At a Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) business lunch in 2006, Prime Minister David Cameron stated that he is not only a proud Conservative Friend of Israel, but that he is proud of the central role Friends of Israel plays in his party. Friends of Israel (FI) is a lobbying group with branches in each of the three major British political parties. Since FI boasts 80% of Conservative MPs as its members, it is important to ask how influential the lobby truly is and whether it is to be deemed pernicious.
The Israeli lobby is involved in two main public domains: politics and media. Its influence in the political sphere is attested, for instance, by the fact that the two Prime Ministers preceding Cameron had a deep connection with pro-Israel lobbies. One of the first things Tony Blair did once he became an MP in 1983 was to join the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI). After his election in 1997 he appointed Michael Levy, a Jewish businessman, former board member of the Jewish Agency and chief fundraiser for the New Labour, as the government’s envoy to the Middle East raising obvious issues over conflict of interest.
Gordon Brown, the day after becoming Prime Minister in 2007, accepted the post as Patron of the Jewish National Fund, an organisation responsible for the land from which Palestinian refugees were evicted. Just like Tony Blair, Gordon Brown received generous donations from people closely linked to the Israeli lobby. David Abrahams, a Jewish millionaire and member of LFI, donated £600,000 to the Labour Party, causing a scandal when it was revealed that the donation was not – contrary to British electoral regulations – publicly announced. Gordon Brown then made Jon Mendelsohn, ex-chairman of LFI, as his chief fundraiser for the 2010 elections and James Purnell, also an ex-chairman of LFI, secretary of state for culture, media and sport.
The link between lobbying in the political and in the media domain is easy to spot. For instance, once Lorna Fitzsimons, member of LFI, lost her seat as Labour MP in 2005, she was made chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). BICOM is reputed to be the main pro-Israel lobby group in the media. Founded in 2001, BICOMs main source of income is Paju Zabludowicz, a man who inherited a fortune from his father Shlomo, the founder of Soltam (an Israeli arms company).
Many major British media outlets have succumbed to some sort of pressure from organisations within the Israeli lobby. BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen was investigated by the BBC’s editorial standards committee after the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) complained about some of Bowens reports from Jerusalem. Bowen had merely stated the common known fact that Israels occupation of the West Bank is illegal under international law.
Sam Kiley, former correspondent for The Times, resigned after publicly stating that since the newspaper had been bought by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, known to have business interests in Israel, it had become impossible to write freely about Israeli policies. Kiley concluded that no pro-Israel lobbyist ever dreamed of having such power over a great national newspaper.
Perhaps the most explicit case of the lobbys pressure in the media was when David Seaman, at the time Israeli Government press office director, boasted to have been behind the decision to remove the award-winning Guardian correspondent Suzanna Goldenberg from her post in Israel.
Although the pro-Israel lobby in the UK cannot claim as much influence as the renowned lobby in the US, it has made remarkable achievements. Lest the mentioning of these facts be interpreted as typical anti-Semitic propaganda, it needs to be noted that lobbying is certainly not new in the British political system, counting among the groups also the Muslim Friends of Labour, an organisation which has itself been embroiled in a scandal involving illegal donations to Gordon Brown. Furthermore, Israeli lobbies in the media have been described by Dennis Sewell, a journalist of the New Statesman, as nothing more than a two-men-and-a-dog operation located above a shop.
The fundamental faults with the pro-Israel lobby, namely using money through donations instead of factual argumentation in order to convince MPs of the righteousness of their cause, is a sin it shares with all the other lobbies and is thus not unique to it. What distinguishes it is the particularly delicate area of influence, namely politics in the Middle East. At a time of sweeping changes in the Middle East where US influence is waning and with it the Israeli cause, it goes against the governments interest to be seen as unconditionally siding with Israel.
Also, since the lobby’s fundraising has been tainted by scandals and given rise to conflicts of interest it makes the political establishment look murky to the public. Further, its pressure in the media has arguably biased information, attacked reliable journalists and, at least in some cases, prevented freedom of speech, a constitutional right. Although the lobby is no grand Jewish conspiracy, it does seem to have a considerable degree of negative impact on public domains. It is thus in the public and governments interest to distance itself from it.