By Matthew Barrett
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Conservative Friends of Israel is an influential affiliate group of the Conservative Party which contains perhaps the largest number of Conservative MPs of any group in Parliament. It exists to promote understanding of and support for the State of Israel in the Conservative Party, and its membership reaches the highest echelons of power, including the Foreign Secretary, William Hague. In this profile, I examine its origins, membership, role, and activities.
Origins of the group
Conservative Friends of Israel (CFoI) is the oldest group of Conservative MPs I have profiled so far: it was founded by Michael Fidler, who was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Bury and Radcliffe between 1970 and the October 1974 election. After losing his seat, he decided to focus on building a pro-Israel group within the Conservative Party – there had been a Labour Friends of Israel group since 1957 – so Fidler launched CFoI in 1974, and served as its National Director.
Sir Hugh Fraser served as the first Chairman of CFoI, from 1974. Sir Hugh was a Conservative MP of the old school: after a distinguished military intelligence career in the Second World War, he entered Parliament in 1945, and he missed out on being Father of the House to James Callaghan in 1983 by only a few days. Sir Hugh had an interest in oil and the Middle East and served a number of positions in the War and Colonial Offices, before entering Cabinet as the Secretary of State for Air in 1962. He might be best known to some readers as the outsider candidate who came third in the 1975 party leadership contest, behind Mrs Thatcher and Edward Heath, gaining only 16 votes.
By the mid-1980s, the enthusastic Fidler had recruited more than 150 Conservative MPs to the CFoI cause. Fidler served as the National Director of CFoI until 1989, the year of his death.
Membership of the group
Conservative Friends of Israel is highly influential. Unlike most groups of Tory MPs, it has a staff and activist base that exists outside of Parliament. In other words, its core staff – including Director Stuart Polak – is not composed of MPs. Ordinary people are able to sign up for membership – there are roughly 2,000 members. However, its Parliamentary Group is said to include 80% of all Conservative MPs. The Chairman of the Parliamentary Group is James Arbuthnot (pictured right), and James Clappison is the Vice Chairman. Officers include David Amess, David Burrowes, Robert Halfon, Priti Patel and Lee Scott, and Timothy Kirkhope MEP leads CFoI's European group.
Other leading members of CFoI include Iain Duncan Smith, Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, and Malcolm Rifkind, but perhaps most importantly, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, and Alistair Burt, the Minister at the Foreign Office whose brief covers the Middle East, are members.
Role and key purposes of the group
As the name suggests, CFoI is primarily concerned with foreign policy, and Israel in particular. It would not, for example, meet regularly to discuss everyday domestic political issues like some groups, nor would it issue ideologically-focused policy papers, as, for example, the Free Enterprise Group does, and it wouldn't be trying to protect a particular wing of conservatism, as Cornerstone or No Turning Back would.
CFoI exists to inform the Conservative Party about Israel, and vice versa. CFoI makes sure Israel's case is fairly heard in Parliament, and keeps MPs up to date with Israeli affairs and issues. A key part of this is the regular trips CFoI makes to Israel with Conservative MPs and candidates. Conservatives meet with Palestinians, Israelis (and Israeli Arabs) in order to hear at first-hand what is happening, and gain a better understanding of the situation in Israel.
There were 30 such trips between 2006 and 2009 alone, and regular trips continue – MPs listed as going on such trips this parliament include Nigel Adams, Guto Bebb, Bob Blackman, Angie Bray, Graham Evans, Chris Kelly, Kwasi Kwarteng, Jessica Lee, Phillip Lee, Jack Lopresti, James Morris, Neil Parish, Andrew Percy, Chloe Smith, James Wharton, Heather Wheeler, Chris White, and Nadhim Zahawi.
As well as the aforementioned trips to Israel, CFoI also organises many events in Westminster and in Parliament. These events include regular meetings of interested MPs and Parliamentary Briefings, at which notable or knowledgeable figures speak – journalists, politicians, academics, and so on. The highlight of the CFoI's events calender is the Annual Business Lunch, held towards the end of each year, at which Michael Howard, William Hague, George Osborne and David Cameron have spoken in recent years. In 2010 the speaker was the Prime Minister, last year the Chancellor, and it is set to be Mr Cameron again later this year. One source in Parliament said the annual lunches "are attended by the lion's share of the Parliamentary Party. They are the Manchester United of affiliate party groups."
"The friendship we celebrate today has thrived in the long years of Opposition and I know in government, it will deepen, because the ties between this party and Israel are unbreakable. And in me, you have a Prime Minister whose belief in Israel is indestructible."
At 2006's lunch, Mr Cameron said:
"I am proud not just to be a Conservative, but a Conservative friend of Israel; and I am proud of the key role CFI plays within our Party. Israel is a democracy, a strong and proud democracy, in a region that is, we hope, making its first steps in that direction."
CFoI sends out weekly email briefings to members. Briefings contain international news relevant to the Middle East and Israel, Israeli political and domestic news, what Conservatives have said about Israel – any relevant speeches or statements made by David Cameron, William Hague, etc, what Conservative MPs and MEPS have said in Parliament, and so on.
As mentioned above in the membership section below, CFoI is not just a group of MPs, it also has members and activists, who support Conservative candidates in elections up and down the country, and organise campaigns to get the vote out for them, especially in target seats. In this year's mayoral election, CFoI organised a "Boris Battle Bus" tour across north-west London, which saw hundreds of activists and supporters turn out for Boris Johnson.