Writing an article on Israel can be perceived as having additional risks to a similar publication made on the critical discussion of any other country’s policies and political activities.
As a political communications researcher, I have written pieces concerning the influence operations of many nation-states and other powerful international actors around the world. This has included those at war or under threat including North Korea, Taiwan, Russia and Ukraine. However, no country induces a fear of reprisal like a discussion of Israel does. Therefore, with Prof. David Miller’s sacking by the University of Bristol for criticism of Zionism in my mind, every word of this article has been scrupulously considered by its author ahead of publication. This is despite it taking – what I hope readers will agree is – a moderate and fair position.
These opening sentences are not a thinly-veiled appeal for leniency aimed towards those who seek to protect Israel’s interests – often through character assassination, accusations of antisemitism and threats of legal action against the publishers or employers of those who critique its actions in Palestine and other parts of the Middle East. Instead, they help to explain one aspect of Israel’s efforts to restrict political and public debate through the encouragement of an anxiety that, without considerable self-censorship, a discussion of Israel – which, like any other country, should be open to the utmost scrutiny – may result in significant negative consequences for the individual concerned.
To this end, while antisemitism is, of course, a social issue in the UK as elsewhere, Israel also appears to be using a fear of being accused of being antisemitic to its advantage. This is despite critical analysis of Israel – a political entity – being entirely different from criticism of Judaism – a religion – or Jewish people. Merging these three together is potentially comparable to suggesting that criticism of the Anglicanism, Anglican worshippers, England and/or its monarch as head of this Protestant denomination amount to much the same thing.
A further peculiarity of this communication landscape is the perception that has emerged that all Israelis, and perhaps all Jews even, support Israel and its actions in Gaza. Instead, the more obvious conclusion is that Jews in this country as elsewhere – and just like any other demographic – are not a homogenous block and have a range of opinions on the matter. Indeed, Jewish and/or Israeli sources are at least partly responsible for the encouragement of this lazy stereotyping on the basis that it is in Israeli’s interest for a measured amount of antisemitism to prevail within societies. This may be perceived as a controversial statement. However, Alison Weir’s book* on Israel notes how those favouring the creation of a Jewish homeland during the inter-war years understood that antisemitism against Jews living in different countries around the world assisted their cause. More broadly, political leaders for hundreds of years – perhaps swayed by Nicolo Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince – have been known to covertly embolden a useful amount of threat to themselves as justification for a range of policies, some draconian.
The Lobby System
Power, and how it should be measured, is a contested concept. Despite this, there is little controversy in stating here that the Israel lobby is one of, if not the most, powerful political forces advocating for the interests of another nation-state at Westminster, Washington DC and at several other seats of political power around the world.
Peter Oborne is one of the few British journalists willing to investigate the Israel lobby, and on his landmark Channel 4 Dispatches documentary in 2009, he described the political fear of talking about its influence.
One Tory MP privately taunted me to make a film about the pro-Israel lobby. He said, ‘you don’t have the guts, they’re the biggest lobby in Westminster […].’ But when I went back to this individual and said, ‘hey, come on the programme and tell us about it’, he ran a mile.
It is important to state from the outset that lobbying itself – for Israel or any other interest – is not illegal, although there are, of course, rules as to how it can be done and around the acceptance of monies in particular. However, the emphasis is rightly on politicians to not break the rules, rather than lobby groups to restrain themselves. Lobbying is actually a vital part of a vibrant democracy because politicians require input, advice and expertise from professional bodies and members of the public so as to determine the best course of action on a particular issue. Without this, policymaking is likely to be less informed and parliament would be accused of even more disregard for the public than it already is.
The NGO Transparency International UK defines lobbying as, “Any direct or indirect communication with public officials, political decision-makers or representatives for the purposes of influencing public decision-making carried out by or on behalf of any organised group.” The term reflects that the ‘lobby’ area of parliament is open to the public and is where people can, theoretically at least, approach a public official as they make their way to the Houses for debates or voting.
The issue and discomfort that many people feel surrounding lobbying, thus, lies not in its existence as a part of politics, but in the reality of how it usually operates. In particular, that private or select interests and those with more wealth are more likely to have access to public officials and be able affect the political decision-making process. These circumstances undermine the quality of democracy as a representative and publicly accountable method of governance that should be a reflection of the will of the people. These influence operations directed at politicians and other public officials are usually accompanied by mainstream media and public communications campaigns (now with the assistance of social media algorithms to target audiences) that explicitly, implicitly or subtly support the positions being lobbied for.
Indeed, that fear of reprisal that politicians have of speaking out against Israel that Peter Oborne discussed earlier is sometimes shared by mainstream media editors, celebrities and even ordinary members of the public. Much of this dynamic can be epitomised through the situation at Celtic Football Club where a chasm is growing between the club’s supporters who have expressed solidarity with Palestinians and the club’s increasingly anxious board who are worried about reputational damage. Celtic’s Israeli player Liel Abada has also strongly condemned the fans leading to a rupture in relations between the two, while the manager of the Israeli men’s national team has accused Celtic fans of antisemitism.
It is important to state that almost all industries, countries, and other international actors of relevance have some kind of lobbying presence. However, it is those actors whose interests are controversial or that may cause harm to humans, the animal kingdom or the natural world that tend to invest the most into lobbying. Fossil fuels, chemicals, big pharma, private healthcare, animal agriculture, nicotine and weapons manufacturers are probably the most notorious industries that extensively lobby and where harm can be done at least partly on account of weak legislation and the putting of a political career ahead of social protection or sustainability.
However, if it were just corporations and their affiliates lobbying for weak environmental legislation so that they can pollute rivers and seas more easily then there would likely soon be a public outcry. As such, the lobby industry is sustained through a handful of grassroots success stories where groups of regular citizens press for legislative change and have their hard work rewarded. These stories are then promoted as examples of democratic functionality, but one should only congratulate those groups that are successful. The issue here then is that politicians, political parties, and parliamentary outreach workers weaponise these stories as evidence of the ability of the general public to gain access to the corridors of power if they so wish. This disingenuous propaganda helps to obscure the reality that for every Harvey’s Law there are hundreds of citizen groups whose legitimate grievances are drowned out by the weight of more powerful interests that have much to lose from legislative change. Indeed, Harvey’s Law, which you can read more about by following the link provided above, only succeeded because there was little powerful counterweight to it.
Furthermore, powerful actors often employ what analysts in my field call ‘astroturf’ strategies. These are groups that appear to be, and often claim to be, authentic and spontaneous grassroots organisations established by concerned citizens, but which are at least partly funded, incentivised and/or coordinated in their approaches by the powerful from the shadows. These tactics only serve to distort the political landscape as politicians, news media and citizens alike have their attention drawn to issues that may be a choreography or may be an authentic mass concern. The point being that those being targeted find it difficult to determine whether the origin is genuinely grassroots or not. The result, nevertheless, is greater public disenchantment and distrust in politics.
The Israel Lobby
In their seminal text on the subject from 2007, Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, wrote about the influence of the Israel lobby over US politics. “[No Presidential candidate is] likely to criticize Israel in any significant way or suggest that the United States ought to pursue a more even-handed policy in the [Middle East]. Any who do will probably fall by the wayside. […]. The reason why American politicians are so deferential is the political power of the Israel lobby.”
The first tasks of the fledgling United Nations (UN) in the aftermath of World War II involved the development of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the creation of a Jewish state on what had been, since 1918, the British administered territory of Mandatory Palestine. The catalyst for both pieces of legislation was the revelation of the horror of the Holocaust following Nazi Germany’s capitulation in 1945. The notion of the state of Israel in the Holy land had originated, formally at least, with the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Wherein British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour acknowledged to Lord Rothschild (a prominent British Jew) that, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” Most analysts focus on the first part of the declaration pertaining to British support for a Jewish state. However, the second part involving the rights of non-Jews is equally important here as it provides an indication of the document’s moderation in comparison to the UK and US’s contemporary position of near unequivocal support for Israel.
Indeed, at the UN negotiations on Israel in 1947, the British team – led by Sir Alexander Cadogan – were far from the most enthusiastic members for the Israeli cause. This is in comparison to today where the US and UK often stand apart from other nations in their unwavering support. In 1949 the Guatemalan politician and diplomat Jorge Garcia Granados, who was appointed to the UN’s special committee on Palestine in 1947, published a memoir of the negotiations at Lake Success, New York that would result in the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. His book is critical of the British insistence that a solution be found that was satisfactory to Jews and non-Jews. A position that was in keeping with the Balfour Declaration of 1917. At the time, the British were viewed by Garcia and most other members of the UN team as deliberately obstructive to the negotiations on the premise that, in all likelihood, such a position did not exist. With 75 years of hindsight though, perhaps that position had an element of foreboding as to the bloodshed that would come from a lack of agreement across the religious divide.
Of more importance to the subject of lobbying though is the extent to which the British position on Israel and Palestine has shifted since the creation of Israel in 1948 towards Israeli ascendency over Palestinian and Arab interests. At least some of this movement away from parity can be explained by the development and subsequent strength of the Israel lobby within British politics.
It is difficult to gain a clear picture of the extent of the Israel lobby network, not least because of the lack of regulation and the unlikelihood of those responsible for it being willing to discuss their activities publicly. However, in 2019 Al Jazeera broadcast an excellent four-part documentary series where an undercover reporter infiltrated the world of the Israel lobby in the UK. It is well worth watching for those interested in how lobby works as it focuses on the astroturf groups being coordinated by the Israeli embassy in London.
One of the most transparent ways of demonstrating the influence of the Israel lobby over British political decision-making is to examine membership of the Conservative and Labour Friends of Israel groups. Currently, it is thought that the vast majority of Conservative MPs are affiliated with Conservative Friends of Israel and that the Israel lobby plays a significant role in determining who can becomes Conservative candidates in constituencies up and down the country. Such influence is likely responsible for the Party’s vocal support of Israel and their voting behaviour at the Commons in November 2023 against support for a ceasefire in the Israel – Gaza conflict. Furthermore, barring a few notable exceptions like Sayeeda Warsi, those who do have reservations about Israel usually say nothing on the issue or abstain from voting.
The situation is less certain within the Labour Party, though, where 56 of their MPs voted for the amendment in November despite the insistence of the Party leader Keir Starmer that they vote against it. Some resigned from their shadow cabinet positions to do so. Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) does not therefore have the same power over the Party as its Conservative affiliate appears to have, but that power remains formidable and appears to have risen since 2020. This is because all Labour leaders this century bar one – Jeremy Corbyn (2015 – 2020) – have been members of LFI, and those who were members all advocated for Israeli interests within their party. Indeed, the allegations of antisemitism levelled against the Labour Party between 2015-2020 when Corbyn was leader are believed, by some sympathisers at least, to be a reflection of the Israel lobby’s anxiety to regain some control by considering anyone who was not a ‘friend’ to be a foe.
There is, of course, a Palestinian lobby. However, it is nowhere near as well resourced, and fewer MPs from the major parties support it. Those who do advocate for it, and particularly those who are vocal in their support of Palestine, are usually fringe members.
Criticism of the Israel lobby usually focuses on the extent to which it has undue or excessive influence over political decision-making. In short, that a country with a population of nine million people has a more powerful lobby than the People’s Republic of China with 1.3 billion people. These comparisons are unhelpful though. Indeed, in Israel’s defence, while most lobbying activities are motivated by favourable legislation, or trade deals that are desirable but not essential to the existence of the group(s) concerned, Israel lobbies as though its life depends upon it. And maybe it does, given that many groups around the world would rather it did not exist. Moreover, to suggest that the Israel lobby, in particular, be curtailed on account of its overachievement is to divert attention away from the real issue that it is British politicians, and the British political establishment more broadly, who permit it to influence them. Like that of any lobby group’s activities, politicians have a choice as to whose words they heed.
As such, it can be concluded that, while many politicians passionately believe in the importance of Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself, others who advocate for Israel do so because they understand that it is beneficial to their political career to do so. Indeed, it can be amusing and disturbing in equal measure to watch one of the latter politicians shifting uncomfortably in their seat, stumbling over their words, fidgeting and lip licking during public appearances as they give responses that support Israel’s military campaigns or its encroachment on Palestinian territory since the 1967 war. The discomfort they are experiencing may be a reflection of their perception of audience hostility to the response, but it may also indicate a degree of distance between what they are saying and what they really think.
However, like most other lobbies, the Israel lobby does not really care whether politicians and other public commentators genuinely like Israel or not. The greatest concern is that when they come to making a speech, a social media post and, crucially, to voting and making other political decisions that they adopt a position that is satisfactory to the lobby’s interests (or alternatively do or say nothing to hinder their interests). This is what all lobby groups are trying to achieve, but there is arguably an existentialism within Israel’s interest in doing so. That many politicians do not actually like dealing with the Israelis, but understand that they should support them and their leaders, was perhaps most embarrassingly evident at the G20 summit in November 2011 when journalists overheard a private exchange between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and US President Barack Obama. Sarkozy called Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar” and Obama then replied, “You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day.”
To this end, what critique there is around the strength of the Israel lobby should focus firmly upon the British political institutions and individual politicians and other public officials whose weakness permits any well-backed private interest group – corporation, country or other – to flourish and, in the process, demean the democratic principle of public will.
Garcia Granados, J., (1949), The Birth of Israel: The Drama As I Saw It, New York: Alfred Knopf
Machiavelli, N., (2011 ), The Prince, London: Penguin
Mearsheimer, J., and S. Walt, (2007), The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, London: Allen Lane
Weir, A., (2014), Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel, Self-published
- Note that Alison Weir has been widely accused by pro-Israel groups of antisemitism for her research on Middle East affairs
(Featured Image: “The Prime Minister meets the Prime Minister of Israel (53268536292)” by Number 10 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)