The Mail on Sunday front page yesterday covered revelations to be aired in an Al Jazeera four part documentary this week which reveals ‘plots’ by an Israeli embassy official to “take down” a Government minister known for his outspoken views on Israel’s illegal settlements, and “set up” pro-Israeli political groups with at least one of them “intended to influence Labour party policy”.
The newspaper reported that Shai Masot, an employee at the Israeli embassy whose credentials have been variously reported as “diplomat”, “political officer” and “senior political officer”, disparagingly referred to Sir Alan Duncan, as “doing a lot of problems” for Israel. Masot is heard in secretly recorded film footage as describing the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, as an “idiot” who is “solid” on Israel but whose Deputy Foreign Minister, Sir Alan, would be the reason “If something real happened”, that is, foreign office opposition to Israeli interests.
Mr Masot is seen with a Conservative party official and civil servant, Maria Strizzolo, discussing how “a little scandal” might be used to embarrass MPs with the pair’s clandestine talks focusing on Sir Alan Duncan and his “taking down”.
The targeting of Sir Alan Duncan should come as no surprise given the Deputy Foreign Minister’s stern warnings about the “settlement endorsement” lobby which has actively frustrated UK foreign policy in the Israel / Palestine conflict and hampered efforts by the British Government to “talk in tough language to Israel”.
In 2014, in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute, Sir Alan sounded warnings about the donor base of political parties and its impact on a party’s autonomy and ability to exercise independence on policy matters saying, “The time has come to make sure above any doubt that the funding of any party in the UK is clearly decoupled from the influence of the Israeli state.”
Sir Alan’s prescient words of caution were also evident in a Mail on Sunday comment piece by a former Conservative Government minister who yesterday wrote: “The CFI [Conservative Friends of Israel] is not affiliated to the Conservative Party. It is incorporated in a way that means it is not to transparent about donors. Yet it arranges for the support of MPs and funds regular visits to Israel which distort the truth. Cameron turned a blind eye to Israeli misconduct – if he ever cared about it – because he was persuaded any criticism would reduce Party donations.”
Peter Oborne in his 2009 documentary for Channel 4, Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby, investigated the links between the Conservative party and the Israel lobby highlighting reactions to the then foreign secretary, William Hague’s description of Israel’s use of force during its 2006 military assault on Lebanon as “disproportionate” and the consequent “explosion among donors”.
Amid other revelations uncovered in the Al Jazeera investigation are boasts by Masot of a £1 million budget to fund trips for Labour MPs to visit Israel, he is seen discussing the matter with Labour Friends of Israel chair, Joan Ryan MP, and attempts to set up “political groups” within the Labour party to influence a new generation of Labour activists.
The Guardian today reveals further footage in which Masot is heard talking about setting up “Young Labour Friends of Israel”, and lamenting the decline in the number of Labour MPs affiliating with the Labour Friends of Israel, in contrast to the Conservative Friends of Israel. In footage captured by Al Jazeera, Masot is heard saying: “Not a lot of young people want to be affiliated. For years, every MP that joined the parliament joined the LFI. They’re not doing it any more in the Labour party. CFI, they’re doing it automatically. All the 14 new MPs who got elected in the last elections did it automatically. In the LFI it didn’t happen. We need to get more people on board. It’s a lot of work, actually.”
Maria Strizzolo, who has since resigned her post at the Skills Funding Agency, was also filmed discussing her efforts to exercise pro-Israeli influence via her role in MP Robert Halfon’s office. Halfon is a former director of Conservative Friends of Israel and is a former Conservative party chairman. In the footage, Strizzolo is heard discussing modes of influence saying, “If at least you can get a small group of MPs that you know you can always rely on, when there is something coming to parliament and you know you brief them, you say: ‘You don’t have to do anything, we are going to give you the speech, we are going to give you all the information, we are going to do everything for you’,” she said.” She also boasts of one instance, in 2014, when she “convinced” Halfon to put a question to the PM David Cameron during Prime Minister’s Questions eliciting a response which was sympathetic to Israel.
The Al Jazeera investigation has prompted Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, to issue a statement calling for an inquiry into the allegations of “improper interference” in the UK’s democratic process by individuals working for, or at the behest of, a foreign state.
But the allegations of “improper interference” go well beyond the most recent disclosures and cover several other revelations which have all pointed to the murky world of lobbying, the lack of transparency over funding arrangements and the ‘undue influence’ exercised by foreign states over British politics.
Al Jazeera’s investigation will revive important questions about the links between the respective political parties and their Friends of Israel groups, as well as wider questions about the poor standards of transparency on party funding and meetings between British politicians and lobbyists. The Labour party is right to call for an inquiry into the revelations about Masot and Strizzolo which have come to light but the terms of any such inquiry must examine the full scope of “improper interference” in British political affairs which have surfaced in recent years.