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.

 

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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.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.