Is Labour Friends of Israel an Israeli embassy front?

Part two of Al Jazeera’s film The Lobby dives deep into the UK’s pro-Israel networks.

It uncovers a startling reality: many of the organizations posing as independent support groups for Israel are operated effectively as covert extensions of the Israeli embassy.

Speaking to an undercover reporter, a key Labour Friends of Israel officer clarified the need for secrecy.

“We work really closely together,” said Michael Rubin. “But a lot of it is behind the scenes.”

Labour Friends of Israel, which counts dozens of lawmakers among its supporters, is a pro-Israel lobby group inside the UK’s main opposition party.

The Al Jazeera reporter was posing as a Labour activist wanting to volunteer for Israel. Known to them as “Robin,” the reporter had been put in contact with Rubin by the embassy’s senior political officer, Shai Masot.

Masot was caught on camera during the six-month investigation plotting to “take down” senior government minister Alan Duncan and other lawmakers.

Masot approached Robin with the idea of starting a youth wing of Labour Friends of Israel. But he emphasized the need to keep the embassy’s role in the background: “You can tell him [Rubin] that I suggested to contact him, but not [tell him you have] my support because LFI is an independent organization.”

“No one likes that someone is managing his organization,” he said, with a smile.

Shai Masot

Masot was swiftly thrown under the bus by the embassy after Al Jazeera went public with its investigation. And on Wednesday the Israeli foreign ministry told Middle East Eye that Masot had quit the ministry altogether and would “not have any contact with the Ministry for Strategic Affairs in the near future.”

The latter ministry has been given a $45 million budget to try to sabotage the Palestine solidarity movement through what a veteran Israeli analyst has termed “black ops.”

In a meeting with the undercover reporter over drinks, Rubin emphasized the covert nature of the link.

“So we do work really really closely together,” he said again. “It’s just publicly we just try to keep the LFI as a separate identity to the embassy.”

This clearly raises questions over how separate an “identity” Labour Friends of Israel really is.

In September, a leaked Israeli embassy cable revealed an inter-departmental turf war over claims that one ministry had been “operating” UK groups in a potentially illegal manner.

Young Israeli Embassy

The activity of these groups was aimed at combating the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. Potential illegality is obviously something LFI would want to publicly distance itself from.

“Being LFI allows us to reach out to people who wouldn’t want to get involved with the embassy,” Rubin explained to Robin. “Keeping it as a separate thing is actually best for everyone.”

But he made clear that LFI’s chair, member of Parliament Joan Ryan, has active and regular contact with the embassy: “we work with the ambassador and the embassy quite a lot. So she’ll speak to Shai most days.”

He told Robin to discreetly keep Masot in the loop: “Having Shai helping in the background, yeah. I think definitely keeping Shai up to date and let him know what we’re doing.”

He worried about an image problem for the prospective Young Labour Friends of Israel: “I think we just have to be careful that we’re not to be seen as Young Israeli Embassy.”

The million-pound junket

LFI’s links to the embassy go further than being an “identity” for Israel. They seem to be financial too.

The film shows undercover footage at 2016’s Labour Party conference in Liverpool in which Masot tells LFI chairperson Joan Ryan “we’ve just now got the money, it’s more than one million pounds, it’s a lot of money.”

The money was apparently for junkets for British MPs to Israel. In a response to Al Jazeera’s investigation, LFI issued a statement saying the money was in relation to a visit “advertised by and paid for by the Israeli embassy. It had nothing whatsoever to do with LFI delegations.”

But the undercover film shows that Masot’s offer of one million pounds ($1.2 million) in funding had been prompted by Ryan’s question, “what happened with the names that we put into the embassy, Shai?”

This indicates that the delegation had some sort of LFI involvement, even if it was not officially organized by the group.

Witch hunt

Michael Rubin was previously chair of Labour Students. In 2016 he led an investigation into supposed anti-Semitism at Oxford University Labour Club.

Former Israel lobby intern Alex Chalmers had made the allegations, based on little more than the fact that students had organized events in support of Israeli Apartheid Week.

The allegations sparked the anti-Semitism row that plagued the Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn for the best part of 2016. As The Electronic Intifada extensively reported, the row was for the most part a witch hunt aimed at destroying Corbyn, a vocal critic of Israel.

Rubin’s hasty investigation into the Oxford allegations, Labour activists told The Electronic Intifada at the time, was so obviously botched and marred by a personal conflict of interest that it was not credible.

The report was shelved by the party and instead superseded by two others, one by Labour leader in the House of Lords Jan Royall, and the second by human rights lawyer Shami Chakrabarti.

Chakrabarti concluded that “The Labour Party is not overrun by anti-Semitism.”

Questioned by The Electronic Intifada at the Labour Party conference in September about his role in the affair, Rubin refused to answer, and would only say “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

Part two of The Lobby is broadcast on Al Jazeera English on Thursday at 2230 GMT and can be watched online in the video above.

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Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist and associate editor with The Electronic Intifada. He lives in London. Biography here.