Attempt to raise storm when MP questions ambassador’s loyalty
By Martin Bright, Jewish Chronicle
A Labour MP has caused outrage by suggesting that Britain’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel has divided loyalties because he has “proclaimed himself to be a Zionist”.
Challenged by the JC to clarify his comments about Matthew Gould, who took up the post last year, Paul Flynn, the Labour MP for Newport West, said ambassadors to Israel had not previously been Jewish “to avoid the accusation that they have gone native”.
Britain needed, he said, “someone with roots in the UK [who] can’t be accused of having Jewish loyalty”.
The Foreign Office and MPs from across the political spectrum sprang to Mr Gould’s defence and condemned the remarks.
Middle East Minister Alistair Burt said: “Paul Flynn should take some time to consider his comments, which could easily be misconstrued. There is absolutely no reason why our ambassador to Israel should not be Jewish. Any allegations about Matthew Gould’s conduct are utterly unsubstantiated. He is a first-class ambassador.”
Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said: “The faith of any British diplomat is irrelevant to their capability to their job. To make suggestions otherwise is wrong and offensive.
“On a personal note I know from my time in government Matthew Gould embodies all that is good in British diplomacy.”
Mr Flynn’s initial comments came during an inquiry last Wednesday by the Public Administration Select Committee into the role of the head of the civil service. The present incumbent of the post, Sir Gus O’Donnell, was being questioned about his investigation into Adam Werritty, the controversial adviser to former Defence Secretary Liam Fox.
Mr Flynn asked about meetings between Mr Werritty and Mr Gould. Mr Gould previously served as a diplomat in Iran and some reports have speculated that he, Mr Werritty and Dr Fox discussed a potential military strike on Iran with Mossad.
“I do not normally fall for conspiracy theories, but the ambassador has proclaimed himself to be a Zionist and he has previously served in Iran, in the service,” said Mr Flynn.
He said doubts had been raised about Mr Gould’s loyalty by two of his constituents, Pippa Bartolotti and Joyce Giblin, who had been held in prison in Israel after taking part in the “flytilla” demonstration against the Gaza blockade in July.
“When they were briefly imprisoned in Israel, they met the ambassador, and they strongly believe… that he was serving the interest of the Israeli government, and not the interests of two British citizens,” he told the committee.
Ms Bartolotti is the deputy leader of the Green Party in Wales and stood against Mr Flynn at the last election.
Mr Flynn’s fellow committee member, Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow, objected to the comments: “Mr Flynn is implying that the British ambassador to Israel is working for a foreign power, which is out of order.”
Mr Flynn told the JC he was asking for transparency about the Werritty-Gould meetings because he was worried that “neo-cons and war-mongers” were fomenting war against Iran.
He said he stood by his comments to the committee, including his questions about Mr Gould’s loyalty to the UK.
“In the past there hasn’t been a Jewish ambassador to Israel and I think that is a good decision – to avoid the accusation that they have gone native.”
Mr Flynn added that the same question of divided loyalty would apply to anyone with a “foreign” family background, including former Foreign Office Minister Denis MacShane, whose father was Polish.
“Imagine Denis MacShane as ambassador to Poland? Heaven forbid,” Mr Flynn said.
But the MP insisted that he was a friend of Israel and had visited the country four times, including once with his family on holiday.
Louise Ellman, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, said: “I am astounded by these unfounded insinuations. Matthew Gould has a high reputation as an outstanding representative of the UK government.”
In a joint statement, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council said: “It is deeply disturbing to suggest that certain parts of public service are out of bounds for British Jews and a slur on the professionalism of a British ambassador who is widely recognised for effectively representing Britain’s interests.”
On her discussions with Mr Flynn, Ms Bartolotti said: “I questioned the wisdom of having a Jewish Zionist ambassador in Israel and stated that their loyalty was a matter for the FCO to investigate.
“I also questioned the motive for keeping British citizens in jail without charge, when the Australian consul had intervened and the two Australian women were allowed passage to Bethlehem.
“My grandfather was Jewish, I have no problems with Jews or Isaelis.”
Ms Bartolotti added: “The Vice -Consul was called Levi. From the university of life I have learned that Jews often have a conflict of interest in matters relating to Palestine.
“That does not make them bad people (we all experience some form of bias).
“It does, however, leave them open to criticism when travellers such as myself are prevented from visiting Palestinian people.
“I would also add that when I filled a van with dental equipment for my sucessful overland trip to Gaza, most of the donations came from good-hearted British Jews – information I was glad to pass on to the people of Gaza.”
By Jennifer Lipman, Jewish Chronicle
The Labour MP at the centre of a storm over his suggestion that the British ambassador to Israel could be disloyal because he is Jewish has complained that he has been treated unfairly.
Paul Flynn, who represents the Newport West constituency, said that because Matthew Gould has “proclaimed himself to be a Zionist” he is not a suitable person for the role.
In remarks criticised by MPS, the Foreign Office and Jewish communal organisations, Mr Flynn added that Britain needed an envoy with roots here who “can’t be accused of having Jewish loyalty”.
Mr Flynn said the suggestion that he had made an antisemitic remark was “ludicrous”.
Writing on his blog, he said: “I have been a lifelong friend of Israel and Jewish causes. I have visited Israel on four occasions including a private family holiday.”
“I have been accused of being too friendly to Israel on many occasions.”
He said he was disappointed in the criticism from his Labour colleagues “without any of them first contacting me”.
On Thursday, Labour MP Denis MacShane raised Mr Flynn’s comments in the House Business Questions. He said it should be made absolutely clear “that we do not have a religious bar in our diplomatic service and that we do not say that Jews cannot serve in Israel”.
Public Administration Committee, questions to Sir Gus O’Donnell
Read My Day, Paul Flynn blog
Q 365 Paul Flynn: The Civil Service code states: “It is not the role of the Cabinet Secretary…to enforce the Code.” Was your investigation into a possible breach of the code itself a breach of the code?
Sir Gus O’Donnell: What I was doing was looking at the facts—
Q 366 Paul Flynn: May I come back to it? The code goes on to say—if you want the rest of it––that if a matter warrants further investigation, the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister should “refer the matter to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests.” He exists; he is still is around. Why wasn’t it?
Sir Gus O’Donnell: What I would have done when I was looking at the facts—I was trying to establish whether there was anything to this—would have been to hand the material over and say to the Prime Minister, “You now need to get this investigated.” We just got overtaken by events along the way.
Q 367 Paul Flynn: Was it not a quick fix done for political reasons, as has been suggested by two of our witnesses? If Philip Mawer had taken it over, the whole thing would have rumbled on for months. It was convenient for you to do a quick job on this to get it out of the way, dead and buried, so that it did not embarrass the Government.
Sir Gus O’Donnell: I do not think so. It was clear from what the Secretary of State [Liam Fox] himself had said, and it was backed up in my report, that there was a clear breach of the ministerial code. The Secretary of State took responsibility for that and resigned. If you had said, “Right, we want a full, lengthy investigation into all these issues,” what would the Secretary of State have done? In the past—in the Shahid Malik case*, for example—the Minister was suspended. Would you have wanted a long period of having the Secretary of State for Defence suspended? I just do not think that would have been good for government.
Q 368 Paul Flynn: What I want is for the full truth of this to come out, so that we can plan to ensure that some of the activities that are alleged to have been going on, and may have happened, will not take place in future. That is our main goal. Will Sir Philip Mawer have a look at this again? Will he continue the investigation and look at the loose ends that remain?
Sir Gus O’Donnell: In a sense, we feel that this has covered the ground.
Q 369 Paul Flynn: Okay. Matthew Gould has been the subject of a very serious complaint from two of my constituents, Pippa Bartolotti and Joyce Giblin. When they were briefly imprisoned in Israel, they met the ambassador, and they strongly believe—it is nothing to do with this case at all—that he was serving the interest of the Israeli Government, and not the interests of two British citizens. This has been the subject of correspondence.
In your report, you suggest that there were two meetings between the ambassador and Werritty and Liam Fox. Questions and letters have proved that, in fact, six such meetings took place. There are a number of issues around this. I do not normally fall for conspiracy theories, but the ambassador has proclaimed himself to be a Zionist and he has previously served in Iran, in the service. Werritty is a self-proclaimed—
Robert Halfon: Point of order, Chairman. What is the point of this?
Paul Flynn: Let me get to it. Werritty is a self-proclaimed expert on Iran.
Chair: I have to take a point of order.
Robert Halfon: Mr Flynn is implying that the British ambassador to Israel is working for a foreign power, which is out of order.
Paul Flynn: I quote the Daily Mail: “Mr Werritty is a self-proclaimed expert on Iran and has made several visits. He has also met senior Israeli officials, leading to accusations”—not from me, from the Daily Mail—“that he was close to the country’s secret service, Mossad.” There may be nothing in that, but that appeared in a national newspaper.
Chair: I am going to rule on a point of order. Mr Flynn has made it clear that there may be nothing in these allegations, but it is important to have put it on the record. Be careful how you phrase questions.
Paul Flynn: Indeed. The two worst decisions taken by Parliament in my 25 years were the invasion of Iraq—joining Bush’s war in Iraq—and the invasion of Helmand province. We know now that there were things going on in the background while that built up to these mistakes. The charge in this case is that Werritty was the servant of neo-con people in America, who take an aggressive view on Iran. They want to foment a war in Iran in the same way as in the early years, there was another—
Chair: Order. I must ask you to move to a question that is relevant to the inquiry.
Q 370 Paul Flynn: Okay. The question is, are you satisfied that you missed out on the extra four meetings that took place, and does this not mean that those meetings should have been investigated because of the nature of Mr Werritty’s interests?
Sir Gus O’Donnell: I think if you look at some of those meetings, some people are referring to meetings that took place before the election.
Q 371 Paul Flynn: Indeed, which is even more worrying.
Sir Gus O’Donnell: I am afraid they were not the subject—what members of the Opposition do is not something that the Cabinet Secretary should look into. It is not relevant.
Paul Flynn: But these meetings were held—
Chair: Mr Flynn, would you let him answer please?
Sir Gus O’Donnell: I really do not think that was within my context, because they were not Ministers of the Government and what they were up to was not something I should get into at all.
Chair: Final question, Mr Flynn.
Q 372 Paul Flynn: No, it is not a final question. I am not going to be silenced by you, Chairman; I have important things to raise. I have stayed silent throughout this meeting so far.
You state in the report—on the meeting held between Gould, Fox and Werritty, on 6 February, in Tel Aviv—that there was a general discussion of international affairs over a private dinner with senior Israelis. The UK ambassador was present. Are you following the line taken by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who says that he can eat with lobbyists or people applying to his Department because, on occasions, he eats privately, and on other occasions he eats ministerially? Are you accepting the idea? It is possibly a source of great national interest—the eating habits of their Secretary of State. It appears that he might well have a number of stomachs, it has been suggested, if he can divide his time this way. It does seem to be a way of getting round the ministerial code, if people can announce that what they are doing is private rather than ministerial.
Sir Gus O’Donnell: The important point here was that, when the Secretary of State had that meeting, he had an official with him—namely, in this case, the ambassador. That is very important, and I should stress that I would expect our ambassador in Israel to have contact with Mossad. That will be part of his job. It is totally natural, and I do not think that you should infer anything from that about the individual’s biases. That is what ambassadors do. Our ambassador in Pakistan will have exactly the same set of wide contacts.
Q 373 Paul Flynn: I have good reason, as I said, from constituency matters, to be unhappy about the ambassador. Other criticisms have been made about the ambassador; he is unique in some ways in the role he is performing. There have been suggestions that he is too close to a foreign power.
Robert Halfon: On a point of order, Chair, this is not about the ambassador to Israel. This is supposed to be about the Werritty affair.
Paul Flynn: It is absolutely crucial to this report. If neo-cons such as yourself, Robert, are plotting a war in Iran, we should know about it.
Chair: Order. I think the line of questioning is very involved. I have given you quite a lot of time, Mr Flynn. If you have further inquiries to make of this, they could be pursued in correspondence. May I ask you to ask one final question before we move on?
Sir Gus O’Donnell: One thing I would stress: we are talking about the ambassador and I think he has a right of reply. Mr Chairman, I know there is an interesting question of words regarding Head of the Civil Service versus Head of the Home Civil Service, but this is the Diplomatic Service, not the Civil Service.
Q 374 Chair: So he is not in your jurisdiction at all.
Sir Gus O’Donnell: No.
Q 375 Paul Flynn: But you are happy that your report is final; it does not need to go the manager it would have gone to originally, and that is the end of the affair. Is that your view?
Sir Gus O’Donnell: As I said, some issues arose where I wanted to be sure that what the Secretary of State was doing had been discussed with the Foreign Secretary. I felt reassured by what the Foreign Secretary told me.
Q 376 Chair: I think what Mr Flynn is asking is that your report and the affair raise other issues, but you are saying that that does not fall within the remit of your report and that, indeed, the conduct of an ambassador does not fall within your remit at all.
Sir Gus O’Donnell: That is absolutely correct.
Paul Flynn: The charge laid by Lord Turnbull in his evidence with regard to Dr Fox and the ministerial code was his failure to observe collective responsibility, in that case about Sri Lanka. Isn’t the same charge there about our policies to Iran and Israel?
Chair: We have dealt with that, Mr Flynn.
Paul Flynn: We haven’t dealt with it as far as it applies—
Chair: Mr Flynn, we are moving on.
Paul Flynn: You may well move on, but I remain very unhappy about the fact that you will not allow me to finish the questioning I wanted to give on a matter of great importance.
*During the 2009 expenses scandal, Justice Minister Shalid Malik stood down while Sir Philip Mawer investigated accusations that he had breached the Ministerial Code on rent for his office and home. He was cleared, and rejoined the government as Communities and Local Government Minister.