The latest comments by Theresa May on Britain’s relations with Israel smack of duplicity.
Both states are “close allies and it is right that we work closely together” provided such work is done “formally and through official channels,” the prime minister has stated.
There are at least two problems with that remark. Constantly cosying up to the oppressor of the Palestinian people is not “right” even if all the required formalities are observed. And secondly, there is ample evidence to suggest that May’s government has accommodated a pro-Israel lobby that keeps the true nature of its activities under wraps.
May was responding to a controversy which led Priti Patel to resign as Britain’s secretary for international development over undisclosed discussions with Israeli politicians.
Those discussions were arranged by Stuart Polak, a lobbyist whose “energy and tenacity” was praised by May less than a year ago.
Since 2015, Polak has sat in the House of Lords. Under a code of conduct for that institution’s members, he should “provide the openness and accountability” necessary to “reinforce public confidence” in his conduct.
Polak is clearly not respecting that rule. In particular, he has failed to clarify his precise links to Israel’s arms industry.
As well as being in the House of Lords, Polak leads a consultancy named TWC Associates (previously The Westminster Connection).
Although Elbit Systems is listed as a client on the consultancy’s website, Polak has not disclosed what work he and his colleagues do for that Israeli firm.
Earlier this week, The Guardian depicted Elbit as relatively innocuous by reporting that it “specialises in defence electronics”.
The full picture is far more sinister. Elbit makes many of the weapons - including white phosphorous munitions and drones - that Israel has used in its major attacks on Gaza.
Along with supplying weapons to the Israeli military, Elbit owns at least five firms in Britain. Ran Kril, a senior Elbit representative, said recently that the firm is treating Britain as “an actual home market” similar to the US and Israel.
Elbit is taking part in a £1.2 billion programme called Watchkeeper, which is aimed at providing drones for the British Army. The firm has also signalled that it wishes to expand its cooperation with Britain’s weapons-producers
Polak has never revealed if he or his business partners have assisted Elbit’s efforts to gain a stronger foothold in the British market. He did not respond to a request for comment.
So far, Polak has withheld details about who paid for him to accompany the aforementioned Patel when she met Israeli politicians in August.
Yet a register of interests for the House of Lords reveals that he travelled to New York and Morocco the following month at the expense of the Israeli firm ISHRA Consulting. ISHRA’s website indicates that it is involved in lobbying for the arms industry and Morocco is known to have bought Israeli-designed drones.
Did Polak try to drum up any business for Israel during his travels? If Polak practises what he preaches, then he probably did.
Earlier this month, he marked the Balfour Declaration’s centenary by signing an article which argued that Britain “must continue to explore avenues for further trade” with Israel.
For more than 25 years, Polak has been a key player in Conservative Friends of Israel. His appointment to the House of Lords was presented as a reward for his pro-Israel advocacy by David Cameron, then the prime minister.
In a real democracy, Polak’s role in such a pressure group would be scrutinised, rather than applauded.
Conservative Friends of Israel is, by its own admission, among the most influential lobbying outfits in the Tory party and British politics more generally.
The group has extremely close relations with the Israeli government. The trips it organises for public representatives to visit the Middle East are jointly financed with the Israeli foreign ministry.
Prominent Tories have enjoyed such junkets. Theresa Villiers took part in one not long after she ceased being the cabinet minister responsible for the north of Ireland. She used the trip to subtly raise criticisms of how Britain last year endorsed a UN Security Council resolution opposing Israel’s settlement activities.
That Conservative Friends of Israel was eager to promote her criticisms raises further questions. Is the group conniving with the Israeli government to try and tone down Britain’s stance on settlements? Such efforts - if successful - would make Theresa May’s government complicit in enabling violations of international law (all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights breach the Fourth Geneva Convention).
Long before the controversy that triggered her resignation, Priti Patel had cultivated strong links with the pro-Israel lobby.
She had visited Washington to take part in a 2013 conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a group with considerable clout on Capitol Hill. The bill for her trans-Atlantic journey was footed by the Henry Jackson Society, a neoconservative “think tank” dedicated to American and British imperialism.
The Henry Jackson Society can count on a number of supporters within the British cabinet. Among them are Michael Gove, Britain’s environment secretary, who has been involved both with the society and with Conservative Friends of Israel. Gove has rhapsodised lately about how “Israel is a truly miraculous nation and a light unto the world”.
The choice of words is unfortunate, to put it mildly. The alliance between Israel and Britain is not miraculous. It is murky.
•First published by Middle East Eye, 9 November 2017.
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