Thursday, May 14, 2015

Are property speculators bankrolling European Friends of Israel?

An investor in "distressed" Spanish real estate is among the wealthy supporters of the most prominent Israel lobby group in Brussels.

Dan Meyer, founder of the firm REInvest Capital, is a board member with European Friends of Israel (EFI), according to papers filed recently with the Belgian authorities.

For the past few years, REInvest has been trying to turn Spain's economic woes to its advantage. The firm's website says it is focused on "distressed Spanish opportunities", particularly in "prime city center" locations and on the coast.

Meyer, who previously worked for the banking titan Goldman Sachs, has more than two decades experience in the real estate market. His firm claims to have invested in property worth around €11 billion ($12.3 billion) since the mid-1990s.

He was one of several business people to sit on the EFI board last year.

Another was Davina Bruckner, chairperson of the Luxembourg-based firm Eastbridge and with Belgium's largest insurer Ageas.

Eastbridge has gone from importing branded consumer goods like Nestlé and L'Oreal into central and Eastern Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s to snapping up skyscrapers in Manhattan. In 2011, it bought 70 Pine Street, formerly the American International Building, in New York's financial district.

Reportedly managing more than €1.5 billion ($1.7 billion) in assets, Eastbridge has strong connections to EFI. Davina's father Yaron Bruckner, who set up Eastbridge and remained active in it until his death in August 2013, was one of EFI's founders.

Marc Grosman, owner of the men's clothing retailer Celio, has also been a board member of Eastbridge. Grosman, too, sat on the EFI board last year.


On several occassions, I have asked EFI for details about who finances its activities. While the group has always refused to divulge those details, there are good reasons to believe that it relies on its board members for a significant proportion of its funding. Papers lodged with the Belgian authorities indicate that its board members pay annual subscriptions of up to €5 million ($5.7 million).

EFI's influence could be seen in the European Parliament's official response to Israel's attack on Gaza last summer.

In July 2014, the parliament approved a resolution which essentially copied and pasted talking points provided by EFI. That motion referred to a "ceasefire plan" that was "so far only accepted by Israel."

Not only did the parliament lend credence to the fallacy that Israel coveted peace, it neglected to mention that Hamas had not even been consulted about the "truce" offer in question.

Lately, EFI has been promoting fundraising appeals for the Israeli military, despite how it stands accused of committing war crimes.

EFI seems to have disappeared from a register of lobbyists administered by the European Commission. Although groups seeking to shape EU policies are not legally obliged to sign up to that register, they are required to do so if they want access badges for the European Parliament.

EFI did not reply when I asked why it can no longer be found in the register. The group had registered for 2014 and was required to update its details by the end of April this year. Its previous entries to the register have been skimpy. For example, the group reported that its overall budget for 2012 came to €400,000 ($453,000), all of which came from donations.

No scruples

As well as its management board, EFI has a political board, comprised of a cross-party alliance in the European Parliament.

Before last year's election to the Parliament, that board was chaired by a Polish politician Marek Siwiec. A biographical note posted on Siwiec's Facebook page indicate that he is now the EFI's president, even though he no longer has a seat in the European Parliament.

He has continued to visit the parliament's headquarters and can be seen in a program filmed there by Revelation TV, a pro-Israel channel, in December last.

I contacted Siwiec asking him if he is indeed EFI's president and if he is receiving money from the organization or its supporters. He did not reply.

Siwiec has combined being an elected representative with working as a corporate lobbyist. During his decade in the European Parliament, he found time to advise Yalta European Strategy.

Run by one of Ukraine's richest men, Viktor Pinchuk, YES has been pushing for closer bonds between Ukraine and the EU. The stronger trading links advocated by YES would almost certainly benefit Pinchuk directly. As Siwiec was active on foreign policy issues in the European Parliament, his involvement with YES was surely a conflict of interests.

I doubt that caused him too many pangs of conscience, however. Supporters of war crimes do not tend to have scruples. With public opinion increasingly critical of Israel, their future depends on groveling to the rich and powerful.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 13 May 2015.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Head of new pro-Israel group makes series of racist comments

A leading pro-Israel lobbyist in Brussels has made a series of racist comments about Muslims.

Alex Benjamin has been the director with both European Friends of Israel (EFI) and the newly-formed Europe Israel Public Affairs (EIPA) over the past six months. While speaking on behalf of each of those organizations, he has displayed an anti-Islam bias.

In December last year, Benjamin contended that one explanation for the willingess of some EU governments to recognize Palestine as a state was that "the demographics in Europe are changing."

"There is huge populations of Muslims in France, in Germany, all over the place," he says. "And politicians are finding, rightly or wrongly, that in order to get their votes they have to pander to certain stereotypes."

Those remarks were delivered during a program broadcast by Revelation TV, a channel identifying itself as Christian. Benjamin appeared on the same show in late February, by which time he had taken up his post with EIPA.

During that second appearance, he again infers that Muslims should be perceived as a hostile presence in Europe.

"Hornets' nest"

In a discussion prompted by the killing of a Jewish security guard at a bar mitzvah in Copenhagen earlier that month, Benjamin implies that Muslims in general are to blame for anti-Semitic crimes.

"I see anti-Semitism and the rise of fundamental Islam and the changing demographics in Europe as inexticably linked. It's a bit -- if I could use a rather crude analogy -- it's a bit like having a hornets' nest at the end of your garden."

He argues that the rise in anti-Semitism he perceives "can't just be because of Israeli actions." Then he says: "There's something more fundamental behind it. And it's not a very pleasant thing to do but sometimes you need to lift up the carpet and look at the horrible things underneath it."

Referring to new security measures taken in EU buildings following the January attacks on the French satiricial magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, he says:

I use the analogy deliberately about the hornets' nest at the end of the garden and I would say that either you protect your house and you stop the hornets from flying in -- like we have outside the [European] Commission; like we have outside the [European] Parliament. That is a short-term solution. The hornets are still going to be there. So do you go down to the end of the garden and you try to deal with the nest or do you just try and protect yourself in the house and say "well listen, I'm too scared to go down there, I might get stung. I don't know what's going to happen. All I can do is stop them from getting in the house."

Inciting hatred

Comparing Muslims to hornets closely resembles the terminology by influential Israeli politicians when inciting hatred against Palestinians.

The late Rafael Eitan, who served as both chief of staff in the Israeli military and as a minister in several governments, once called Palestinians "drugged cockroaches in a bottle." Ayelet Shaked, Israel's new justice minister, has described Palestinian children as "little snakes."

Benjamin's repeated references to population issues also echoes how the Israeli elite considers Palestinian babies as a "demographic threat."

Arnon Soffer, an academic who has undertaken research for the Israeli military, said in 2004 that once Gaza's population reached 2.5 million "those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam." Soffer's recommendation for Israel was to "kill and kill and kill. All day, every day."

I contacted Benjamin on Thursday, asking him to clarify some of his comments. He did not reply to my email messages. When I phoned the EIPA office, I was told that he was away from Brussels.

Before he became a full-time Israel lobbyist, Benjamin worked as a press officer for British Conservative members of the European Parliament. His résumé includes, too, a stint as communications director with the Ulster Unionist Party in Belfast.

EIPA is one of several lobby groups trying to promote a positive image of Israel. In an attempt to distract from the crimes committed against the Palestinians, it has been using Facebook to highlight the aid which Israel provided to Nepal's earthquake victims and to celebrate innovations by Israeli scientists.

It is an offshoot of the similarly-named Europe Israel Press Association. Among the propaganda events that association has hosted was a talk given last year by Mordechai Kedar, an Israeli academic who has advocated that Israeli soldiers should rape Palestinian women.

Benjamin seems to be settling in nicely to his job. His racist remarks are perfectly in sync with the Israel lobby's toxic worldview.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 8 May 2015.

Why I helped "shut down" Europe's weapons lobby

Today, I took part in the "shutting down" of a lobby group representing some of the world's top weapons exporters.

At lunch-time more than a dozen of us entered the Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD) headquarters in Brussels, announcing that we were taking it over. We distributed letters of dismissal to its staff, covered its reception area in white sheets and posted notices saying "arms dealers evicted."

Our action drew a hostile response from Kyle Martin, an ASD manager. He began scrunching up our papers and tearing down our notices, telling us that we were trespassing on private property.

His attachment to private property is a little bizarre, given that the ASD wants the arms industry to be heavily subsidized from the public purse. A recent ASD paper on weapons innovation states that "100 percent funding to [the arms] industry should be considered the norm."

ASD includes five of the planet's fifteen leading arms companies: BAE Systems, Airbus, Thales, Finmeccanica and Rolls-Royce. All of these firms have major links to Israel.

Finmeccanica is supplying jet trainer aircraft to the Israeli military as part of a $1 billion deal. BAE Systems provides electronic equipment to the Israeli military.

Thales has teamed up with Israel's Elbit to make drones for the British army.

Airbus is developing an "early warning system" for warplanes along with Israel Aerospace Industries. And Rolls-Royce's engines can be found in many aircraft used by the Israeli military.

Benefits to Israel

ASD is also involved in lobbying activities which have proven beneficial for Israel's merchants of death.

For many years, ASD has been urging the EU to allocate a greater proportion of its scientific research program to military technology. In response, the Union has established a "security research" scheme.

Israel's weapons firms have been participating on an equal basis to European companies and institutions in that scheme ever since its inception. As a result, the manufacturers of drones used to kill children in Gaza and of surveillance equipment installed in Israel's wall in the occupied West Bank have benefited handsomely from European subsidies.

Our action at ASD's headquarters led to an impromptu "teach-in." I was asked to give a briefing about how the weapons industry has been influencing EU policy. Jan Pie, ASD's urbane and apparently unruffled secretary-general, listened to me, interrupting to claim that all of the Union's research activities are of a civilian nature.

That was a lie.

As I documented in my book Corporate Europe, ASD has been pushing the EU to bankroll research into technology with both civilian and military applications. The group has enjoyed considerable success; quite a few of the EU's science projects relate to drones, inherently military aircraft pioneered by Israel.

ASD is trying to promote drones as beneficial to Europe's economy. In March, Jan Pie predicted that drones could contribute to 150,000 "direct jobs" in 2050.

Not possessing a crystal ball, I have no way of gauging whether such forecasts will come to fruition. But even if they do, the strategy Pie wants Europe to pursue is at odds with the interests and desires of its people.


Gaza has been the world's main laboratory for drones in recent times. Do we really Europe's economic policies to be inspired by a cruel experiment against a besieged people?

The staff we met at ASD didn't want to admit they are causing harm in the real world. Kyle Martin tried to dismiss my complaints about how Saudi Arabia is the number one client for some of ASD's members as irrelevant. Saudi Arabia has, of course, been busy bombing Yemen lately with the aid of Western weapons.

ASD called the police. We refused to leave when the cops arrived, so they removed us from the building. The cops requested our identity cards and wrote down our names.

Several police cars turned up outside the building where ASD is based but we weren't taken into custody.

The arms lobbyists of Brussels are usually insulated from reality. Today was an exception.

We confronted them with the consequences of their pernicious activities.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 5 May 2015.