..Now I want to ask a question that has never been seriously addressed in the mainstream press: is there a Pro-Israel lobby in Britain, what does it do and what influence does it wield?..
In 2007 two US academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, published a study of what they called the US Israel lobby, exploring in particular the connection between the domestic power of the lobby in the United States and US foreign policy. The book caused controversy in the United States and even in Britain.
No comparable study has ever been made in this country. Indeed the pro-Israel lobby is an almost completely unexplored topic…
Making criticisms of Israel can give rise to accusations of antisemitism – a charge which any decent or reasonable person would assiduously seek to avoid. Furthermore most British newspaper groups – for example News International, Telegraph newspapers and the Express Group – have tended to take a pro-Israel line and have not always been an hospitable environment for those taking a critical look at Israeli foreign policy and influence. Finally, media critics of Israeli foreign policy – as we will vividly demonstrate in this pamphlet – can open themselves up to coordinated campaigns and denunciation.
Whether as a result of these pressures or for some other reason, mainstream political publishing in Britain tends simply to ignore Israeli influence. Andrew Marr’s Ruling Britannia: The Failure and Future of British Democracy contains not a single mention at all of either Israel or the Israel lobby. Nor does the Alan Clark’s The Tories, or Robert Blake’s The Conservative Party from Peel to Major.
Similarly the presence of an Israel lobby as a factor in British public life is systematically ignored in British reporting…
The purpose of this pamphlet is to enquire whether this paucity of public coverage is indeed a reflection of the real influence of the pro-Israel lobby in British government. In our voyage of discovery we have interviewed MPs, leading Jewish intellectuals and academics, diplomats, newspaper editors and others.
However, many people just don’t want to speak out about the Israel lobby. So making our film at times felt like an impossible task. Privately we would be met with great enthusiasm and support. Everyone had a story to tell, it seemed. Once the subject of doing an interview was raised the tone changed; “Anything at all I can do to help…” quickly became “Well, obviously I couldn’t.” or “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to.” Many people who privately voiced concerns about the influence of the lobby simply felt they had too much to lose by confronting it. One national newspaper editor told us, “that’s one lobby I’ve never dared to take on.” From MPs, to senior BBC journalists and representatives of Britain’s largest charities, the pattern became depressingly familiar. Material would come flooding out on the phone or in a meeting, but then days later an email would arrive to say that they would not be able to take part. Either after consultation with colleagues or consideration of the potential consequences, people pulled out.
Some had more reason than others. Jonathan Dimbleby had boldly expressed criticism in a powerfully argued article for Index on Censorship of the pressure from pro-Israel groups on the BBC, which led to the BBC Trust’s report on Jeremy Bowen, and had initially been keen to be involved. Suddenly his interest evaporated. There simply wasn’t the time, he said. At first we felt baffled and let down. But in due course we discovered that his comments had brought a complaint from the very same lawyer, Jonathan Turner of the Zionist Federation, that had complained about Jeremy Bowen. Dimbleby is now going through the exact same complaints process that he criticized. Turner is arguing that Dimbleby’s comments make him unfit to host the BBC’s Any Questions. The Dimbleby experience serves as a cautionary tale for anyone approaching this subject. Others, such as Sir John Tusa, who had opposed the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee Gaza appeal, were overcome with modesty, feeling that they simply didn’t have the expertise to tackle the subject.
Indeed we found it almost impossible to get anyone to come on the record when we tried to investigate the BBC’s decision not to launch the Gaza humanitarian appeal. Here is a list of the organisations which told us that to speak publicly about the BBC’s refusal to screen the DEC Gaza appeal would be too sensitive: the Disasters Emergency Committee, Amnesty, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children Fund and the Catholic agency CAFOD. Only one of the organisations involved in lobbying on behalf of Israel, the Britain Israel Research and Communications Centre (BICOM), were willing to put forward an interviewee.
It was equally hard to find a publisher for this pamphlet. One potential publisher told us: “I don’t think that our donors would like this very much.” Another fretted that his charitable status would be compromised. One MP taunted the authors that we would never “have the guts” to make a television programme about the pro-Israel lobby. It was, he told us, “the most powerful lobby by far in parliament. It’s a big story. If you have any balls you’ll make a programme about it.” When we returned to the MP later on to ask if he would talk to us on the record, he felt unable to come forward and do so. One front bench Conservative MP was so paranoid he insisted we remove the battery from our mobile phones to ensure our privacy during the conversation.
It was only senior MPs whose careers are winding down that felt able to voice what many MPs told us in private. One of them, Michael Mates, a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee and former Northern Ireland minister, told us on the record that “the pro-Israel lobby in our body politic is the most powerful political lobby. There’s nothing to touch them.” Mates added: “I think their lobbying is done very discreetly, in very high places, which may be why it is so effective.”…
For the thirty-five years the CFI has existed, the Conservative Party, both in government and opposition, has taken a strongly pro-Israel stance. The CFI alone cannot take the credit for this. Indeed other factors – above all, British subordination to US foreign policy – are considerably more significant. Nevertheless, no political lobby inside the Conservative Party – and certainly no longer the Brigade of Guards – carries comparable weight.
Whereas the CFI has the luxury of working with the grain of the Conservative Party, the Labour Friends of Israel has tended to face a considerably tougher job. There is a much stronger Labour tradition of supporting Palestinian causes since the 1967 war, where Conservatives are more likely to instinctively assume that Israel is in the right. The visceral anti-Americanism of many Labour MPs also plays a role here.
The LFI was founded in 1957 at a public rally at that year’s Labour Party Conference. It describes itself as “a Westminster based lobby group working within the British Labour Party to promote the State of Israel”. It has very close ties with the Israeli Labor Party, and British Labour Party figures like Philip Gould have given training to Israeli politicians in electoral strategy. For that reason the LFI is perhaps less unquestioning in its support of the Israeli government than the CFI. The two lobby groups both work closely with the Israeli embassy and even share supporters, such as the businessmen Victor Blank and Trevor Chinn, but they work independently within their respective parties.
Labour Friends of Israel has taken more MPs on trips than any other group. Only the CFI comes close. Since 2001, the LFI has arranged more than sixty free trips for MPs…
One of Tony Blair’s first acts on becoming an MP in 1983 was to join Labour Friends of Israel. He remained close to the group throughout his career, regularly appearing at their events. Jon Mendelsohn, a former chairman of the LFI, and now Gordon Brown’s chief election fundraiser, speaking in 2007, described Tony Blair’s achievement in transforming the Labour Party’s position on Israel. “Blair attacked the anti-Israelism that had existed in the Labour Party. Old Labour was cowboys-and-Indians politics, picking underdogs to support, but the milieu has changed. Zionism is pervasive in New Labour. It is automatic that Blair will come to Labour Friends of Israel meetings.”
Blair succeeded in making the Labour party more attractive to donors connected with the Labour Friends of Israel. The key figure in building these relationships was, of course, Michael Levy.
Blair met Levy in 1994 at a dinner party thrown by Gideon Meir, number two at the Israeli Embassy. Blair was just back from a trip to Israel with the LFI.
The two men quickly recognised the mutual benefits offered by the relationship. By early 1995, Blair was leader of the opposition and he dropped in on his new friend for a swim and a game of tennis almost every weekend. Levy had been collecting donations to a blind trust, known as the Labour Leader’s Office Fund, raising nearly two million pounds, a sum “previously unimaginable for a Labour leader”.14 Blair maintained that he was unaware of the sources of these donations despite being in almost constant contact with Levy and even meeting some of the donors…
According to Levy, the subject of Israel was second only to fundraising in his conversations with Tony Blair. Levy is estimated to have raised over fifteen million pounds for Blair before the “cash for peerages” affair brought Levy’s fundraising to an end in the summer of 2006.
In addition to the Murdoch press, the Telegraph Media Group and Express Newspapers have tended to support Israel. So has Associated Newspapers, though to a less obvious extent. There are, however, two important media organisations, which have consistently sought to report fairly from the Middle East and present the Palestinian point of view with equal force to the pro-Israeli government line. These are The Guardian and the BBC. These two organisations have been subjected to ceaseless pressure and at times harassment both from the Israeli government itself and from pressure groups…
BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, is Britain’s major pro-Israel lobby. Founded in 2001 as an equivalent to America’s hugely influential AIPAC, it is bankrolled by its Chairman Poju Zabludowicz, a Finnish billionaire and former arms dealer. Over the past three years Zabludowicz has given over two million pounds in donations. This year, they sent thirty representatives to the AIPAC conference in America, a sign of BICOM’s growing ambition.
Incredibly, almost no one we interviewed for the film had even heard of Zabludowicz, a key player at the heart of the pro-Israel lobby in Britain. Our questions continually met with blank expressions from senior politicians and people in the Jewish community. Zabludowicz fiercely guards his privacy and does so with great success despite his wife being a renowned art collector, and counting Madonna and other A-list celebrities among close personal friends.
Zabludowicz’s father, Shlomo Zabludowicz, made his money through Israeli arms manufacturers Soltam Systems, a company, which continues to thrive and recently provided the IDF with artillery for its Gaza campaign. Poju Zabludowicz also ran Soltam, but has since moved his money from arms into property. He is now estimated to own around forty percent of downtown Las Vegas.
Far more significantly, we have discovered that he owns property in the illegal settlements in the West Bank…
Zabludowicz believes Israel suffers unfairly from an image problem with Palestinian propaganda swallowed too readily by European liberals. He hoped to create one lobby that oversaw media and politics in the style of AIPAC, but met with resistance from the parliamentary Friends of Israel groups, guarding their patch. He does, however, play a role at Conservative Friends of Israel as a significant donor. He has also established a relationship with David Cameron, the man almost certain to be Britain’s next prime minister.
In September 2005 when Cameron was planning his Conservative leadership election campaign he met Zabludowicz for a coffee. Zabludowicz was suitably impressed with what he heard, and Cameron received £15,000 from Zabludowicz over the course of his election campaign.22 To ensure that the donations complied with election law, he made the donations through his British subsidiary Tamares Real Estate Investments…
A Short Summary of Recent Relations Between Britain and Israel Since 1997 there has sometimes appeared to be an assumption at the highest levels of British government that the interests of Israel and Britain are identical. For example, during Israel’s catastrophic invasion of the Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the Blair government failed even to call for a ceasefire.
The idea that British and Israeli foreign policy interests should be the same is, however, relatively new. While Britain played a famous role in the creation of the Israeli state, for a long time after World War Two it was never afraid to criticise Israeli foreign policy…
This influence works in a variety of ways: the unceasing cultivation of British MPs; political donations; availability of research briefs; brilliant presentation of the case for Israel. The Israel lobby has enjoyed superb contacts at the very top of British politics, and never hesitated to use them. As we have shown in this pamphlet, it has used them at key moments; for instance the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon three years ago and the publication of the Goldstone Report into alleged war crimes during the invasion of Gaza earlier this year.
Beyond these specific examples of influence, there is also a wider presence. The Friends of Israel groups in the House of Commons have firmly established themselves in the interstices of British political life. ..
The Pro-Israel lobby and British-Jewry
There is one final set of questions to be asked. Who does the pro-Israel lobby represent? Is it mainstream British-Jewish opinion or the state of Israel or neither? More likely, it exerts pressure for a particular set of interests within Israeli politics. Globalisation has led to a wide and welcome recognition that we all have multiple legitimate interests and identities. There are countless good reasons for the interests of Israel to have a place in UK politics and vice versa, not only because of interests of State, but also because there are many British subjects who have direct legitimate interests and concerns for what happens in Israel and vice versa. The reason we need to ask who or what is represented by the UK’s pro-Israel lobby is precisely so that we can understand what effect UK policy does actually have in Israeli politics and whether these legitimate interests are effectively being promoted…
Summary and Conclusion
Israel is a wonderful and extraordinary country with a rich and flourishing democratic history. Founded in terrible circumstances in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust and World War Two, it has a profound right to exist. But this moral legitimacy does not mean that the foreign and internal policies of Israel should be exempt from the same kind of probing criticism that any independent state must expect. Nor does it mean that the rights of Palestinians to their own state can be ignored.
The pro-Israel lobby, in common with other lobbies, has every right to operate in Britain. But it needs to be far more open about how it is funded and what it does. This is partly because the present obscurity surrounding the funding arrangements and activities of organisations such as BICOM and the CFI can paradoxically give rise to conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact. But it is mainly because politics in a democracy should never take place behind closed doors. It should be out in the open and there for all to see.
Of course, this question is especially difficult to answer because the main pro-Israel lobbying organizations do not have a transparent financial structure. It is impossible to state with confidence that they receive all their money from British sources. Indeed we have discovered that the biggest funder for BICOM is not a British citizen, but a Finnish business tycoon with a commercial interest in a shopping centre in Ma’ale Adumim, a West Bank town regarded in international law as an illegal settlement. One of the enduring paradoxes of the discussion of Israeli foreign policy is that it is much more contested and debated inside Israel than outside.