Any visitor to the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) website will find open and informative accounts of much of the organisation's activities. Information abounds about trips to Israel on which hundreds of activists, candidates, MPs and peers have been shown carefully around the West Bank and Israel proper. They never go to Gaza, though, where no amount of Israeli spin could cover up the unethical monstrosity that is the illegal blockade.
The trip which took place in late August, for example, included five Conservative MPs, named and photographed on the CFI website as Stuart Andrew, Conor Burns, Philip Davies, Jonathan Djanogly and John Howell, as well as two peers and CFI officials. In a further tribute to the transparency with which CFI organises these trips, it was happy to reference the positive coverage that the trip received in the Times of Israel, the Jewish Chronicle and the Jerusalem Post. The Electoral Commission register is subsequently populated by new entries, as each MP properly declares that the CFI covered all the travel expenses for the trip; the register is available for anyone to search for free, online. This hardly seems like a secretive organisation, at least not when it comes to organising PR trips to Israel.
The staff list of such pro-Israel bodies is also no secret; and so it is not controversial to say that some of them are extremely close to the Israeli government. Take the British Israeli Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), for example. BICOM, alongside CFI, is probably the most influential of the pro-Israel organisations operating in Westminster. The lobby group's CEO is James Sorene, whose career includes being Head of Public Affairs (that is, "lobbying"), for the Israeli embassy in London, from 1997 and 2000, and then heading into a series of increasingly influential roles within the British government, including the Department of Health, working on counter-terrorism at the Home Office, and peaking-out as Head of Communications for the Deputy Prime Minister.
That alone, incidentally, is staggering; that a former Israeli embassy official could go on to work at the highest levels of the British government, before leaving to join a pro-Israel lobbying organisation. But it is not a secret, even if it has not been widely reported. All of the information I give here is simply paraphrasing Sorene's own biography, as stated on the BICOM website. He has never sought to hide that he has worked for both the Israeli and British governments, and pro-Israel British organisations. He is operating in plain sight, which is, perhaps, a wise strategy.
Sorene's deputy, Richard Pater, is in a similar position, and his ties to the Israeli government are even stronger. Pater "joined BICOM from the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, where he spearheaded engagement with the foreign press." What's secretive about Israeli government officials, former or otherwise, operating in Westminster and even Whitehall, if this activity is so very openly declared on lobby group websites?
The fact that these organisations declare much of their activities openly, however, doesn't make them, like those of any other special interest group, any less potentially dangerous. The agendas and minutes of their meetings with politicians, government officials and party fixers remain undisclosed, as do the details of how they are funded. Yet that doesn't make the pro-Israel lobby any worse than so many of the other lobbies operating in Westminster.
What is galling these days, though, is when the existence or influence of this lobby is denied, by supposedly well-informed journalists. The anti-Corbyn London intelligentsia, of late, who can't quite believe that an ardent pro-Palestinian is now leading the Labour Party, are now consistently alluding to this possibility.
Amongst such people is the high-profile columnist Dan Hodges, who dismisses the idea of a "Zionist lobby" merely as a "trope". Observer and Spectator columnist Nick Cohen refuses to use the term "Israel lobby" unless it's in apostrophes, suggesting slyly that a lobby for Israel simply doesn't exist. Right-wing journalists like Andrew Gilligan also play this game. In one piece published last year, Gilligan referred to a piece I wrote as a "conspiracy theory about Jews" even though the headline was clearly more general — "How money from pro-Israel donors controls Westminster" — and even if the piece highlighted the hundreds of thousands of donations from British donors who were demonstrably pro-Israel. That some of them were Jews was and is irrelevant, although Gilligan would have us believe otherwise; a bit of a Freudian slip on his part, perhaps?
Why do prominent media figures like Hodges, Cohen and Gilligan, amongst many others, believe that while the Americans, Saudis, Russians, Chinese, Emiratis, French, Guatemalans or Peruvians, and so on, probably have their lobbies, Israel, miraculously, does not? Do they think that the Israeli embassy in London is simply a museum where dinner parties are held to discuss the inclement London weather? Do those who deny the existence of a well-funded and professional network of pro-Israel activists think that the Conservative Friends of Israel website is a hoax? Do they perhaps think that Pater and Sorene lied about their time working for the Deputy Prime Minister of Britain or the Prime Minister of Israel, or both?
There's nothing secret about the pro-Israel lobby, but there's also nothing special about it. I'm a British journalist and wherever any special interest group — be it industrial, financial or foreign — seeks to exert influence with which a reasonable British reader might feel uncomfortable, an evidenced investigation is fair game. Unfortunately journalists who are interested in the pro-Israel lobby are treated in one way only by too many mainstream editors; as conspiracy theorists. No doubt many do over-egg the influence of the lobby (the Iran nuclear deal demonstrated its limitations), and many pro-Palestinian activists do conflate Jewish and Israeli points of view, but to claim that the pro-Israel lobby doesn't exist, and isn't influential in some way, is ludicrous, naive and dangerously irresponsible.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.