I was rewarded quite by accident this weekend for a terrible mistake in my previous column for MEMO. Having written about how more British MPs travelled to Israel than any other country in 2016, and the media silence around this stunning fact, by useful coincidence Al Jazeera television has started to publicise the initial results of a six-month undercover investigation into Britain’s pro-Israel lobby. This made the front page of the Mail on Sunday and much TV coverage. It seemed that when faced with incontrovertible evidence of the pro-Israel lobby’s extraordinary influence, the mainstream British media rose to the challenge, and I was proven wrong. It was excellent news.
Following an “apology” by the Israeli ambassador about an embassy official’s claim that he would “take down” Sir Alan Duncan MP — a minister of state — the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has already said that the matter is closed. This was a spineless response to a threat against one of its own ministers; instead, the FCO should have “PNG’d” (designated as persona non grata) the official in question. The prime minister’s office in Downing Street remained tight-lipped.
Moreover, there has been little focus on how the ruling Conservative Party should respond. This was, after all, an intra-Tory plot, with the Israeli official making his comments in the presence of a former aide of Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow and Minister of State for Education. In military terms, this was a serious — pardon the pun — blue-on-blue incident.
Although Halfon’s aide has since joined the civil service, at the time of the discussion with Shai Masot, the embassy’s “political officer”, Maria Strizzolo was acting as chief of staff in the MP’s parliamentary office. Where Halfon’s sympathies lie are clear; he is the former director of Conservative Friends of Israel and was also deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, with responsibility for maintaining party discipline and morale.
What this blue-on-blue plotting highlights is a fundamental divide between the Conservative old guard — sensible Arabist types who realise that championing the Palestinian people is the decent thing to do and that the goodwill of the Arab world is worth a lot more than keeping the Israelis happy — and the new guard, who look to the US Republicans, Israel’s Likud and Tony Blair’s New Labour for their foreign policy views. Typical of the latter is not only Halfon, but also Michael Gove MP, with whom Halfon is allied closely on the Israel issue.
Gove and Halfon played an important role in co-founding the pro-Likud, at least in national security terms, Henry Jackson Society back in 2005. According to a source very familiar with this process, they were the only two trustees to play an “active role” in organising and securing initial funding and wider political support for the group, which has exceptionally close ties to neoconservative Republicans in America. Today it is a prominent think tank which dominates the air waves whenever Israel is inadvertently dragging its name through the mud, often because it has killed yet more Palestinian civilians during one of its periodic invasions of Gaza. The HJS also hosts dozens of American speakers every year of a kind who are opposed strongly to people like Alan Duncan and Crispin Blunt MP, the Tory chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Blunt was also said to be on a “hit list” put together by the Israeli embassy’s Masot. Both Duncan and Blunt are outspoken critics of Israel.
What is sad is that these two Conservative Party MPs represent an admirable pro-Arab tradition in this country which is now being undermined not just by the Israeli embassy, but also by right-wing politicians in the US. It is perhaps no coincidence that Robert Halfon was one of a number of MPs supporting a new Tea Party movement in Britain not long ago, while last spring Gove was flown to the United States by the Henry Jackson Society at a cost of £2,764 to give a speech and receive an award for his work demonising British pro-Palestinian protesters involved in the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement.
The former justice secretary is also associated with a particular pro-Republican think tank in Washington with considerable influence and, amongst other neoconservative stances, a staunchly pro-Likud line on national security policy in Israel. Gove has called one of its analysts a “big influence”, has featured in its documentaries attacking left-wing economics and was even a guest speaker at its 2015 World Forum event. Whether he actually spoke about Israel or not is not an issue; there is no evidence that he did so on that occasion. Yet to understand this tension in the Conservative Party between figures like Duncan and Blunt on one hand, and the likes of Halfon and Gove and their ilk on the other, you have to understand that the party is not just being manipulated by Israeli spin doctors, but it is also infiltrated by US Republican thinking on Middle East affairs.
Duncan is feared by the Israelis because he is influential. This is most likely the reason why he was denied a job at the Foreign Office Middle East department, with probable pressure from pro-Likud and pro-Republican Tories (the two go hand-in-hand). His network of Middle East contacts is unparalleled in parliament today, whereas people like Halfon and Gove only seem to know people in Israel, and have rarely if ever visited anywhere else in the Arab or Muslim world.
The MP for Rutland and Melton in the English Midlands played a very important role in taking down Muammar Qaddafi — worthy of a Hollywood film plot — and has been brought in to broker peace in Yemen. Duncan is also a personal friend of powerful Middle Eastern arms dealers; a former chairman of the pro-Palestinian Conservative Middle East Council; has been the subject of an American intelligence dossier; and attends occasional cabinet meetings as a regional expert. All of that is before you get to his views on illegal Israeli settlements and Israel being an apartheid state.
He is certainly not anti-US; indeed, Duncan is part of a number of foreign policy groups that promote strong relations with Washington. However, he does not support the Republican Party; at the last presidential election he supported John Kerry’s candidacy, the same John Kerry who has just issued a surprisingly strong rebuke to Israel’s ruling Likud Party as he leaves office. That is the kind of approach that should be encouraged in Britain, rather than anything that leads to plots to “take down” ministers.
The fact that this threat came with apparent collusion from within Duncan’s own party, means that the Tories should immediately suspend Robert Halfon and launch an inquiry. This is not the usual kind of tussling between political rivals. It is, as the Labour Party has suggested correctly, a national security issue. I’ll bet it doesn’t happen, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong again.