angry. When the Israeli air force began pounding military and civilian targets in southern Lebanon, a crowd of two hundred HJS supporters at the launch event of its inaugural collection of neoconservative essays (“The British Moment”) rather coarsely “cheered to the rafters”, according to one person who was there. “I hope this book will ensure that the case for foreign policy with a conscience, grows in strength,” Gove wrote in his dedication for the tome.

The Spectator also insinuated that Hague’s reaction to the 2006 Lebanon war may have had an immediate financial impact, veering towards the kind of anti-Semitic tropes of which Gove has been such a fierce critic. A Tory donor was reported as saying that Hague’s position was “the latest in a long line of rebuttals for people like us, and the things we believe in.” Fraser Nelson at the Spectator (now editor of the magazine) judged that “of the £12 million the party normally raises each year (£25 million in an election year)… about a tenth comes from donors who are Jewish or have Jewish associations.” Apparently, he spoke with three donors who were planning to withhold funds from the Tories, prompted by a threatening letter by major donor Lord Stanley Kalms, who responded to Hague’s comments thus: “William Hague’s usual good sense has deserted him. Criticising Israel for being disproportionate without serious consideration of the alternatives merely mouths the buzzwords of the ignorant armchair critic. Think again, William, for whom you speak. How do you deal with the Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, who is committed to Israel’s total destruction (not a single Jew to remain alive in Israel) and who rains thousands of rockets on Israel, keeping the population in shelters, devastating industry, kidnapping and killing Israeli soldiers within Israeli territory?”

As the 2010 elections drew closer — after which the Conservatives took office as the major party in a coalition — the debate between Gove and his party opponents over whether Israel should be supported or rebuffed raged on. One former associate wrote that he remained “a purist neo-con, believing that the best way of tackling the rise of radical Islam is to oppose totalitarian regimes and back democracy in the Middle East, with Israel as its beacon.” Meanwhile, Hague — who would serve as Foreign Secretary, a role coveted deeply by Gove — took the realpolitik view that Syria should be courted as an ally, if only Damascus could be convinced to cut ties with Iran. Despite the withdrawal of donations from apparently pro-Israel donors, Cameron persisted and at one stage called Gaza a “prison camp” while insisting that the Israelis allow in more humanitarian aid.

Gove and Osborne eventually convinced Cameron to change tack; in fact, by the time of the 2015 General Election, Cameron’s persecution of the BDS movement and insouciance to credibly-alleged Israeli war crimes was earning him praise from the American right, Tel Aviv and the Israeli media. “Is David Cameron the most pro-Israeli [British] PM ever?” asked a Haaretz headline shortly before the polls opened.

The Henry Jackson Society is thought by many to be the stately home of British Neoconservatism, and as staunchly pro-American as it is pro-Israel. Gove and Robert Halfon, at that time Chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel, were, according to a co-founder of the think tank, “The only two active trustees at the start,” playing a role in securing early-stage funding. A core part of its activity has been around promoting pro-Israel views in the halls of Westminster and in the media; its Associate Director Douglas Murray is a regular broadcaster in defence of Israel during its recurrent military offensives against the Gaza strip.

The international patrons of HJS include American neoconservative figures like the journalists Robert Kagan and William Kristol (son of Irving Kristol, “godfather” of the neoconservatives, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, his wife, and also a prominent neoconservative), as well as the politically-minded American businessman Richard Perle. With a career spent drifting through mid-level Washington politics, Perle acted as a special adviser to the think tank’s namesake, the US Democrat Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the “patron saint” of the neocon movement for his hawkish stance during the Cold War; the right-wing Perle would later play a key part in convincing George W. Bush to invade Iraq.

The Henry Jackson Society’s efforts to promote Israel since 2005, as well as those of politicians like Michael Gove and George Osborne, and supportive journalists, have not been entirely successful. While Cameron has expressed support for Israel’s “right of self-defence” and thus condoned high Palestinian casualties in Gaza, and dampened his calls for humanitarian assistance to Palestine, the pro-Israel lobby has been unable to slow the rising BDS movement, failed to stop a non-binding Parliamentary vote to recognise the state of Palestine, and failed to stop the Iran nuclear deal. With figures like Gove and Osborne now relegated to the backbenches, the lobby is in crisis as it tries to find new allies with the ear of the prime minister. Trips to America may be a good way to pass the time, but at the moment they may well be a waste of money with scant return for the lobbyists.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.