Harold Macmillan once remarked that: ‘There are three bodies no sensible man ever directly challenges: the Roman Catholic Church, the Brigade of Guards and the National Union of Mineworkers.’ Today it’s tempting to add a fourth name to this list: the Conservative Friends of Israel.
The CFI counts an estimated 80 per cent of Tory MPs among its members. It can whistle up cabinet ministers for its dinners and has superb access to Downing Street and Whitehall.
This week, the CFI pulled off what looks like yet another coup with the remarkably muted British government reaction to Israel’s killing of approximately 60 and wounding of more than 2,500 Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border.
Belgium and Ireland have called in their Israeli ambassadors for a dressing down. South Africa and Turkey have recalled their ambassadors to Israel. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson and Middle East minister Alistair Burt urged restraint but were careful to blame ‘extremist elements’ among the Palestinians for exploiting protests ‘for their own violent purposes’.
In Tuesday’s emergency debate, one Tory backbencher after another rallied to Israel’s cause, reiterating Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that Hamas, not Israel, is to blame for the massacre. Robert Halfon, former political director of the CFI, slammed Hamas for ‘using some of these civilians as shields to bring terrorists into Israel’.
No mention of the fact that, at the time of writing, not one Israeli has been killed and only one soldier lightly wounded by shrapnel.
In the light of all this, it’s time to ask a rude, never before asked question. What’s the point of being an uncritical cheerleader for Israel in Westminster and Whitehall?
There is a core justification for Britain’s deep friendship with Israel. It is reiterated endlessly at CFI events: Britain and Israel share the same magnificent moral outlook. Michael Gove, one of Israel’s strongest supporters in the cabinet, has written a book, Celsius 7/7, in which he says that Israel ‘embodies Western values’. Gove describes Israel as the only state in the Middle East ‘where governments change as a result of democratic elections, the press is free, the courts fair, the officials uncorrupt, contracts are enforceable and political opposition integral to the culture’.
Fair enough. But when Israel turns its back on the superlative moral code we allegedly share, doesn’t that mean we should say so? Isn’t that what friendship is all about? That’s why I believe Conservative Friends of Israel has an obligation to speak up for those values when they are violated.
Yet CFI never does so. I am not talking here just about its lamentable failure to condemn recent Israeli military actions in Gaza. It never makes a noise about Israel’s illegal settlement building programme. It never points out the damage these settlements inflict on the peace process. It never rebukes what can only be called the naked racism of Netanyahu and his ministers.
Here’s one recent, horrifying example. In January, Netanyahu’s culture minister, Miri Regev, shared a video of herself beaming at a football match surrounded by fans of the football team Beitar Jerusalem. They were chanting ‘Burn down your village’ at the opposing Arab fans. She cannot be blamed for the disgusting behaviour of a football crowd. But her posting of a video of their murderous chants on her public social media account was a clear endorsement of their calls for ethnic cleansing.
Silence, as ever, from the CFI. This brings me onto one of the most troubling paradoxes surrounding this too rarely examined pressure group. Does it really support Israel and the values it claims to embody? Or is it simply the London outpost for Netanyahu’s Likud party?
Remember, Gove’s claim that Israel has a vibrant civil society and free press is completely true. Try reading the Haaretz, Israel’s equivalent of the Guardian.
Plenty of Israelis feel shame and horror at the racist conduct of right-wing ministers like Regev or Netanyahu himself, who warned that ‘hordes of Arabs’ were voting in the 2015 general elections. There is deep dismay about the immoral acts of the Israeli state. Look at the forensic work done by the human rights groups B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, or the reporting by Haaretz.
This view is never reflected by the CFI. I have searched through its recent public statements and I have been unable to find a single criticism of any kind of the Netanyahu government.
So I approached CFI’s executive director, James Gurd, and asked if this were true. And if it wasn’t true to provide me with an example. I approached him twice. Answer came there none.
I also asked him whether he agreed with the disturbing remark by Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman in April that ‘There are no innocent civilians in Gaza’. I asked him whether the CFI agreed with the country’s ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, that the country’s actions in Gaza were ‘measured and surgical’. Again, answer came there none.
He merely provided a bland statement of regret for Monday’s killings and general defence of the Israeli position.
CFI is very good at what it does. Since 2015 alone, it has taken 119 Tories on education trips to Israel. By contrast, the Conservative Middle East Council, the group run by Tory backbenchers Sir Hugo Swire and Sir Nicholas Soames that purports to stand up for Palestinian rights, has not taken a single Tory to Gaza or the West Bank since 2012. Repeat: not one.
But the scale of CFI domination in Britain’s ruling Conservative party causes problems. As the debate in the Commons on Tuesday showed, only one side of the story is heard. This isn’t good for the Conservative Party. This isn’t good for Britain. It’s horrible for the Palestinians, who, unlike Israel, don’t have any Conservative ‘friends’. And it may be worst of all for the long-term prospects for Israel, which lacks the trusted truth--teller it desperately needs at times like this.