Conservative Friends of Israel has inevitably found itself enmeshed in the weird yarn of the diplomat, the tape recorder, and Alan Duncan – not to mention Boris Johnson and Crispin Blunt. To cut a long story short, an Israeli diplomat called Shai Masot was covertly taped by Al Jazeera while having lunch with an aide to Robert Halfon called Maria Strizzolo: Halfon is one of CFI’s most prominent supporters. Masot was rude about a few Tory MPs who are critical of Israel, describing Boris Johnson in passing as an “idiot”, a view that is mistaken but scarcely novel.
More seriously, he also made what the Mail on Sunday, the paper which ran the story, called an “apparent threat to ‘take down’ Sir Alan [Duncan]”. Mark Regev, Israel’s Amassador in Britain, has apologised; Masot has been packed off back to Israel – and the story rumbles on. The Al Jazeera programme in question claims to show that Israel’s Government has ‘infiltrated’ the two main parties. Stuart Polak, CFI’s Honorary President, has said that this is “utter nonsense”, adding that “the Israeli Embassy represents Israel in a professional manner”, while also condemning (quite rightly) “any attempt to undermine Sir Alan, or any minister, or any Member of Parliament”.
The Al Jazeera programme in question is not alone in viewing CFI as an organisation of shadowy influence. I have not rocked up to one of its events in recent years (I went to a Conservative Middle East Council lunch the year before last), and have not been on one of its trips to Israel, so I have no personal insight to offer. None the less, CFI clearly differs from other similar Tory organisations – Conservative Friends of India, Conservative Friends of Pakistan, and so on – not in nature but in scale. (On another topical note, there was fairly recently a Conservative Friends of Russia, which got itself into hot water.)
CFI’s website records that it hosted five delegations to Israel last year and lists seven staff. It thus seems to be busier and better resourced than those other groups. However, the most comparable organisation is probably CMEC, which identifies three staff on its website, and doesn’t list the number of its delegations. CFI is said to have claimed in the past that 80 per cent of Tory MPs are members but, like CMEC, its own website doesn’t publish a list of all members. Evidently, however, lots of MPs are members of both, which reflects the compulsive fascination which the Middle East in general, and the Israel/Palestine issue in particular, exerts in Parliament, as elsewhere.
It is strange but true that CFI and its detractors have a mutual interest. The latter say that CFI influences Government policy. CFI would scarcely want to suggest otherwise. But the claim is over-egged. During the run-up to Christmas, the UN Security Council passed a resolution that was critical of Israel’s settlements policy. Britain supported it: indeed, it has been reported that the Foreign Office played an important part in drafting it, although this role is apparently not unusual. Downing Street has sought to balance out Britain’s vote on the resolution since by picking a fight with John Kerry, who said that Israel’s Government is “the most right-wing in Israeli history”.
CFI’s website carries a statement saying that it was “disappointed” by Britain’s vote at the UN. But it would never have been cast had the organisation the reach and clout that its detractors claim. CMEC has had better luck. On the day of the vote, it called upon the Government to support the resolution. For what it is worth, which doubtless isn’t much, my own view is that the resolution is broadly right about the settlements, the expansion of which is not in Israel’s own long-term interests. None the less, the U.N is not a neutral bystander – and the Israel/Palestine conflict, which is of less strategic importance to Britain than some claim, really isn’t worth falling out with Donald Trump over.