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Al Jazeera revealed much more than one embassy employee’s misconduct

Image of Shai Masot [Electronic Intifada/Twitter]
Image of Shai Masot [Electronic Intifada/Twitter]

For many who follow the Palestinian cause closely, Al-Jazeera’s six-month investigation into the activities of the Israeli Embassy’s political wing feels like a watershed moment. The years of being called anti-Semitic for believing that the pro-Israel lobby has too much sway in Westminster have been vindicated by incontrovertible evidence of the embassy not interacting with the government of the day — which is legitimate diplomatic activity — but actually trying to influence the internal operation of Britain’s political parties; indeed, to “take down” a minister of the Crown.

The former CIA station chief Robert Grenier wrote perhaps the best response to the scandal for Al-Jazeera; it is worth reading in full, as he summed up the diplomatic angle well: “The fact that Mr Masot, the Israeli operative, is so careful to ensure that Israeli fingerprints are kept hidden, and that his own role, beyond that of an overt advocate for Israel, is both discreet and deniable, may give us a hint — as does the rather unseemly haste with which Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador to Britain, has of late disavowed Mr Masot’s activities.” Grenier then gave an example of perhaps where he had himself contemplated similar actions in his shadowy past. “These activities would be perfectly legal if openly performed by legitimate entities… but would be thoroughly illegal if promoted in secrecy by a foreign power. And therein lay the critical difference.”

The Jewish Chronicle, which once held a far more questioning view of the Israeli state than it does today, has — surprise, surprise — only published pieces critical of Al-Jazeera, using falsehoods in the process. “Boastful idiots do not a plot make,” judged JC Editor Stephen Pollard. “After six months of secret filming, this is all Al-Jazeera could come up with — the stupid bragging of two junior aides with close to zero influence.” Of course, as Pollard must know very well, the clip of Shai Masot discussing with a former aide to Robert Halfon, the former political director of Conservative Friends of Israel and co-founder of the influential Henry Jackson Society think tank, wasn’t all that the Qatar-based media giant came up with; far from it, in fact. Pollard’s pomposity was his attempt at damage limitation.

The full documentary ran to a little short of two hours, and detailed how the Israeli Embassy was providing covert assistance to supposedly independent groups within the Labour Party; how jobs at the embassy were being offered to groom young Labour activists; and how concerned the embassy was with removing not just Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan, but also Crispin Blunt MP, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (both of whom are Conservative MPs), as well as Jeremy Corbyn MP, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. (Without a trace of irony, a “related story” was advertised next to Pollard’s rebuke entitled, “Concern as Alan Duncan Gets FCO Post” and dated July 2016.) David Aaronovitch wrote for the JC that Al-Jazeera had claimed that the lobby was “uniquely effective” and “uniquely powerful,” when the documentary makers had not, in fact, made any such claim. Perhaps the only element of his analysis that was correct was that Shai Masot was clearly incompetent.

What Masot did was clearly wrong, which is why he has been forced to resign and leave the country. It is also why the Israeli ambassador felt obliged to apologise to the British government and distance himself from Masot and his statements. Yet there was one intriguing section of the undercover video sections of the documentary which revealed something more; not a conspiracy, but psychosis.

Joan Ryan, the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, was filmed talking with a pro-Palestinian activist who seemed genuinely interested in how LFI’s support for a two-state solution was manifesting itself. Ryan soon tired of this questioning, possibly because there is no convincing response you can give when LFI’s political position is to support a two-state solution, while also supporting a state which is not interested in a two-state solution. Eventually, the activist, whose life has no doubt been ruined by the accusation which came next, asked what was being done with the influence that LFI has. It was a reasonable question, but you could almost see Ryan’s eyes light up in anticipation. Was the activist, who wore a Palestine Solidarity Campaign lanyard, about to conform to the stereotype that Ryan no doubt already held about her?

The MP for Enfield North told her this was an “anti-Semitic trope,” and then began alleging to colleagues in private and public that the activist had suggested that working at LFI would later get you a job in banking. She had actually said nothing of the sort; she had simply related the true story that her friend’s son had got a job at LFI and then got a job at Oxford University, which is not a financial institution. As the filming wore on, you could almost see the idea turning over in Ryan’s head; a fiction that she was, no doubt, unaware her imagination was creating for her.

So convinced was Ryan that she had just witnessed anti-Semitism that she convinced her parliamentary assistant to provide testimony for an official complaint to the Labour Party. The undercover filming demonstrated clearly that he wasn’t sure whether the comments were anti-Semitic or not, but he decided to go along with it anyway. The filming then revealed a discussion with the director of Labour Friends of Israel, who said that she too wasn’t sure whether the incident was anti-Semitic or not.

It is this refusal to give Palestinian activists the benefit of the doubt, and to leap upon every possible instance of a possible hint of a possible smell of a possible whiff of a possible indicator of anti-Semitism, that puts these Labour activists in a different category to Masot. He was acting malevolently, and they were acting benevolently, hard as that may be to accept. They honestly believe that they are protecting the world against anti-Semites, but because of this psychological urgency, so keen has their smell for anti-Semitism become that they “scrape the barrel,” as Israeli historian Ilan Pappé put it so well, to ensure that their psychological affliction is fulfilled. They are so addicted to the idea that pro-Palestinian activists are anti-Semitic, that I think they must honestly believe that they all, indeed, are.

I don’t know what the answer is to what is, after all, simply an observation. How can you deal with those pro-Israel activists who are not conspiring to smear people as anti-Semites, but who imagine anti-Semitism where it simply does not exist? It’s yet another problem for the pro-Palestinian side to grapple with. Contrary to the Jewish Chronicle’s claims, Al-Jazeera exposed much more than a single Israeli Embassy employee’s misconduct; much, much more.

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