Is there nothing special about the pro-Israel lobby in Westminster? Patently not. There is nothing special about large amounts of money — be they from left-wing trade unions; neoliberal City bosses; ideologues of all political persuasions; or Eurosceptics and Europhiles — being splashed about in attempts to influence government policymakers. By “nothing special” I actually mean nothing unusual, not nothing objectionable. Lobbying is a fact of life in Westminster, as it is in any political capital, anywhere in the world.
What is remarkable, though, is how trade union money given to the Labour Party is criticised regularly by the right-wing media, and the left-wingers do the same about hedge fund managers (and the influence of the Saudi Arabian, Emirati or Russian lobbies is also fair game), yet there is one country whose attempts to manipulate British public opinion are effectively taboo for open discussion. It is as if the Embassy of Israel in London is an empty facade manned by cardboard cut-outs not diplomats; groups like Conservative Friends of Israel or Labour Friends of Israel or BICOM are nothing more than fancy websites run by ghost writers; the leaked documents from plush pro-Israel fund-raising events are fabricated; and the junkets organised for British parliamentarians to go to Israel — which are reported widely in the Israeli media — never really take place. Such is the apparent blackout of all of these within mainstream media coverage.
I have recently discovered that pro-Israel groups conduct more overseas trips for British MPs than any other foreign advocacy groups. An analysis of all the trips made by parliamentarians which were registered in the Electoral Commission database in the past year shows that a total of thirty-four all expenses paid trips to and from Israel were registered by pro-Israel lobbying groups in 2016 for the benefit of mainly Conservative MPs and organised predominantly by Conservative Friends of Israel. No other foreign states received as many British MPs as Israel did over the past twelve months.
Outside the Middle East, the next highest number of overseas visits took place in China. With a population one hundred and seventy times larger than Israel’s, and a GDP of $11 trillion compared to Israel’s $300 billion, it is perhaps understandable that so many MPs want to visit China. Why, though, are so many evidently very keen to visit Israel? This is an entirely legitimate question to ask, as is what material effect did these trips to Israel have?
It should be said first, however, that Middle East junkets to other countries also take place, albeit far less frequently. Only eleven MPs were flown to Saudi Arabia, while the United Arab Emirates accounted for ten trips; and Qatar and Bahrain, which accounted for six and seven trips respectively, were also listed in the data I analysed. There was, moreover, extensive media coverage of Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, including a BBC Newsnight presenter tweeting about one of these trips; and the Guardian has done some excellent exposures of the repeated favours that were done for the United Arab Emirates. The Daily Mail headlined one investigation with, “The shadowy nexus of PM’s cronies that secretively lobbied for Middle East paymasters.” Just imagine if the Mail had replaced the words “Middle East” with “Israeli” and the outrage that would have followed. Accusations of anti-Semitism would have flown thick and fast.
Of course, Israel and Britain do have a special history; this is the centenary year of the Balfour Declaration, for example, which was the letter from Britain’s then foreign secretary promising support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Nonetheless, it is clear by juxtaposing the current policies of the British government towards Israel, the activities of MPs who return from Israel junkets, as well as the significant donations from pro-Israel donors to Britain’s major political parties, that MPs’ visits to Israel are not being funded out of mere goodwill. Nor, indeed, is goodwill behind such visits paid for by the UAE or Saudi Arabia. In all cases, they are funded and facilitated because they are in the national interests of the countries involved.
The data I looked at comes from the Electoral Commission Register, which requires all MPs to register donations from domestic donors, as well as trips abroad paid for by special-interest groups. There is a very good reason for this database’s existence; the public have a right to know whether or not there could be a conflict between Britain’s national interest and that of the other state involved. More importantly, the British people need to know if MPs’ decisions could be influenced more by alien states than the wishes of their constituents or party policy.
What we are currently being denied is any serious mainstream media coverage of the extraordinary efforts made by such a relatively small country — Israel — to lobby and influence British government policy. The Electoral Commission record does not even include trips by ministers, secretaries of state or the prime minister, which account for many more interactions between the pro-Israel lobby or Israeli government and the British government. Nor does it include the hundreds of younger political party activists who are flown back and forth to Israel each year.
Of course the effectiveness of any lobby has limits, and the pro-Israel lobby is no exception. It failed to stop the Iran nuclear deal and even failed to stop Britain voting against Israel’s illegal settlements in last month’s UN resolution 2334; its influence is such, however, that Prime Minister Theresa May almost fell over herself in apologising after the UN vote.
The lobby has not failed in other crucial areas, though, notably with the Israeli embassy in London — and even Israeli ministries — seeking to prevent the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement from taking part in legitimate protest against Israel’s policies; lobbyists are proving themselves to be effective in bullying British magazines and newspapers to adjust their coverage to better suit the pro-Israel palate. The lobby transformed David Cameron from a Prime Minister-in-waiting who thought Gaza was a “prison camp” and was willing to call Israel’s military actions “disproportionate” during the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, into, quite possibly “the most pro-Israel British PM ever.” At the end of last year, the current Middle East minister started by pouring cold water on the idea of a government-sponsored celebration of the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, before appearing at a Conservative Friends of Israel event days later saying that he couldn’t wait for it to happen.
That more MPs went to Israel than any other country on the planet, in a year where the country has been accused of tipping towards the far-right in a way not dissimilar to the United States, Hungary, the Netherlands and France — arguably even more so — should be newsworthy. It is not, apparently, because too many editors are afraid of being labelled “anti-Semitic”. Anti-Semitism is indeed a terrible crime, but reporting on the political contacts between Britain and Israel — and the MPs’ junkets that help to sustain them — simply isn’t. We need more information and discussion, not less.