After the Trump administration ignominiously called time on the Palestinian diplomatic mission in the US less than two months ago, the top PLO diplomat in Washington, Dr Husam Zomlot, was assigned to more familiar surroundings in Britain to take charge of the London Embassy. This week, in a meeting to mark his appointment, he opened up about his time in the US and his vision for the future.
Speaking to a room full of civil society leaders, charities and campaign groups, Zomlot expressed his appreciation of the support given for Palestine and its people before proceeding to address a number of issues, including the anti-Semitism row that has rocked the British Labour Party. Many people in Britain have denounced the allegations of racism within the party as an attempt to criminalise pro-Palestinian activism by the “weaponisation” of ant-Semitism. Set against the backdrop of Brexit, the rise of the far-right, growing anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish bigotry, London this summer looked as though it had become ground zero in the global propaganda war against Israel’s attempt to build a firewall against legitimate criticism of its policies.
The Israelis have long considered Britain’s capital as one of the global centres of activism against their country’s ongoing occupation of Palestine. They view the rise of pro-Palestinian activism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign with trepidation and seek to neutralise it before it has had the chance to become as powerful as the Anti-Apartheid Movement against the racist white-minority government in South Africa during the 1980s.
London’s diverse society has shown that it has a unique DNA in the fight against racism which, if mobilised properly, can be a potent force. The capital has a rich history of organising effective campaigns against human rights abuses, notably in its resistance to apartheid. The appointment of Mark Regev, widely regarded as Benjamin Netanyahu’s most trusted mouthpiece and propagandist, to head the Israeli Embassy in London in April 2016, was a signal that Israel saw Britain as a key battleground in the narrative battle.
Despite spending time in Washington, which is often regarded as the global centre of pro-Israel activism by powerful lobby groups like the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Ambassador Zomlot showed his audience on Wednesday that he is up-to-speed on the situation in Britain, where he studied for his Master’s and PhD at the London School of Economics. He explained that he knows first-hand what it is to face discrimination, having been born into a Palestinian refugee family in the southern Gaza Strip. Like the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza, his family was ethnically cleansed from their land inside what is now Israel, and forced into a cycle of indignity and despair for no reason other than that they were not Jews. His experience as a child, he stressed, made him acutely sensitive to all forms of racism and discrimination.
“Nothing gets me going more than fighting against discrimination,” he pointed out, “including anti-Semitism.” His condemnation of anti-Semites as well as Israel’s decision to appoint Regev — well-known for seeking to justify war crimes against the Palestinians in Gaza — as its ambassador in 2016, implied that he concurred with those who say that the row over anti-Semitism in Britain and the Labour Party had less to do with real bigotry and hatred against Jews, and was more about protecting Israel from criticism.
Such a belief is well founded. In the period since the appointment of Regev, the Israeli Embassy has been at the centre of alleged plots to “influence” British student movements, lobbying groups and politicians. An undercover investigation by Al Jazeera exposed senior embassy official Shai Masot discussing how to “take down” pro-Palestinian MPs, including the then Conservative Minister of State at the Foreign Office, Sir Alan Duncan.
Israel is also suspected of running a campaign through its embassy against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose pro-Palestinian stance has made him a prime target for pro-Israel lobbyists. Individuals connected with the Israeli Embassy have lobbied extensively for the Labour Party to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition and examples of anti-Semitism that were at the centre of the row over the summer.
The unprecedented level of aggression displayed by pro-Israel groups in conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel — orchestrated by its embassies around the world — is a consequence of Tel-Aviv’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs outsourcing much of its anti-BDS activity and pro-Israel campaign to foreign countries. The Guardian’s feature on this subject reveals the establishment and financing of front groups and partner organisations, in an attempt to minimise the appearance of Israeli interference in the domestic politics of its allies in Europe and the US.
Described as “PR commando units” these groups receive millions of dollars from the Strategic Affairs Ministry. The links between the ministry — described by many as Israel’s global propaganda arm — and British Jewish community organisations, have become a cause of concern. A number of openly pro-Israel groups have registered charity status in the UK, which should mean that they are limited in the amount of political activity that they can be involved in. However, this has not stopped the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA), for example, which was part of a coalition of British pro-Israel Jewish organisations spearheading the “anti-Semitism” attack on Jeremy Corbyn. Their activities are the focus of an investigation by the Charity Commission, the official charity regulator in Britain.
A blueprint for confronting the challenge posed by Israel’s PR campaign was proposed by Husam Zomlot. Enlisting the support of organisations well-versed in standing against human rights abuses and apartheid, the Palestinian Ambassador suggested that one way to advance the cause of the Palestinians in Britain is to utilise existing laws in this country.
For example, he reminded the groups present at the Palestine Embassy meeting that it is already illegal for anyone to import goods originating in Israel’s West Bank and Jerusalem settlements into Britain. All Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, and the government in Westminster has committed itself to the labelling of settlement produce. While these regulations have been in existence for several years, though, Britain has shown no appetite for enforcing them in any way. A related provision also makes it illegal for British tourist groups to visit settlements across the occupied Palestinian territories. Again, this is ignored. Zomlot made the case that there ought to be nothing easier than to get a democratic government that believes in the rule of law to uphold its own laws.
All legal routes to advance Palestinian rights should be pursued with greater intensity, insisted the Palestinian envoy, including the opening of a criminal investigation against Israel at the International Criminal Court. This is a strategy that has landed the Palestinian leadership in hot water in Washington and is one of the reasons for the Trump administration closing the Palestinian Mission in DC and expelling Zomlot and, controversially, his family. Such treatment of a diplomat’s immediate family has been described as serious diplomatic malpractice. Aside from anything else, given the unprecedented move by the State Department, this suggests that a sustained legal campaign to hold Israel accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity has the potential to hit the Zionist state hard.
In contrast, British officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have given Ambassador Zomlot a warm welcome and have said that they look forward to working with him. Despite being in a friendlier environment in London, he admits that one of his biggest challenges will be to reclaim the Palestinian narrative and return his people’s cause to its rightful place as a universal issue supported across the political spectrum.
This is a formidable task. For years, and to the detriment of the Palestinians — not to mention peace and stability in the Middle East — justice for them has been portrayed inaccurately by pro-Israel lobbyists as one belonging to the “regressive left” and “Islamists”. The deployment of such rhetoric has succeeded in displacing the Palestinian cause from the mainstream political agenda; such has been the potency of Israel’s divisive and misleading tactics, not to mention the millions of dollars spent on them.
In an ideal world, reclaiming the moral high ground shouldn’t be too difficult in the light of Israel’s contempt for international laws and conventions, but the Trump era has boosted the pro-Israel lobby no end. Will Dr Husam Zomlot be the person to set the Palestine-Israel narrative back on track as one based on the law and justice? There are many here in Britain — and in Palestine and its diaspora — who believe that he is.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.