Friday, November 17, 2017

Why is Ireland's prime minister tagging the Israel lobby on Facebook?

Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, is regularly seen attending rock concerts or modeling novelty socks as he attempts to cultivate an image of being hip and humorous.

A recent inquiry made by Varadkar via Facebook about whether he resembled the cartoon character on his coffee mug appeared at first glance to be another example of such contrived lightheartedness.

For some reason, though, Varadkar had “tagged” one person in his post. That person, Barry Williams, happens to be Ireland’s most ardent supporter of Israel.

The taoiseach – as Ireland’s prime minister is called – offered no explanation about why the note was addressed to Williams, who runs the group Irish4Israel. And multiple requests for comment to Varadkar and his office went unanswered.

Why the silence? The Irish public is broadly sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight. Any connections that Varadkar has to Williams and Irish4Israel are, therefore, matters of public interest.

If they are simply friends, that is not problematic as such. But if Williams is using that friendship to lobby on behalf of a foreign government – Israel – then the public has a right to know about it.

Varadkar has previously displayed greater sympathy towards Israel than most other politicians in the south of Ireland.


In 2004 – then a member of a local authority for the Dublin area – Varadkar appeared to defend US policies on the Middle East. Writing to The Irish Times, Varadkar described as “overblown” the criticism heaped on George W. Bush, then the US president, who had told Israel that it may retain some colonies it had built in the occupied West Bank as part of a “final peace settlement.”

Following his election to the Oireachtas – Ireland’s parliament – in 2007, Varadkar signaled that he was in favor of greater trade with Israel. When he later became a transport minister in the Dublin government, Varadkar sought parliamentary approval of an EU-Israel aviation deal during 2013 as a matter of “urgency.”

EU diplomats recently credited this “open skies” agreement with facilitating a surge of visits to Israel by tourists from certain European countries.

Varadkar appeared to distance himself from Ireland’s small pro-Israel lobby while Gaza was under attack the following year. In a tweet, he denied belonging to a “friends of Israel” group within the Oireachtas.

But Varadkar has never formally retracted his earlier declarations of support for Israel. And the need for transparency about where he stands is all the more pressing now that Varadkar is taoiseach.

Israel has made clear that it wishes to change what Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, has called Ireland’s “traditional stance” of supporting Palestinians.

Mystery of the mug

Netanyahu was exaggerating the extent of elite support for the Palestinians. Like all other EU governments, Ireland has been hugely accommodating to Israel for a couple of decades at least.

Netanyahu nonetheless wants Ireland to go further. For example, he wants organizations that campaign against Israel’s human rights abuses to be denied financial assistance.

The agenda pursued by Irish4Israel is strongly in line with Netanyahu’s stance. The group frequently tries to portray Palestine solidarity campaigners as extreme and unreasonable.

When Mike Murphy, a veteran Irish broadcaster, recently participated in a trip to the occupied West Bank and wrote about the oppression he witnessed, the group called his article “vile.”

Aggressive tactics of that nature are unlikely to win Irish4Israel too many friends among the public.

But if the group has the prime minister onside, perhaps it feels emboldened. That’s all the more reason why Varadkar must end the mystery surrounding his mug.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 15 November 2017.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Britain's murky alliance with Israel

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.

EU representative told to treat Israel softly

An argument trotted out by European Union representatives to “justify” engaging with Israel is that they regularly raise concerns about human rights abuses.

The argument is premised on a fallacy. Far from pushing difficult questions onto the agenda at every available opportunity, the EU dodges topics that are deemed too sensitive for reasons of political expediency – as previously unpublished documents illustrate.

The documents contain talking points prepared for Carlos Moedas, the Union’s science commissioner, ahead of a 2016 visit to the Middle East.

Moedas was advised by officials planning his trip to avoid comments about Israel’s settlement activities when he met Ofir Akunis, Israel’s science minister.

Akunis had earlier alleged that EU guidelines on labeling goods from settlements in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights would “encourage terrorism.” He called such labeling “a dark stain on the moral fabric of Europe, which bears witness to the fact that the lessons of history have not been learned.”

“We suggest not raising this issue formally unless the Israeli side raises it,” the briefing for Moedas stated.

“Jewel in the crown”

Moedas used his trip to celebrate how Israeli firms and institutions avail of EU research grants. Scientific cooperation is the “jewel in the crown” of the EU’s partnership with Israel, according to his notes.

A few years ago, a controversy erupted over Israel’s participation in the EU’s science program Horizon 2020.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and many of his colleagues protested against how the EU issued guidelines in 2013 stipulating that firms and universities based within Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights would be ineligible for research grants once Horizon 2020 was launched the following year.

Since that row was resolved, the EU has keenly promoted how Israel benefits from such funding. Emanuele Giaufret, the Union’s ambassador to Tel Aviv, tweeted recently about how Israel has pocketed nearly $534 million from Horizon 2020 so far.

During that 2016 trip, Moedas gave helpful suggestions about how Israel may play a bigger role in the EU’s research activities. He was particularly eager that Israel should become more involved in a scheme for low-carbon energy.

His advisers neglected to point out that it is fundamentally unethical to propose energy cooperation with a state that has bombed Gaza’s only power plant and stolen solar panels used by Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

Moedas paid a follow-up visit to the Middle East in May this year.

Briefing notes prepared ahead of a meeting arranged between him and Benjamin Netanyahu contained no reference to abuses of Palestinian rights. That was despite how the discussions were held amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza – exacerbated by Israel’s drastic limitations on the supply of electricity to the territory.


Instead, Moedas was urged to inform Netanyahu that Israel had received around $2 billion in EU science funding over the previous 20 years. Moedas was also advised to express pride in the strength of the EU’s cooperation with Israel – the phrase “jewel in the crown” was repeated.

Obtained under freedom of information rules, the briefing notes identify ordinary people as the “biggest challenges” to the EU’s relationship with Israel.

“Public opinion is dramatically shifting towards [a] greater call for accountability” and against subsidizing firms “perceived to be involved in violations of international law,” one briefing paper states.

The terminology here is deceptive. Elbit Systems – a recipient of EU grants named in the document – has not simply been “perceived” as being involved in Israel’s crimes. It has most definitely been involved.

Israel’s biggest weapons producer, Elbit has supplied drones used in attacks on Gaza. It has also provided surveillance equipment for Israel’s apartheid wall in the West Bank – a project ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice.

The EU continues to shower Elbit with millions of dollars in “research” funding despite the recent revelation that the firm is helping Israel evade an international ban on cluster weapons.

The notes for Moedas offer an especially farcical defense of a controversial EU-funded project named LAW TRAIN.

Focused on interrogation techniques, that project connects various European bodies with Israel’s police – a force headquartered in occupied East Jerusalem and known to systematically torture Palestinian detainees, including children.

Hooking up with the Israeli police force is acceptable – in the view of Moedas’ advisers – as the Union’s representatives “regularly” raise “possible cases of torture and abuse” in discussions with the Netanyahu government.

“The EU considers that cooperation and engagement with Israel, which make such dialogue possible, are more effective than isolation or boycotts,” the briefing paper states.

The facts tell a different story. The number of children locked up by Israel has risen from an average of 192 per month in 2011 to 375 per month last year. Most children detained by Israel experience physical abuse, human rights groups have documented.

If torture and detention of children are on the increase, then the EU’s approach of “engagement” and “dialogue” is clearly not proving effective. The ordinary folk demanding tougher action have evidently got things right.

Why won’t the elite admit the obvious?

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 9 November 2017.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Why is Britain proud of the Balfour Declaration?

Almost 100 years ago, Britain decided to introduce a system of racial and religious discrimination in Palestine.

Arthur James Balfour, then foreign secretary, signed a pledge to support the key goals of the Zionist movement. As the world’s pre-eminent power, Britain would help establish a ‘Jewish national home’ -- a euphemism for a Jewish state - in Palestine, despite how its population was mostly Arab. Jews the world over were, in effect, treated as a nation. No such status was accorded to Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants.

The Balfour Declaration, as that November 1917 letter became known, was later enshrined in the League of Nations mandate under which Britain ruled Palestine between the two world wars.

During that period, Britain’s administration for Palestine helped entrench a form of ‘economic apartheid’, a term used by Norman Bentwich, its chief legal officer. Incoming settlers were favoured in access to land and employment; Palestinians were frequently dispossessed.

Not surprisingly, the British encountered much resistance.

Faced with unrest in the early 1920s, Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, recommended that a ‘picked force of white gendarmerie’ should be formed. It would be comprised of men who had previously served in the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries -- crown forces based in Ireland.

The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries had resorted to large scale arson during Ireland’s war of independence, as well as sometimes operating as death squads. Their members and other British forces behaved with similar ruthlessness in Palestine.

In the 1930s, the civil administration in Jerusalem effectively put the military in charge of suppressing a Palestinian revolt against Britain and its support for Zionist colonisation.

Among the tactics Britain employed were the imposition of collective penalties on towns and villages that refused to obey their oppressors, the demolition of entire neighbourhoods and erecting a huge barbed-wire fence, complete with the most advanced surveillance technology of that era, along part of Palestine’s frontier.

State archives even refer to how Britain established a concentration camp -- the precise term used -- near Sarafand al-Amar, a village on Palestine’s coastal plain. The camp was used for the mass incarceration of those alleged to have taken part in the rebellion.

As part of efforts to crush that revolt, Britain knowingly recruited members of the Haganah, the largest Zionist militia in Palestine and a forerunner of today’s Israeli army. The result was that many of the forces who drove around 750,000 Palestinians from their homes a decade later had received British training. Britain had, therefore, prepared the groundwork for the Nakba (‘catastrophe’ in Arabic) -- the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Relations between Britain and the Zionist movement have sometimes been fractious. Two armed Zionist groups, the Irgun and the Lehi, came to regard Britain as a bitter foe. They waged a campaign of guerilla warfare against Britain in the 1940s.

Britain has nonetheless continued to embrace the Zionist project. A number of British politicians have argued that they are duty-bound to support Israel, given that the Balfour Declaration led to that state’s inception. That does not mean they romanticize Israel. On the contrary, British governments have tended to view Israel as a vehicle for advancing their interests in the Middle East, even to do their dirty work.

That was dramatically so in 1956, when Britain and France persuaded Israel to attack Egypt over how Gamal Abdel Nasser, a staunch opponent of Western imperialism, had nationalised the Suez Canal. The offensive involved Israeli massacres in Gaza that have been omitted from many books on the Suez affair.

Israel was to declare war against Egypt once more in 1967. It did so by making heavy use of British weapons, notably battle tanks. The British embassy in Tel Aviv was pleased at feedback from Israeli generals about how those tanks had performed much better than was expected.

The June 1967 war ushered in a military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights that persists to this day. Marking the 50th anniversary of that occupation earlier this year, the London media was mostly silent about how Britain enabled it.

Britain’s policies on the Middle East have become increasingly shaped by the US in recent decades. Ronald Reagan resorted to the kind of duplicity that subsequent American presidents have replicated. He boosted military aid to Israel, while portraying Palestinians as the obstacle to peace. Margaret Thatcher echoed him by branding all armed opposition to Israel as terrorism.

Tony Blair has been demonstrably worse. Despite harping on about justice and statehood for Palestinians, Blair has proven to be a hardcore apologist for Israel.

While in Downing Street, Blair vigorously promoted ‘security cooperation’ between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. One effect of this cooperation is that the Palestinian Authority now boasts of locking up young Palestinians without charge or trial - in order to keep Israel happy.

Blair’s endorsement of Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon caused great anger within the Labour Party and the wider public. Yet it did not prevent him from being appointed as what British newspapers called a ‘peace envoy’ for the Middle East on the same day that he stepped down as prime minister. Blair used that position to sanitise the medieval siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza.

Largely unnoticed by the media, the bonds between the arms industries of Britain and Israel have been bolstered in recent times.

The British Army used Israeli cluster bombs during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The army has flown Israeli drones over both Iraq and Afghanistan, too.

The British embassy in Tel Aviv has even set up a technology centre staffed by Israeli weapons innovators. Along with trying to increase business with Israel, Britain has sought to smear Palestine solidarity activists. Theresa May’s government has invoked a contentious definition of anti-Semitism to muzzle some of Israel’s critics in British universities.

Earlier this year, May signalled that clinching a free trade deal with Israel would be a priority once Britain leaves the European Union. She has identified the right-wing coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu as a key ally.

May has praised the Balfour Declaration as ‘one of the most important letters in history’ and pledged to mark its centenary with ‘pride’. She appears unfazed by how Britain set in train a process that would deny Palestinians their basic rights. One hundred years later, Britain is trying to perpetuate the injustice it has caused.

•First published on the Pluto Press blog, November 2017.

Celebrating Balfour is a calculated insult to Palestinians

Theresa May will deliver a calculated insult to the Palestinian people this week.

Her promise to commemorate “with pride” the Balfour Declaration’s centenary indicates that the British government is becoming more gung ho in its support for Israeli aggression. Assurances given to human rights advocates by Foreign Office staff that the anniversary would be marked solemnly, rather than celebrated, have been nullified by Downing Street.

What exactly is May proud about?

On 2 November 1917, Arthur James Balfour, then foreign secretary, gave the green light for an act of large-scale larceny. Through his declaration to the Zionist Federation, Britain became the imperial sponsor of a Jewish state that would be formed in Palestine by expelling its indigenous people en masse.

Balfour regarded Palestinians as expendable and did not even bother consulting them. As he argued a few years after his declaration, Britain attached greater importance to Zionist aspirations than to “the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”.

In a period when the principle of self-determination was gaining wider currency - and had been endorsed by Woodrow Wilson, the US president - the declaration was an anomaly. Palestinians were denied autonomy largely because of a lobbying offensive conducted by Chaim Weizmann, an influential Zionist based in Manchester. As a general principle, old Ottoman territories may be run “in the natural interests of the present inhabitants,” he argued, but an exception must be made in the case of Palestine. While paying lip-service to the rights of Palestinians, Weizmann insisted that they be accorded a lesser status than incoming Jewish settlers.

Today, Israel depicts the declaration as a magnanimous gesture towards persecuted Jews. The truth is far grubbier.

Zionism was a political ideology firmly opposed by Britain’s only Jewish cabinet minister in 1917, Edwin Montagu. In a trenchant memorandum, he warned that Jews “will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine.”

Montagu’s view was diametrically opposed to that of his cousin Herbert Samuel. A staunch Zionist, Samuel promoted the ideology as a vehicle for advancing Britain’s interests. Establishing a Jewish colony in Palestine would, according to Samuel, help prevent France from gaining control of the nearby Suez canal -- located on a key trade route connecting Europe and India.

Samuel was central to efforts aimed at making sure the declaration had practical effects -- particularly after it had been incorporated in the League of Nations mandate under which Britain ruled Palestine between the two world wars. In 1920, Samuel became the first British high commissioner for Palestine. Over the next five years, he introduced numerous measures to facilitate and finance the acquisition by the Zionist movement of land on which Palestinians had lived and farmed for generations.

Resistance to colonisation was crushed with great brutality.

When a major Palestinian revolt broke out in the 1930s, the British administration in Jerusalem told military commanders they may take whatever steps were deemed necessary. Communities were punished collectively for failing to obey their oppressors.

More than 100 men were rounded up in Halhul, a village near Hebron, during May 1939 on the pretext that it had a bad reputation. Eight of those men died from heat exhaustion after being held in an open air pen. The British authorities blamed their deaths on the weather but also admitted that they had been deprived of adequate food and water for several consecutive days.

In the latter stages of the revolt, Bernard Montgomery, a well-known figure in the British Army, instituted a shoot to kill policy. According to his order, anyone who assisted a rebel should be treated as a rebel. Such commands gave British soldiers carte blanche to terrorise Palestinians with impunity.

Members of the Haganah - the largest Zionist militia at the time - were hired by Britain to assist with the revolt’s suppression. The result of that collaboration was that many of the Zionist forces who drove around 750,000 Palestinians from their homes the following decade had received British training.

Britain thereby laid the groundwork for the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

The relationship between Britain and Zionism has not been seamless. Two armed Zionist groups, the Irgun and the Lehi, came to perceive Britain as a bitter foe in the 1940s. By waging guerilla warfare against Britain they caused Winston Churchill to waver from his support for Zionism and lament how the ideology had spawned “gangsters”.

Britain’s reaction to the gangsters’ exploits was nonetheless much more restrained than the way it deal with the 1930s Palestinian revolt. Alan Cunningham, the last British high commissioner for Palestine, maintained that Britain had to uphold its commitments to Zionism under the League of Nations mandate. Cunningham, by contrast, was indifferent to Palestinian suffering. At one point, he tried to excuse Britain for destroying Palestinian dwellings in the 1930s by claiming they were of “relatively little pecuniary value”.

Britain relinquished its mandate for Palestine in May 1948. Israel declared itself a state immediately afterwards.

The sponsorship of Zionism has continued. Many Israeli crimes against humanity have been abetted by Britain. The military occupation which began in June 1967 was facilitated by British battle tanks. Israel’s assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014 was enthusiastically backed by Britain, too.

Brexit might advantageous for Israel - at least in the short term. At a time when Theresa May’s relationship with her EU counterparts is somewhat tense, she appears to regard Benjamin Netanyahu as a steadfast ally. The Israeli prime minister will receive red carpet treatment when he attends the Balfour celebrations in London this week.

May’s pandering to Netanyahu demonstrates she is out of step with public opinion. While her government seeks to boost trade with Israel, ordinary people in Britain and around the world are boycotting Israeli goods and institutions.

There is a historical resonance behind how boycotting has assumed a central importance in efforts to make right the wrongs inflicted by Arthur Balfour and his colleagues. Boycotts offended Balfour’s aristocratic sensibilities when they were used to challenge the powerful.

Heading Britain’s colonial administration in Ireland during the late nineteenth century, Balfour supported legislation that would make the boycotting of landlords punishable by up to six months’ hard labour. The term “boycott” has been traced to Ireland in that period. It was named after Charles Boycott, a land agent whose employees refused to cooperate with him after he served a series of eviction notices.

It is apt that Palestinians are tackling Balfour’s toxic legacy with a tactic of which he strongly disapproved. Boycotting Israel is a moral imperative.

•First published by Middle East Eye, 31 October 2017.