Revelations about the activities of an Israeli embassy staff member have been headline news in the British media over the last few days. There might be more to come – the Al Jazeera Investigations programme on which the stories have been based is aired over four nights starting Wednesday.
To summarise what we know already, an Israeli government official based at the embassy in London, Shai Masot, was caught on camera discussing how to “take down” British politicians deemed unfriendly to Israel, including foreign office minister Sir Alan Duncan.
Masot was also recorded boasting of having established a number of advocacy groups, “while appearing to obscure their links to Israel.” He told Joan Ryan, the chair of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), that he had been approved £1m to fund visits of Labour MPs to Israel.
One of the most important points to underline about the affair is the way it illustrates just how intolerant Israel is towards any kind of criticism – even from its allies.
The British politicians singled out by Masot – Duncan, Crispin Blunt – are hardly radical leftists. But both men have a track record in vocally criticising Israeli policies that violate international law, including settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).
This, unfortunately, makes them rather unique in the Conservative Party and both are also in positions of influence – hence they were a target for Masot’s machinations.
In addition, this case is also a reflection of the Israeli government’s concern with combating Palestine solidarity activism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign – and a turf war amongst ministries about who is best placed to conduct this counter-offensive.
Masot reportedly claimed he was working for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, while embassy spokesperson Yiftah Curiel said it was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) who “relocated” him to London. It is entirely possible that both are true, of course.
The Guardian has also picked up on a story reported in Haaretz last September, namely that Israeli diplomats in London warned the MFA in a cable that “operations [in the UK] being run by the country’s strategic affairs ministry could be dangerous and counterproductive.”
The original Haaretz piece spoke of the London embassy’s opposition to “the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s coordination of activity against the BDS movement”, accusing the ministry of “‘operating’ British Jewish organizations behind the embassy’s back.”
According to the paper, tensions between the MFA and Strategic Affairs Ministry stem “from the fact that many powers and a lot of funding were taken from the Foreign Ministry and transferred to the Strategic Affairs Ministry under the political agreements between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the former and current strategic affairs ministers, Moshe Ya’alon and Erdan.”
Nonetheless, it is clear that the two ministries do in fact work together when it comes to fighting BDS – as the same article states, “embassy officials met several times with senior Strategic Affairs Ministry officials to coordinate activities against the local [BDS] movement.”
And this brings me to a final point, one that some observers of this scandal may find counterintuitive; the efforts of Masot and his colleagues are a sign of (a newer kind of) weakness.
Israel is a struggling brand, due to decades of occupation and human rights abuses, the long-standing efforts of a grassroots network of Palestine solidarity groups, and an ever-rightward shift in Israeli government policy producing impatience and frustration amongst Israel’s friends.
Some prefer to frame the influence of the Israeli government and pro-Israel lobby groups as contrary to ‘Britain’s interests’, or as a corruption of ‘British democracy’. Actually, the truth is less appetising; Israel lobby groups are pushing at an open door.
Yes, the role of lobby groups and networks is important, in terms of encouraging support from career-minded politicians and intimidating or smearing critics. But the Britain-Israel relationship is strong because British politicians, military and intelligence officials, and business leaders see it is as in their own interests – not because their arms are being twisted.
But there is nothing set in stone about that relationship – the considerations of domestic politics and foreign policy priorities can change. And that’s where the signs of weakness come in.
The response to this story is itself instructive; though some have dismissed concerns with a ‘nothing to see here’ approach, there has been mainstream coverage (The Guardian, BBC, Mail on Sunday, news agencies and so on), and genuine anger from commentators and cross-party politicians.
Why is that interesting? Well, everyone knows that countries and businesses lobby to advance their agendas; thus objections to particular instances are normally because of who is doing the lobbying – i.e. big tobacco, the arms trade – or a state seen to be a serial violator of international norms.
In addition, note a revealing comment made by Masot, where he complains of a problem in recruiting “young people” for Israel advocacy within Labour. He continued:
For years, every MP that joined the parliament joined the LFI. They’re not doing it any more in the Labour party. CFI [Conservative Friends of Israel], they’re doing it automatically. All the 14 new MPs who got elected in the last elections did it automatically. In the LFI it didn’t happen.
This is further evidence of a shift we already know has been taking place for some time now, whereby support for Israel amongst the liberal-left is haemorrhaging. Hardly anyone noticed, for example, Labour MP Sarah Champion tweeting her agreement two days ago, with the statement that Israel is “acting like an apartheid state.”
The efforts of the Israeli embassy and various lobby groups being brought under the spotlight this week are thus a reminder that the Benjamin Netanyahu government and its apologists are very much in panic mode when it comes to the changing public discourse on Palestine. They still have influence – but the ground is shifting beneath their feet.