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Smears and astroturfing: UK Israeli embassy's techniques revealed Open in fullscreen

Hilary Aked

Smears and astroturfing: UK Israeli embassy's techniques revealed

Al Jazeera Investigations film senior political officer Shai Masot while undercover [screengrab Al Jazeera]

Date of publication: 10 January, 2017

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Comment: Shai Masot's unguarded comments suggest that Israel's UK 'grassroots' are actually more 'astroturf'; operating effectively as front groups for Israeli state power, writes Hilary Aked

Extraordinary footage captured by an undercover reporter posing as a Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) activist has revealed the modus operandi of the UK Israel embassy in London.

Its techniques include political "hit lists" and establishing front groups.

In one clip, Shai Masot, a senior political officer at the embassy, suggested he wanted to "take down" certain British MPs; they included the Deputy Foreign Minister Alan Duncan and chair of the Foreign Affairs committee Crispin Blunt - both of whom have been critical of Israeli settlements.

Maria Strizzolo, then chief of staff to Tory Party deputy chair - and Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) stalwart - Robert Halfon, responded "Well, you know, if you look hard enough, I'm sure that there is something that they're trying to hide." Later she added: "A little scandal, maybe."

Keen observers have been aware for years that Israel and its supporters favour smear campaigns, and have little respect for democracy. I've personally learnt that Israeli embassy staff are less-than-diplomatic behind the scenes.

The latest dramatic proof of this prompted an apology from the Israeli ambassador, coupled with unconvincing attempts to portray Masot as more junior than his title suggests. Strizzolo resigned. Yet rather than Masot being immediately expelled, the Foreign Office sought to put the matter to bed, saying it considered the issue "closed" following the apology.

Keen observers have been aware for years that Israel and its supporters favour smear campaigns, and have little respect for democracy

Incredibly, the pro-Israel editor of the UK's Jewish Chronicle even downplayed the seriousness of the Israeli representative's comments, suggesting it was the "best evidence they've got of a so-called plot". In fact, more revelations followed.

A second video shows Masot - who appears to work for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, leads Israel's fight against the pro-Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement - explaining that the embassy has helped to establish political groups in the UK, but has kept its assistance secret. He says "it's good to leave those organisations independent. But we help them, actually."

Later he discussed wanting to set up a group called City Friends of Israel with the help of US Israel lobby group AIPAC. He also had plans to establish a youth wing of LFI, whose chair Joan Ryan he assured he had obtained a promise of "more than £1 million" to finance trips for a list of Labour MPs whose names LFI had apparently submitted to the embassy.

This confirms what had already been suggested in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which described "the creation over the last four years of a network of more than 40 pro-Israel organizations throughout Britain" and credited the embassy's Ishmael Khaldi as "one of the key people responsible for building the pro-Israel network in Britain".

A second video shows Masot explaining that the embassy has helped to establish political groups in the UK, but has kept its assistance secret

As journalist Ben White observed in October 2016, the Israeli embassy's director of public affairs Rony Yedidia-Clein has also stated, in a video of a public talk, that the embassy had helped to "set up friends of Israel organisations around the country", citing the examples of Inverness Friends of Israel and Jersey Friends of Israel.

Yedidia-Clein said she worked with a "whole team" of people to do this and one person she shared credit with was an audience member called "Stephen" – likely Stephen Jaffe, grassroots consultant of the Board of Deputies, who believes that the Israel lobby functions best "when leadership and grassroots combine". He is also co-chair of Northern Ireland Friends of Israel which has hosted several Israeli embassy speakers.

  Read More:  Israel’s counter-boycott campaign: all coercion, no moral persuasion

Like Jaffe's Northern Irish group, ostensibly independent local organisations such as Glasgow Friends of Israel and West of England Friends of Israel have hosted speaking events for Israeli embassy figures. Might they too be less "grassroots" and more "astroturf", operating, effectively as front groups for Israeli state power?

Notably, these last three bodies all feature on a list of groups compiled by We Believe in Israel, a side-project of major UK pro-Israel group BICOM, set up in 2011 to mobilise civil society in support of Israel.

We Believe boasts that "Over the last few years we have seen the growth of friends of Israel groups covering nearly every corner of the UK" and its director, Labour activist Luke Akehurst, has spoken alongside the Board's Stephen Jaffe at the launch events of several such groups, including the East Midlands and Merseyside.

Their existence is designed to give the impression to policymakers that support for Israel runs deep

The proliferation of local pro-Israel groups established in a top-down, centralised way should be understood in the context of growing anxiety in pro-Israel circles about overwhelming public support for Palestinians, demonstrated not only by the huge popular protests in 2014 during Israel's Operation Protective Edge but also growing support for the BDS movement to boycott Israel.

Many of these pro-Israel groups consist of merely a handful of Christian Zionist pensioners. But their existence is designed to give the impression to policymakers that support for Israel runs deep, beyond influential elite lobby groups like LFI and CFI. The reality is that this is largely an illusion - if it wasn't, such groups would spring up spontaneously without needing to be conjured into life by the Israeli embassy.

Talk of creating pressure groups within Labour and "take downs" of pro-Palestinians also raises significant questions about the long-running and mostly highly tenuous claims of "anti-Semitism" against some figures within Labour critical of Israel. Though there remains no hard evidence that the Israeli embassy had a hand in the saga, it now seems more credible - and less conspiracy theory - to suggest that it may well have done.

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom.

Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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