Britain's Israel lobby

What is it, who's in it and how does it work?

Does the UK have a pro-Israel lobby? And is it as powerful or as prominent as its (in)famous US counterpart? Tonight's Dispatches on Channel 4, fronted by the Daily Mail columnist Peter Oborne, sets out to answer these questions and shine a light on this sensitive subject, one of the few remaining taboos in British politics and British political journalism.

The urge to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism, and the company of neo-Nazi conspiracy theorists, has meant that the rather secretive agglomeration of individuals and groups which lobbies on behalf of Israel -- and often apologises for Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian land -- tends to get very little coverage on television or in print.

Channel 4's decision to commission this film is, therefore, a bold if unpopular move. The pre-publicity for Dispatches mentions Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) , Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) and the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.

There are, of course, many other influential organisations the film could and should touch on -- for example, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which describes itself as "Israel's leading humanitarian and environmental charity" and "entirely non-political", having been founded in 1901 to buy and develop land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. It now owns 13 per cent of the land in Israel. But as one of Israel's leading revisionist historians, Ilan Pappé, writes:

The true mission of the JNF has been to conceal these visible remnants of Palestine not only by the trees it has planted over them, but also by the narratives it has created to deny their existence. Whether on the JNF website or in the parks themselves, the most sophisticated audiovisual equipment displays the official Zionist story, contextualising any given location within the national meta-narrative of the Jewish people and Eretz Israel. This version continues to spout the familiar myths of the narrative -- Palestine as an "empty" and "arid" land before the arrival of Zionism -- that Zionism employs to supplant all history that contradicts its own invented Jewish past.

So what link is there between the JNF and domestic British politics, you might ask? Well, guess who happens to be a JNF patron? None other than our own "neutral" Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. As Mick Napier, chair of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, pointed out back in October 2007, soon after the Prime Minister first accepted the invitation to become patron of JNF-UK:

Gordon Brown may try to pretend that JNF-UK is somehow insulated from the guilt of the JNF's activities in Israel and the occupied territories, but around the world, and in particular in the Middle East, his willingness to support the JNF "brand" will be seen as evidence of the UK's support for Israel's oppression of the Palestinians.

In his comment piece in today's Guardian, Oborne lists influential backbenchers and ministers who happen to be members of CFI and LFI, but adds:

It is important to say what we did not find. There is no conspiracy, and nothing resembling a conspiracy.

Yet, as we demonstrate in Dispatches on Monday night, the financial arrangements of a number of the organisations that form part of the pro-Israel lobby are by no means widely known. The pro-Israel lobby, in common with other lobbies, has every right to operate and indeed to flourish 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 it 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 for all to see.

Who, I wonder, could disagree with any of that?

Disclaimer: I worked as an editor in the news and current affairs department at Channel 4 for two years before joining the New Statesman in June. However, before the more Islamophobic and conspiratorial among you start posting comments claiming a "Muslim hand" behind tonight's film, let me state on the record that I had nothing to do with the commissioning or production of this film -- both of which occurred after my departure from the channel.

 

Sign up to the New Statesman newsletter and receive weekly updates from the team

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.