Revelations last Sunday that Shai Masot, a political officer at the Israeli embassy, was plotting to “take down” Deputy Foreign Secretary Alan Duncan and other British MPs regarded as hostile have certainly created a firestorm. It has been called “an outrageous interference in British politics” and something which the intelligence services need to look into. If the teaser for the forthcoming Al-Jazeera documentary series investigating the ‘The Lobby’ in Britain is any gauge, the programmes will make uncomfortable viewing for Israel and its supporters. Based on six months of undercover reporting, the main protagonist appears to be a journalist who calls himself ‘Robin’. He lured Masot into his honey trap by presenting himself as an activist with Labour Friends of Israel (LFI).
The story was reported with consternation in Israel, though it was partly drowned out by coverage on the same day of a horrific truck-ramming attack in Jerusalem that left four soldiers dead, many more injured, and a nation once again in mourning.
Israel’s ambassador Mark Regev was absolutely right to issue an immediate and forthright apology to Duncan and his colleagues, and to stress that Masot won’t be working at the London embassy for much longer. His future is untenable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already packing his belongings.
Whether a diplomat, as he claimed, or not, as the ambassador clarified, Masot certainly appears to have let his ego run away with him by acting as he did when dining with ‘Robin’ and Maria Strizzolo, his friend who has now resigned from Britain’s civil service. It was they with whom Masot discussed the MPs he wanted to slur.
There does seem to be an element of goofing about in the whole affair, which is basically how Strizzolo defended herself, but it was still poor judgment, bad play, and wrong.
Masot doesn’t appear to be that well tuned-in to British politics either, if he thinks Boris Johnson is an “idiot”. He must have missed the Foreign Secretary’s impressive and thoughtful speech on Britain after Brexit at Chatham House on 2 December. Boris may come across as clownish, but there can be no doubting his intellect.
Unfortunately, though, by using phrases like “take down,” the episode can be construed more sinisterly, as though Masot was orchestrating some kind of elaborate conspiracy on Israel’s behalf against the British government. This view was inevitably reinforced by The Mail on Sunday’s sensationalist front page headline: “Israel Plot to ‘Take Down’ Tory Minister.”
It’s not difficult to imagine those for whom Israel is the mother of all evil making a direct association between this story and grossly fictitious ideas about stealthy Zionist domination of politics and the media the world over. It’s just the kind of material needed for a kind of Protocols of the Elders of Zion 2.0, updated for modern times almost a century after the original version was eventually exposed as a Czarist fraud.
Decent people know that such theories have been a subplot of themes about Jewish devilishness that have lingered for almost 2,000 years. Still, that doesn’t mean that such ideas haven’t metastasized in wildly diverse communities and societies around the world: young; old; left; right; formal; grassroots; Islamist; Presbyterian; atheist; and others. They have, and they remain prevalent, as a recent report by Manfred Gerstenfeld entitled The War of a Million Cuts illustrates comprehensively. But at 407 pages of text, that’s 406.9 too many for the kind of 140-character snippets of information we may have to get on board with in a social media age which individuals like President-elect Donald Trump have mastered.
Before long, sentiments of this nature may surface about Trump’s latest appointment, of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, as a senior White House advisor. More Jews close to the Oval Office, rising to power as if from nowhere, and at breakneck speeds.
Just raising this issue, in this context, opens the door to accusations of “playing the antisemitism card”. It matters little how much you stress that there absolutely is such a thing as legitimate criticism of Israel without falling foul of antisemitism. Every Israel supporter I know, whatever their political stripes, accepts this. Of course it’s a matter of where you draw the line, but you usually know it when you see it.
In this instance, though, I’m doubly chutzpah. Masot, Israel’s fervent critics might riposte, was caught red-handed on video – the most assured way there is to sail someone up shit creek without a paddle. It was undeniably a coup for Robin and Al-Jazeera.
The link isn’t merely associative, however. A quick glance at the ocean of antisemitic websites and user-generated content out there (which I’d prefer not to hyperlink and inadvertently drive traffic towards) shows that they have not been slow on the uptake. Some set about immediately reposting an image of the Mail’s front page. There are those that add some warped interpretation, while others they just allow the words to speak for themselves, conveniently out of context.
Again, this is not to try to exonerate the shameful behaviour of this employee of Israel’s foreign ministry. It was inexcusable and had nothing to do with Jew-hatred. But it’s this milieu of twisted antisemitism which, for me at least, makes ‘Masot-gate’ not just regrettable in terms of providing free ammo to those seeking to delegitimize Israel at every turn, nor merely reprehensible. It’s what makes it all the more cringeworthy.
Understandably, serious Israeli diplomats want to put the affair to rest now. That’s unlikely though, with a four-part series about to be aired on Al-Jazeera. We’re better off talking about it a bit.
The politics of Israel lobbying is explosive, especially in the Anglophone world where at least there’s a debate. In large swathes of Arab and Muslim societies, myths about the hidden hand of Zionism controlling events are so frequently caricatured and so ubiquitous that they are accepted axiomatically.
One need only think back to the controversy which followed John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s publication of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy in 2007, where they set out how they think Israel advocacy damages US interests. It was based on a paper rejected by the publisher which originally commissioned it, before being issued elsewhere. The book received both acclaim and a wave of harsh criticism, not only from Zionist organizations. Former CIA director James Woolsey, for instance, reportedly dismissed it as a “stunningly deceptive…version of events”. I hope the Al-Jazeera series will be balanced, but I sense that it will try to create drama where there actually isn’t all that much.
I served as Head of Political Communications for LFI from 2003 to 2006. I never remember discussing or employing Machiavellian tactics to try to advance our strategy – not with colleagues, not with supporters in parliament, not with anyone. It was never about scheming to “take out” hostile voices.
We had objectives, as does any campaign group worthy of the name, but they were essentially positive. Strengthening bilateral ties between Britain and Israel, and between sister political parties. Offering richer perspective about a small country’s unique challenges in one of the world’s toughest neighbourhoods. Shedding light on a region too frequently depicted as a warzone. And above all: constructively supporting peacemaking efforts, which the British government was helping to lead. That meant wholeheartedly supporting the case for a Palestinian state, too.
To these ends, LFI ran an intensive campaign amid difficult circumstances on the ground: the deadly violence of the second intifada and the run-up to Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005.
Naturally, there were close ties with colleagues from the Israeli embassy, but they were well aware that we and other Israel advocacy groups were independent organizations. They probably knew that there was contact with many different stakeholders. They certainly knew that LFI members’ views often diverged from theirs.
The most compelling way of facilitating more informed debate about these complex, deeply contested issues was through political delegations we organized to the region. British MPs who join foreign trips of this kind catalogue them publicly, in the Register of Members’ Interests. They and other party activists hear a range of opinion within Israel’s heated democracy, including from opposition politicians and NGOs frequently critical of Israeli government policy. They visit East Jerusalem as well as West. They see the contentious security barrier first hand, a wall and fence system that has saved countless Palestinian and Israeli lives since it was erected amid a great deal of invective, yet is hardly discussed anymore.
Delegates visit Ramallah too, to call on top political and security figures on the Palestinian side, where a totally contrasting narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict is always set out. On trips in which I was involved, we held meetings with senior Fatah and Palestinian Authority officials, including Abu Mazen’s chief of staff, and then-Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei, as well as other cabinet ministers.
To emphasise just how far this pluralism pendulum swung: there was even some contact with Hamas figures too, such as Aziz Dweik, after he was elected Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council in early 2006. That was not straightforward, for a pro-Israel organization, given the Islamist terror organization’s refusal – until today – to recognise Israel’s right to exist, cease violence, or accept agreements reached between Israel and the PLO since the Oslo Accords. Hamas remains committed to stirring up hatred and violence every day, and has called the perpetrator of the latest truck attack in Jerusalem “heroic”.
Perhaps it was naïve, or morally reprehensible, to meet Hamas. Perhaps not. The argument cuts both ways.
But one thing is sadly clear, not regarding the jihadists whose raison d’être is muqawama (‘resistance’), but the more moderate pro-Palestine campaigners internationally. They rarely contemplate reciprocal outreach towards even the progressive, left-leaning Zionist organizations. The only Israelis and Jews with whom they tend to interact are on the anti-Zionist fringe.
The slightly dull truth, ultimately, is that Israel lobbying is not markedly different from other political campaigning: monitoring to see what’s going on and occasionally to set the record straight or challenge perceived bias, producing publications, providing briefings, holding events, and reaching out to the non-aligned or disinterested to try to encourage engagement.
Pretty bog-standard public affairs activity, if “lobbying” is too much of a dirty word. You win some, you lost some. Nothing pernicious, and no dark arts, I’m afraid.
Where you’re effective, say in broadening support, it’s usually largely down to hard work, professionalism and a sensible strategy. That, and a relatively affable political climate. Strong support at the level of the party leadership helps a lot, too.
Politics in the UK today have shifted since a decade ago, with Labour weak in opposition, and Jeremy Corbyn at the helm. But in pure public affairs terms, the only real contrast with other interest groups is that Israel-Palestine is immeasurably more emotive and controversial. A beer-lover might support the Campaign for Real Ale, but as long as there’s still beer in the keg, the atmosphere remains relatively calm in the pub. Not so on the ground in Jerusalem or Nablus.
Were Shai Masot’s antics deeply embarrassing to Israel? Yes. To the Jewish community? Parts of it.
To Israel’s image? Yes, but that’s already tarnished internationally. Supporters won’t abandon Israel over this issue, just as some detractors won’t hate it any more now than they already did before.
Is this classic media sting operation indicative of how the Israel lobby works in Britain? Not in my experience.
The tip of the iceberg of a Zionist conspiracy to control the world, then? Sorry to whom it disappoints, but there is none.
Needless to note, the views expressed here are entirely my own.