Israel's friends inside the corridors of power

Israel's friends inside the corridors of power
Analysis: All major UK political parties have "Friends of Israel" groups, which have much influence over Middle East policy, says Hilary Aked.
4 min read
29 April, 2015
Israeli support in the UK parliament runs deep [Anadolu]
When considering the UK's position on Israel and Palestine, it is important to explore the various pro-Israel groups within the main political parties.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have "friends of Israel" groups that have significant influence over party policy, and act as a check on anyone who refuses to toe the line.

An estimated 80 percent of Tory MPs are members of Conservative Friends of Israel group.

Last year, its annual business lunch was attended by the prime minister, David Cameron, a number of ministers, 100 MPs, and several peers. The group also organises free trips to Israel, which have been used by many parliamentarians.

The CFI's status as an influential lobby group is in some ways self-perpetuating.

It is seen as a good place to start for aspiring Tories, and those who sway from the pro-Israel line are brought swiftly back into the fold.
     The CFI is seen as a good place to start for aspiring Tories.

In October 2014 after the last Gaza war two MPs, Alan Duncan and Richard Ottaway, publicly criticised Israel. A few weeks later and both were listed as attendees of the CFI's business lunch.

Only Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has been cast out for good after resigning as Foreign Office minister over the "morally indefensible" stance of the British government during the Gaza war.

On the other side of the house is the Labour Friends of Israel. Founded in 1957, it has a longer history than its Tory counterpart.

Since the 1967 war and occupation of the West Bank, the power of the Zionist "left" has declined and many in the Labour party moved away from Israel.

The rise of New Labour, however, has pushed the party closer to pro-Israeli sentiment.

Former prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were members, and ambitious, young Labour MPs are linked to the lobbying group including Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and John Woodcock.

For years LFI's modus operandi has been to gloss over the rightward shift of the Israeli electorate.

After Binyamin Netanyahu's recent re-election, the LFI's director, Jennifer Gerber, said that while Likud's victory was "depressing", Israel was still a "liberal and progressive country".

She trotted out the same points - women and gay rights - that fill the group's booklet The Progressive Case for Israel.

The LFI's line ignores the siege and collective punishment in Gaza, martial law in the West Bank, institutionalised discrimination inside Israel and the longstanding refugee issue.

When Israel launched its assault on Gaza last year, Labour leader Ed Miliband said that Israel had "overstepped the mark". However, he also criticised the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel during a speech to the LFP.

Both Labour and Conservative groups are primarily intended as a forum for MPs supportive of Israel, but membership is not exclusive to MPs - councillors, party members, donors and supporters can also join.
     Jennifer Gerber, said that while Likud's victory was 'depressing', Israel was still a "liberal and progressive country".

The pro-Israel lobby holds marginally less sway in the Liberal Democrat camp. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, did call for an arms embargo against Israel during the bombing of Gaza. However, this was largely lip service and the Lib Dem's influence in parliament is expected to decline after the general election.

There are groups within all three main parties with sympathies for Palestine - Labour has a "Friends of Palestine and the Middle East" group and Labour 2 Palestine, which runs trips to the occupied territories.

The Lib Dems have a Friends of Palestine group and the Tories have a "Conservative Middle East Council", but no specific group focusing on Palestine. None of these groups is as influential as the pro-Israeli bodies.

New parties

One party that looks set to make an electoral breakthrough is UKIP - a populist right-wing party that has been bolstered by rising anti-immigration sentiment and generous media coverage.

UKIP's Friends of Israel group was set up in 2010, is led by Shneur Odze, and the group appears to be flourishing. Tory defector Douglas Carswell spoke at its "largest ever event" last year.

Only the Green party, which has also seen a surge in support recently, has genuinely progressive policies on Palestine.

However, its policy on Israel and Palestine remains unclear. It calls for the recognition of "the right of the state of Israel to exist",  yet suggests that the situation "may be achieved in one state or two".

It calls for Israel to abide by Resolution 194 and allow Palestinians refugees to return to their homes inside Israel's 1948 boundaries. It has also called for the suspension of the EU association agreement with Israel - something that no other major party is willing to call for.

Perhaps most importantly, the Greens' leader, Natalie Bennett, has said her party supports the boycott of Israel.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.