More on the Dispatches programme
Comment / Is the Israel lobby doing more harm than good?
Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz, 20 November 2009
It is followed by Martin Bright’s report on reactions to the prgramme in the Jewish Chronicle, 19 November.
See also letters on the topic published in the Guardian on 20 November.
Three years ago I was invited, along with 30 other guests – mainly politicians and journalists – to a private dinner party given by one of Britain’s richest Jews at a Jerusalem hotel. After a mediocre steak and some fantastic wine, we were addressed by our host. The British media were a disgrace, he told us, “real Goebbels-style.” Their coverage of the Second Lebanon War had totally ruined his summer holiday. And the British politicians, many of whom he had donated to in the past, were with few exceptions “all pusillanimous hypocrites” who had criticized Israel’s “disproportionate” response to Hezbollah’s attacks.
What was needed, he said, was a new “crack team” of media specialists to be based in London, to compile information, brief journalists and prepare instant responses to all the mendacious lies issued by the hostile press. He expected us all to applaud and congratulate him on his visionary idea, which he assured us he was willing to fund handsomely. Some did applaud, whether out of agreement or sycophancy, but he was perplexed when he discovered that not all of us were so certain that the war had been Israel’s finest hour. How could we be giving succor to Israel’s haters, he asked.
The millionaire flew back to England on his private jet and to the best of my knowledge his media attack team was never formed. “With the price of a meal, he bought you as a captive audience for three hours,” said a friend familiar with these events. “He does the same thing back home every month and gives the same speech. The politicians all come because they know there’s a good chance they will get a check out of it for their campaigns.”
Last year I saw it happening on British soil. I covered the Conservative Party convention in Birmingham and attended a luncheon organized by the Conservative Friends of Israel in a room packed with senior party members and donors. Upon hearing I was an Israeli journalist, the shadow minister I was seated next to launched into an off-the-record attack on Conservative Leader David Cameron for being “much too wishy-washy about Israel,” instead of supporting it outright. For all public and political purposes, my lunch companion is a staunch Cameron ally, but he obviously assumed that as an Israeli at a Conservative Friends event, that’s what I expected to hear from him.
Having had these and other brief glimpses of the pro-Israel lobby in Britain, I was intrigued by the title of the documentary on Channel 4 this week – “Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby” – and bitterly disappointed after watching it.
You’d have to be particularly ill-informed to be surprised that well-connected, pro-Israeli groups try to lobby the main British political parties and that wealthy individuals connected to such groups donate large sums to the parties and many members of Parliament. It’s also well known that they also fly many MPs over to Israel on fact-finding visits and that some believe that this influences these politicians’ attitudes and their parties’ policies regarding Israel and the Middle East conflict. Hardly surprising.
Aside from this, the program’s host and producer, Peter Oborne, had so little new information he had to dedicate a third of the show to a description of how pro-Israel organizations monitor the British media, generating massive email- writing campaigns over any criticism of Israel, often portraying these as anti-Semitic. Nothing really new there, either.
Oborne used the classic follow-the-money tactic, but as he had to admit at the end of the program, he’d failed to discover any evidence of a conspiracy or illegality.
But the real problem with today’s Israel lobby, in Britain and the United States, is not with its finances and their lack of transparency but with its entire mind-set. The basic fact is that by its actions, the lobby is now causing Israel more harm than good. That’s the point Oborne almost totally missed. On every level – moral, political, diplomatic, economic, military and religious – this country is being rapidly corrupted and damaged by the continuing occupation of the West Bank. By granting blanket support to all policies of whatever Israeli government happens to be in power, and by branding critics of these policies as either self-hating Jews or anti-Semites, they’re contributing to Israel’s siege mentality and delaying the day when Israelis will finally realize that there’s only one practical and ethical alternative.
In this sense at least, Oborne was right to make the connection between the political lobbying and the relentless pressure on the media which has totally blurred the lines between legitimate criticism and real bias. These knee-jerk reactions to any form of criticism have become so second nature to the Israel lobbyists that they’re now trying to stifle debate even within the Israeli media. Their shrill reactions to the eyewitness accounts of soldiers who fought in Gaza and were brave enough to say that the IDF did not always act there as “the most moral army in the world” are a good example.
We are at a pivotal point. The rise of the right in Israel’s last election does not signal that the voters are opposed to territorial compromise and a two-state solution. On the contrary, polls consistently show a clear majority of Israelis favoring this outcome, but they seem to prefer a right-wing prime minister to carry out a leftist policy. In effect, Israelis voted for Benjamin Netanyahu hoping that he’d go against his party’s manifesto. All the signs point to a prime minister on the brink of a decision. He could take the plunge or he could retreat back into his ideological and political comfort zone. International pressure will play a major role in persuading him to make a necessary decision, but the message emanating from the Israel lobby is that should he decide to hold out and play for time, he will continue to receive their unreserved support.
Such support could prolong Israel’s procrastination – with deadly consequences.
By Martin Bright, November 19, 2009
Jewish organisations have reacted angrily to a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary claiming to expose an “Israel lobby” working to buy influence with UK politicians and journalists. The Board of Deputies has raised concerns that the programme has already sparked a slew of antisemitism.
Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby on Monday night claimed that Conservative Friends of Israel has funded the Tory Party to the tune of £10 million and has shifted Tory policy on Israel. The programme targeted Bicom, which takes journalists on fact-finding trips to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The BBC was also criticised for allegedly bowing to pressure from the Israel lobby.
A statement from the Board said: “After an hour of unfortunate imagery and unfounded suggestions that UK supporters of Israel conspire to influence Parliament and the media utilising financial leverage, Dispatches finally admitted that this is not the case.
“Despite the assertions that the programme would not create antisemitism, it succeeded in eliciting an onslaught of hateful comments on the internet, and an endorsement from the BNP.”
The programme was presented by the Daily Mail’s Peter Oborne, a veteran investigative reporter. He concluded that the programme had not found “anything faintly resembling a conspiracy”. But he said that there was a lack of transparency about some of the organisations he investigated. The Conservative Friends of Israel said the programme’s central claim that the organisation had given £10 million of donations to the Conservatives was unfounded.
A CFI spokeswoman said: “The documentary was deeply flawed in its crucial failure to draw any distinction between donations to the Conservative Party from individuals who may well broadly support the aims and objectives of CFI, and donations from the CFI itself. The allegation that CFI and its supporters have contributed £10 million to the Conservative Party in the last eight years has absolutely no basis in fact.”
Bicom said it would continue to work closely with British journalists to make the case for Israel. The programme claimed that Bicom’s chairman, Poju Zabludowicz, had interests in a shopping centre in the Israeli settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. It is understood that Mr Zabludowicz took an interest in the shopping centre when one of his companies was taken over, but he says he has no ideological commitment to Israel’s settlement policy. Prof Eric Moonman, president of the Zionist Federation, which was referred to as part of the pro-Israel lobby, said he would be writing to Channel 4 to ask whether it is making a film about lobbying of the British government on behalf of Arab governments.
He said: “It just wasn’t balanced in the context of the Middle East and didn’t explain that lobbying is a legitimate part of the political process.”
The broadcasting regulator Ofcom had received 17 complaints about the programme by Wednesday, when it publishes its weekly figures.
Mr Oborne said he was outraged by charges of antisemitism against the programme, which he defended as legitimate journalism. But he said he had been horrified by some of the attacks on Jews that had been circulating in response to the programme.
He said: “Certain comments on websites have been antisemitic and horrible. One of the vindications of the programme is that it dispelled any notion of a conspiracy. The whole point is that it is a legal, innocent, legitimate lobby that should be more transparent. Those who have reached antisemitic conclusions are disgusting.”
A spokeswoman for Channel 4 added: “We’ve had a relatively small amount of complaints and a large amount of appreciative comments about the programme. The programme’s subject matter is a legitimate area for journalistic investigation and we stand by the film. We utterly reject the idea the programme is in any way antisemitic.”
The CST said comments on the Dispatches website justified its fears that the language used in promoting the programme was “unwittingly playing up to antisemitic stereotypes”. The CST pointed to four examples:
“Good. We want our country back. The agents of a foreign power embedded at all levels of our government and politics need flushing out. They are a menace to our foreign policy, security and reputation abroad…”
“This is remarkable. We have tried for years to have this shadowy support mechanism for Israel exposed… It isn’t just the media and MPs this monster controls, it also has a mechanism to attack any individuals who oppose Israel, in any way.”
“Let’s see the hand of global Zionism at work. Please do keep and show ALL the information and don’t fall for the old accusations of racism when doing programmes like this, to mar any unpleasant truths that may be found.”
“It is disgraceful that C4 is intending to expose the pro-Israel lobby. Surely it is a signatory to the “National Press and TV Zionist Agreement”, which stipulates in paragraph one: ‘Thou shalt not print nor broadcast any reference to the undemocratic control by the agents of Israel over the House of Commons and/or the House of Lords.’”