Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s Inquiry into the UK’s policy towards the Middle East Peace Process
Submission from Free Speech on Israel
This evidence, prepared by Jonathan Rosenhead, was submitted to the select committee enquiry which was halted owing to the announcement of the General Election. As it is not clear when or whether the enquiry will resume in the new Parliament we are publishing our evidence now. This evidence was submitted on 30 March 2017.
Who we are
- Free Speech on Israel is a Jewish-led group formed in April 2016 out of concerns that the surge in accusations of antisemitism in British public life, and especially within the Labour Party, in no way reflects the reality that we live in. This concern now extends both to the unbalanced media coverage of this issue, and to the Government’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism, which we find to be deeply flawed. See in particular the recently released legal Opinion on this subject.
- Our submission to your Inquiry focusses entirely on point 7: how UK policy is influenced by other states and interested parties. In particular we will address the extent to which the state of Israel has been exerting undue influence on the UK’s policy in respect of that country’s violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people. We start from the evidence revealed in the Al-Jazeera series of investigative reports The Lobby, transmitted in January 2017.
Background to our concern
- Recent events have demonstrated that some national governments have an appetite to intervene in the political processes of other countries. The ability to do so will depend on the resources they can muster – such as electronic capabilities, finances devoted to that purpose, and well-disposed individuals in the target country.
- We further take the view that the formation of foreign policy in the UK (as in other countries) is not conducted only within political parties but involves a wider swathe of think tanks, academic researchers, businesses with spanning interests, influential organisations and individuals, media commentators and so on. Our comments will address that broader matrix.
- We take it that the Committee will not require from us a detailed account of the material revealed by Al Jazeera’s reporter who spent 6 months undercover as a participant in the pro-Israel milieu which reaches into all of the UK’s main political parties. However in summary there was verbatim evidence of
- The establishment at the instigation of the embassy of supposedly independent civil society organisations to campaign in the public sphere for Israeli interests
- The provision of Israeli government finance to support both the Union of Jewish Students and Labour Friends of Israel, and to instigate the creation of Young Labour Friends of Israel
- The flow of funds from the United States, specifically from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to support public advocacy for Israel in Britain
- The close relationship between the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Labour Movement, both through informal meetings and through staff appointments
- Discussion, involving a ministerial aide and an Israeli embassy staff member, of ‘taking down’ a government minister and others.
- There is a plethora of UK-based organisations which take as their major or even entire raison d’ětre the provision of public relations support for the State of Israel. Some of these are based authentically in the UK’s Jewish community – for example the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Zionist Federation.
- However the unanimity of these organisations in springing to the defence of Israel fails to represent the diversity of opinion on this subject among the UK’s Jewish population. A rigorous survey carried out by the Zionist organisation Yachad in 2015 showed that 41% of respondents would not describe themselves as Zionists; and that among younger Jews that same percentage would support sanctions against Israel in order to persuade Israel to agree to meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians.
- Our concern in this submission, however is with those many and well-funded organisations that are not community-based, but whose efforts in support of Israel can reasonably be described as hyperactive. The home web-pages of these organisations tend to deploy a smokescreen of platitudes. They do not reveal the intense and even virulent pro-Israel campaigning (for example, routinely accusing those who criticise Israel of antisemitism) that these groups undertake. For this reason in the listing below, some links have been selected which bring this out more clearly:
- More than half of the organisations listed in paragraph 8 have come into existence only very recently. To these we would also add the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), which has been particularly active in the last 12 months in campaigning for the Labour Party to adopt rules that would make it possible to exclude from membership on grounds of alleged antisemitism those who make a whole range of criticisms of Israel and its policies. JLM is a renaming of the more or less defunct organisation Poale Zion, which had affiliated to the Labour Party in 1920. Its website had been virtually inactive in the period leading up to February 2016 when Jeremy Newmark was appointed as National Chair. Mark Regev took up his appointment as Israeli Ambassador in London in April 2016.
- The rapid expansion of the number and activities of often quite newly formed bodies which in one way or other follow a pro-Israel agenda does raise legitimate concerns about – who owns/controls them; whose aims they pursue; how they are resourced. There is evidence in a range of contexts of the strategy now known as ‘astroturfing’, after a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to resemble natural grass, but without roots.Astroturfing in this context is (see Wikipedia) ‘the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.”
- The Lobby programmes demonstrated this phenomenon in process when the now disgraced Israeli diplomat Shai Masot is shown inviting the Al Jazeera investigative reporter to become chair of a ‘grassroots’ organisation that does not yet exist but which he is planning to establish. The public, and indeed the media who are fed stories by such organisations with no clarity as to their genuine representative nature, surely require a degree of transparency. We will return to this issue.
Diplomacy and spying
- Ex-British ambassador Craig Murray has detected anomalies in the staffing of Israel’s London embassy, which he asserts indicates that there is a ‘nest of spies’ based there. This is based on the presence of 17 “technical and administrative staff” granted visas by the FCO. (Shai Masot was one of these – he did not appear in the official diplomatic list.) An embassy of that size would typically, he says, expect to have one or two staff in that rather lowly grade. Technical and administrative staff would not normally engage in contact-making in the host country’s political class, or interact with the Ambassador, as Masot is shown doing in The Lobby. Murray infers that Masot was working as an intelligence officer (mis-classified, he assumes, with the knowledge of the FCO), acquiring and financing “agents of influence”. There is other circumstantial evidence that supports this hypothesis.
- When the Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister, Gilad Erdan, visited the UK in September 2016, to rally British support for the Israeli fight against BDS and the “de-legitimising campaign”’, Shai Masot was photographed in his company. Erdan’s ministry has the role of co-ordinating security, intelligence and diplomatic initiatives to counter ‘strategic threats’ to Israel. When re-established in 2009 there were just two of these – the possibility of an Iranian bomb, and the growing boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. As a result of international diplomacy it now focusses entirely on the latter. Information on the Ministry is kept deliberately ambiguous, but its budget has been reported as $50m annually. Last September the Ministry was reported to be on a spending spree. The new employees are “mostly former officers from Israel’s intelligence community”, a description which seems to fit ex-military man Shai Masot rather well.
- Just before his visit to London Erdan In September described the UK as “the world centre of the anti-Israel BDS campaign. He said “I’m going there to battle the boycott and delegitimization in every arena, and to discuss with members of the British government – which is also committed to fighting boycotts – ways to strengthen our cooperation against the anti-Semitic boycott campaign.” The Guardian reported a resulting turf war, with Israeli diplomats in London warning that attempts by the Strategic Affairs Ministry to “operate” British Jewish organisations could be unlawful.
- Funding. There is a gross imbalance in resources between organisations dedicated to arguing Israel’s corner, and those which attempt to advocate for the rights of Palestinians. The Israel/Palestine issue is one of active concern and debate in British civil society. It is unhealthy in a democracy if there is reason to believe that foreign state resources are being channelled to tip the scales decisively. We hope that your report will argue that such organisations should be open about any overseas funding that they may receive.
- Membership. It is entirely appropriate within our democratic arrangements for UK organisations to campaign in favour of other Governments and in defence of their actions. Those organisations which have a membership base in effect bolster their arguments with a claim to represent those members. Because of this additional face legitimacy, it is reasonable to expect them to declare how far they are dependent on their members as opposed to external funding. To maintain their credibility we suggest that they should be expected to declare both their number of UK members, and what proportion of their expenses are met from the fees of these members.
- Legitimacy of advocacy organisations. The prevalence of sham, ‘astroturf’, organisations is a worrying development that affects the Israel policy debate in this country but is not limited to it. We suggest that your inquiry recommends an auditable general code of conduct, involving transparency on membership and finance, in order to protect the public from manipulation.
- Antisemitism. The Israeli government is actively promoting an association between pro-Palestinian campaigning and antisemitism. For the past year pro-Israel lobbying organisations in the UK have engaged in alarmist allegations about the extent of antisemitism on the left, and in organisations supporting the rights of the Palestinians. Last December the UK government ‘adopted’ a definition of antisemitism promoted by supporters of Israel, which has already provoked some public bodies to obstruct events dealing with Israel/Palestine issues. However the legal opinion published on March 27th points out that the adoption of this definition has no legal effect; that vague and confused drafting renders interpretation problematic; and that there is a danger that public bodies that rely on it may violate statutory protections for free expression. We suggest that your enquiry should conclude that this definition is not fit for purpose and should be withdrawn.