Special report by Russell Bruce
Hardly a month goes by but it seems there is a delegation of elected Tory parliamentarians on a paid visit to Israel, courtesy of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI). This August it was the turn of five conservative members of the Welsh Assembly to get a freebie trip.
In August 2016, just after the Scottish Parliamentary elections, the then Tory whip, John Lamont led a delegation of nine Tory MSPs on a visit to Israel, again arranged by CFI – a Westminster based organisation that has obviously decided to extend these all expenses paid trips to devolved parliaments.
Since the 2015 General Election CFI have organised 17 trips of UK Tory parliamentarians to Israel and these arrangements go back years. The membership fee is £10 a year and 80% of Westminster Tory MPs are said to be members. The total membership is said to be around 2000 and no doubt includes many conservative supporters from business and other parts of society – those categorised as ‘influencers’.
We are used to all-party parliamentary groups but the singularity of CFI party membership and its dominance within the Conservative party raises questions of the influence of this lobbying group embedded in the Palace of Westminster. It amounts to lobbying on an industrial scale.
The trips seem a well-trodden path and designed to indoctrinate participants on Israel’s security concerns with visits included to borders with Syria and Lebanon. The Israelis are very sensitive about their borders and ports as I discovered on a 1980’s trip to Israel with my wife and daughter. Border security took a particular interest in my video camera.
I am not suggesting that ordinary parliamentarians have been doing anything wrong, as long as they record full value of the trip in their register of parliamentary interests. There are questions though as to whether they are wise in taking these trips to military zones of particular geopolitical sensitivity. Britain and the international community does not recognise the incorporation of these border areas into Israel. The Israelis know that backbenchers might one day rise to positions of influence. Contact has been established, nobody keeps files with the ruthless efficiency of Israeli security.
PROTOCOL AND FUNCTIONAL GOVERNMENT
As honorary president of CFI, Tory Peer Lord Polak’s arrangements in this case fall outside the norms of diplomatic protocol. Polak directly organised 12 meetings for the Priti lady, including one with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without knowledge or involvement of the diplomatic service.
Such protocols exist for a reason, not least the protection of the minister. No minster should go into meetings with senior politicians of another power without diplomatic service backup, thus ensuring proper notes of the meeting are recorded. Priti Patel as International Development Secretary was not part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office team. She was effectively indulging in a freelance ‘foreign policy initiative’.
Boris Johnston is the Foreign Secretary and is quite capable of blundering into regions where relations are complex and highly sensitive on his own. Patel creating havoc in an important country in the Middle East underlines the dysfunctional and uncoordinated operational activities of May’s government.
Boris has been tottering on the edge as Foreign Secretary and is an international embarrassment. Patel has probably saved him for another day.
ISRAEL IS AN ALLY BUT BRITAIN DOES NOT RECOGNISE ITS BORDERS
The international development Secretary’s visit to the Israel Defense Forces field hospital in the Golan Heights was particularly sensitive. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War. Britain, along with the rest of the international community does not recognise Israel’s 1981 incorporation of the Golan Heights into the State of Israel or the establishment of Israeli settlements in the area.
The Independent reported that the Netanyahu meeting and Patel’s idea of providing aid to the IDF field hospital on the Golan Heights were discussed between May and Patel at the UN meeting in New York in September. May is reported as saying any UK aid plan would need to be ‘signed off by the Foreign Office’.
This would appear to be confirmed by a report in the Jewish Chronicle:
“Downing Street officials confirmed on Tuesday that the International Development Secretary discussed the idea of giving the Israel Defence Force British foreign aid to help fund a relief effort for Syrian refugees entering the Israeli occupied Golan Heights.
“Ms Patel then asked officials from her department to examine whether public money could support humanitarian operations in occupied parts of the Golan Heights, near the Syrian border.”
Theresa May’s spokesman said, “The Secretary of State did discuss potential ways to provide medical support for Syrian refugees who are wounded and who cross into the Golan for aid.
“The UK does not provide any financial support to the Israeli army.”
That is clear. Downing Street knew and Downing Street said no to a matter that Patel should never have considered in the first place.
JUST A FREELANCER ON HOLIDAY
Patel met with Netanyahu on 22nd August. Later that day Middle East minister Alistair Burt and Tony Kay, the deputy British ambassador in Israel, met Michael Oren, Deputy Minister at the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.
The Jewish Chronicle reported that in the notes of Burt’s meeting, Oren had referred to Patel having had a successful meeting with PM Netanyahu earlier. It is understood that this information was then conveyed to Number 10.
In other words Patel was found out. It was not a matter of owning up to a meeting arranged in secret. Did the Israelis really think Patel was that incompetent, yet the absence of officials must surely have been noticed by Netanyahu?
The furore in the UK is not understood in Jerusalem according to Haaretz. “In Israel, politicians and pundits shrugged their shoulders. ‘So what?’ one Israeli official asked. ‘She met with Netanyahu without telling the ambassador? That’s a reason to fire her? It must be an anti-Israel reaction.”
This is an odd Israeli response. Israel is very sensitive to matters affecting the actions of the Israeli state, and is very aware of western states sensitivity in their relations in a systemically unstable region. Perhaps Trump methods of informality in conducting international relations are seen as the new normal.
Lord Polak has spent his life building the influence of Conservative Friends of Israel. He is an experienced operator and said to have been really ‘chuffed’ that David Cameron gave him a peerage in 2015. Well versed in the way these visits have to be managed yet he arranged 12 high profile private meetings for Patel.
She was supposed to be on a family holiday to Israel. In the event another two meetings with Israeli officials took place including later, it emerged, in London. Lord Polak is said to have attended 13 of these. Did nobody remember the cause of Liam Fox’s downfall over including his chum Adam Werritty in official meetings?
Who goes off on a family holiday knowing the holiday diary is filled with meetings with politicians, officials and leaders of a foreign power? In believing them to be private and secret, Patel and Polak were guilty of extraordinary naivety, either that or they believed they were protected somehow further up the chain.
BALFOUR DECLARATION CELEBRATIONS
Up until a few days ago they thought they had pulled it off. The celebrations over the centenary of the Balfour Declaration on 2nd November must have appeared a fitting tribute to securing UK Israeli relations.
Nothing is ever that straightforward. The Balfour Declaration, issued during WWI, was a piece of political engineering to bring Zionist interests behind Britain’s war effort in the Middle East. This was the age of colonisation and Britain saw opportunity to expand their influence from Egypt east and north. Control of Palestine was the goal.
The original Balfour declaration as published in the Times read: His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…
This is something quite different from the establishment of a Jewish State and Lloyd George understood the right of self-determination could not apply in an area inhabited by Palestinians. Palestine remained a ‘British Protectorate’ and the region saw further conflict during WWII. The British Mandate for Palestine ended with the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. Britain withdrew after suffering losses to Israeli freedom fighters.
The old League of Nations objective to see the establishment of a Palestinian State as well as the Jewish state of Israel remains unfulfilled. The Balfour declaration centenary was no more than an opportunity to draw the UK ever closer to Israel. Israel knows Britain is a bit short of friends and possible trading partners post Brexit.
It is not surprising there are trading links between the UK and Israel. Elbit Systems, an Israeli aerospace and defence company, makes Watchkeeper, an unmanned aerial drone used by the British Army. There is a connection to Lord Polak. He is advisory chairman of TWC Associates, which the FT describes as a strategic consultancy that advises on how “clients can best be plugged into the political process”.
Elbit is a client of TWC Associates. It is known that some Conservative Friends of Israel on MP trips include visits to Elbit Systems headquarters. What an extraordinary coincidence!
JOHN LAMONT’S ISREALI FREEBIE
John Lamont, an MP since this year’s general election, led the delegation of Tory MSPs as reported in a later article in the Herald:
During the trip Lamont said that anti-Israel sentiment was being spread where people were telling the Scottish public “that Israelis are bad and Palestinians are good and then sign up to some boycott”.
He added: “That’s not based on any properly informed position, because nobody’s given them the alternative views. So part of this exercise [taking lawmakers to Israel] is making sure that more and more people are getting at least a balanced position and a positive view of Israel.”
It is not surprising that those who support Independence have sympathy for the plight of the people of Palestine just as they are concerned by the failure of democratic processes in Spain. It does not mean we are unable to take a balanced view of the issues on both sides that make the objectives of the League of Nations in the Middle East seem ever out of grasp.
Lamont’s defence of the trip sounds like a diversionary excuse. If there is a genuine interest for Scottish MSPs to visit Israel or any other part of the world the best way to achieve that is through a parliamentary all party delegation. Officially arranged and ensuring MSPs are not subjected to undue influence. A single party delegation paid by a lobbying group with extraordinary reach and influence is always open to the potential of compromise.
THE REAL COST OF THESE TRIPS
That is an impossible question to answer in this article. The CFI have recorded donations of £377,994 to the Conservative party with the Electoral Commission since 2004, mostly in the form of sponsored trips to Israel.
When groups arrive in Israel they become the responsibility of the Israeli government. The protection of elected parliamentarians in a high-risk region would be an obvious concern.
What I can talk about is my experience of our genuine family trip to Israel from Cyprus. On boarding the ship that would take us to the Port of Haifa we were met by Israeli border and security personnel. We had to hand over our passports for retention and logging. It was a Greek ship so this was an unusual first entry point. Throughout our stay in Israel our guides were in constant contact with Israeli Security Services. This itinerary was changed at times because of incidents that needed resolution before we visited certain parts of Jerusalem.
On the return bus journey to the Port of Haifa we happened to be in a bus with few visitors. The other occupants were a good dozen Israeli security personal who had been looking after us. We had no idea so many were involved. They were dropped off near the port leaving only a handful of us for the remaining short distance. Many more would have been on the streets of Jerusalem not to mention the armed police and constant army presence.
Altogether these trips are undoubtedly a very expensive operation. CFI and the Israeli government obviously consider it worthwhile as a means to further Israeli interest.
PLANT A TREE FOR ISRAEL
I spent most of my teenage years in a part of Glasgow with a large Jewish population. I was impressed by my friends’ campaign to Plant a tree for Israel. They helped turned a desert into a new nation with determination and vigor. We should not forget that.
Nor should we cease to criticize actions of the far right Likud party led by Netanyahu that do not help towards achieving a peaceful and sustainable Palestine State and the fulfillment of the aims of the League of Nations. Activity on the Arab side is also not always conducive to peace.
Finally I own up to my enthusiasm for Jewish humour. So let me conclude with a favourite story. A young reporter hears of a man who for sixty years has prayed at the Wailing Wall every day without fail. She watches and patiently waits until he leaves the Wall and walks towards her.
Reporter: Is it true you have not missed a day in 60 years?
Reporter: And what do you pray for?
Man: I pray for peace and a world where Jews and Arabs live in peace and prosperity
Reporter: And what does that feel like?
Man: Like I am talking to a wall
Endnote: The ScottishTory MSPs who visited Israel on a Conservative Friends of Israel sponsored visit in August last year, including the Golan Heights, were:
John Lamont, Rachel Hamilton, Douglas Ross, Dean Lockhart, Maurice Golden, Oliver Mundell, Jamie Greene, Ross Thompson and Annie Wells.
They were accompanied by the director of the Scottish Conservatives, Mark McInnes.