Al-Jazeera’s four-part film The Lobby broadcast earlier this month was event TV at its best. The undercover documentary shone a light on how the pro-Israel lobby operates in Britain, providing viewers with insights into some of its most underhanded methods.
The headline finding, of course, was the discovery of a plot by a senior political officer at the Israeli embassy, Shai Masot, to “take down” senior foreign office minister Sir Alan Duncan, as well as other MPs deemed critical of Israeli policy. Masot was even shown in the film calling Duncan’s boss Boris Johnson an “idiot”. It was clearly not very diplomatic language for a supposed diplomat. Masot was caught on an undercover camera discussing a “hit list” of MPs with Maria Strizzolo, a civil servant and aide to Robert Halfon, a notoriously pro-Israel Conservative MP.
The embassy issued a grovelling apology to Johnson, and Masot and Strizzolo were both swiftly thrown under the metaphorical bus in order to kill the story in the national press. Strizzolo was fired and Masot went back to Israel, his career ambition to lead the foreign ministry’s “intelligence” department hardly likely to have been furthered by the exposure of his clumsy covert antics. Johnson himself said in parliament that whatever Masot “might exactly have been doing here, his cover can be said to have been well and truly blown.”
Last week, Duncan posted on Twitter a photo of himself posing with the Israeli Ambassador, Australian-born Mark Regev, shaking hands and grinning. All was forgiven, it seemed.
However, Regev did not look particularly cheerful in the photo. Had he just received a private dressing down? That seems rather unlikely given the Conservative government’s resolutely pro-Israel stances. One of the most striking things about the documentary was the way that the pro-Israel lobby is quite often pushing at an open door, especially when it comes to the governing Conservative Party.
Strizzolo, for example, boasted on camera about how easy it is to get most Conservative MPs to do the bidding of pro-Israel activists, detailing how she would write prepared questions for MPs to ask the prime minister in parliament. “If you do everything for them it’s harder for them to say, ‘I don’t have the time, I won’t do it’,” she claimed.
Discussing the lay of the land in parliament with undercover reporter “Robin”, Masot explained that whereas new Labour MPs once joined Labour Friends of Israel automatically, the group’s influence has now waned. However, he said that the parallel group, Conservative Friends of Israel, was still very influential, with most Tory MPs joining as a matter of course.
In the Tony Blair years, LFI was viewed in much the same way, but the group’s influence in Labour has been shrinking slowly for years. This has followed a process within the trade unions of transferring their focus to policies far more critical of Israel, with every major union endorsing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in one form or another.
The Lobby showed how the advent of a long-term supporter of Palestinian rights as Labour leader has had the pro-Israel lobby even more on the back foot within the party. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn meant a slightly panicked reaction, with the lobby helping to manufacture an “anti-Semitism crisis” within Labour’s ranks.
As my reporting showed last year, this was an almost entirely invented story, a classic example of fake news. Fabricated instances of anti-Semitism, along with a handful of marginal examples, were blown up into constant high-profile press attacks on Corbyn for supposedly “tolerating anti-Semitism” in his party.
The Al-Jazeera film showed how the Israeli Embassy, in the person of Shai Masot, encouraged this fake story, and how the pro-Israel lobby in some cases fabricated instances of “anti-Semitism”. Masot encouraged pro-Israel activists within the Labour Party to pursue Jackie Walker, an anti-racist activist and anti-Zionist Jew suspended from the party after making comments critical of the Jewish Labour Movement’s pro-Israel definition of “anti-Semitism” at a training event.
Labour Friends of Israel’s chair, Joan Ryan MP, was caught on camera by Al-Jazeera’s reporter concocting a story about an “anti-Semitic” attack on her stall at the Labour Party conference last September, one that she fed on to a high profile JLM “rally against anti-Semitism” and to the pro-Israel Jewish News, which reported it.
Ryan claimed that Jean, a Palestine Solidarity Campaign supporter, had harangued her with a conspiracy theory about LFI securing its people jobs in “banking”. In fact, as the film proved, Jean had related the factual story about a friend’s son whose former position at LFI had helped secure a job at Oxford University.
There was more that came out in the film, with important revelations about the way that the lobby influences student politics. The series was a watershed, and something that Palestine solidarity activists will be drawing on for years to come. While in some ways there was nothing totally unexpected, having strong suspicions and an educated analysis is one thing, but having hard proof caught on camera is something else.
Despite the government’s attempt to bury the story, anger has been growing at the pro-Israel lobby’s influence, even in Conservative circles. And a petition on the UK Parliament website calling for a government investigation into the lobby has been signed by more than 5,200 people at the time of writing.
Investigations into Strizzolo and one pro-Israel figure in the National Union of Students have been announced, and the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (also on the “hit list”) has announced his desire to investigate the affair. The government’s move to draw a line under the affair may yet be foiled.