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Hilary Aked

It's time for transparency on Friends of Israel donors

The Israel lobby is one of the most powerful in British politics, [AFP]

Date of publication: 1 February, 2017

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Comment: Calling for transparency is about democratising UK politics. It should be the rule for everyone from arms dealers to pharmaceutical and energy companies, writes Hilary Aked.

Al Jazeera's recent documentary The Lobby shone a spotlight on the activities of party political Friends of Israel groups.

Filmed undercover, the investigation showed just how closely organisations such as Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) work with the Israeli embassy.

But how have LFI and its Tory party equivalent Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) managed to evade critical scrutiny for so long prior to this? One of the answers is that these pro-Israel groups operate inside parliament in a very opaque way because of their legal status.

LFI is a so-called "unincorporated association" and was registered with Companies House in April 2015. CFI was incorporated in 2012 and is looked after by the firm Shelley Stock Hutter LLP. Neither is therefore officially affiliated to its respective party.

Peter Oborne is one of the few journalists who has highlighted the limited transparency this entails.

MPs are still required by Electoral Commission rules to declare trips taken to Israel funded by LFI and CFI. But we know relatively little about how the groups themselves are funded. Their finances remain shrouded in veil of considerable secrecy.

Given that UK MPs made more junkets to Israel last year than to any other country – one of LFI's most recent was a so-called "fact-finding" trip for deputy Labour leader Tom Watson MP - this ought to be cause for concern.

But opacity has been the rule now for decades: LFI was founded in 1957 and CFI in 1974 and both have managed to evade the incremental improvements in parliamentary accountability brought in over the years. 

But rather than come clean about their funding, senior figures seem intent on smearing honest critics as anti-Semitic

In 2009, CFI disputed figures calculated by Channel 4, which claimed that individuals associated with the group had donated £10 million to Conservative candidates over eight years. 

And, this month, LFI said that a conversation, filmed by Al Jazeera, between disgraced Israeli embassy employee Shai Masot and its chair Joan Ryan MP - about £1 million worth of funding provided by the Israeli government - had "nothing whatsoever" to do with LFI delegations.

Yet if CFI and LFI were open about their donors, estimations, undercover investigations and disputes like this would not be necessary. Importantly, increased transparency would also take the wind out of the sails of genuine anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which circulate online.

  Read More: Smears and astroturfing: UK Israeli embassy's techniques revealed

But rather than come clean about their funding, senior figures seem intent on smearing honest critics as anti-Semitic. Ryan herself levelled this accusation at a fellow Labour party member who merely pointed out that the group had "a lot of money" and "a lot of prestige".

The fact is these groups are indeed highly influential. Approximately 80 percent of Tory MPs are believed to be members of CFI. Former Tory MP Michael Mates claimed it was "the most powerful" political lobby group in UK politics.

Opacity has been the rule now for decades

LFI is less influential that it was during the Blair years – and Masot expressed concerns that young MPs were less keen to be associated with the group than previously – but it remains active and well-connected. It has also given money to Blairite pressure group Progress.

It's certainly no "Jewish cabal", however. It's a collection of MPs - most of whom are not Jewish - who support Israel for a mixture of motivations. Some are ideologically Zionist; others are convinced close ties to Israel are good for the UK's economy; still others are personally ambitious and believe pro-Israel groups are a vehicle to advance their political careers.

It's also not a problem unique to Israel-focused groups but goes much deeper than that.

Earlier this month, an investigation was announced into the numerous All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), believed to be a "back door" to access and influence, and a "dark space" for informal, covert lobbying in Westminster.

But pro-Israel groups are some of the largest and most influential. And they've been implicated in parliamentary scandals before. 

Although there is a major democratic deficit around foreign policy, it's wrong to portray the latest scandal as purely a question of foreign influence

For example, revelations about the activities of Adam Werritty which forced Liam Fox to resign notably involved Conservative party and pro-Israel lobby donors Mick Davis, Michael Lewis and Poju Zabludowicz (who all donated to Werritty's company, Pargav, either directly or via companies).

Longstanding CFI director Stuart Polak, meanwhile, was caught up in a 2012 lobbying row over his dual role with CFI and consultancy firm The Westminster Connection, whose clients include Israeli arms company Elbit.

But although there is a major democratic deficit around foreign policy, it's wrong to portray the latest scandal as purely a question of foreign influence.

It's not only external actors such as the Israeli embassy involved. The UK government did not launch an inquiry because Boris Johnson lacked "patriotism", as Peter Oborne has implied, but because he himself is a staunch supporter of Israel.

Calling for transparency is about democratising UK politics. It should be the rule for everyone from arms dealers to pharmaceutical and energy companies.

It is high time for full transparency about donors to all groups lobbying for influence – and that includes the "Friends of Israel".


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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