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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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era