British TV documentary tackles taboo of Israel’s lobby

For the first time a mainstream British television program has tackled the Zionist lobby head-on. Channel 4’s Dispatches, broadcast on 16 November, promised to hold the pro-Israel lobby up to rigorous public scrutiny and it succeeded. Presented by Peter Oborne, former political editor of the right-wing weekly The Spectator, Dispatches revealed the cozy relationship between Britain’s pro-Israel lobby and both the Conservative and Labour parties as well as its attempts to stifle criticism of Israel in the press.

Given that there is a general election looming in which the Labour government is expected to be swept aside by a Conservative (Tory) landslide, Dispatches opened with an examination of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), an organization that claims that 80 percent of Tory MPs are members. The CFI annual lunch is held at a major central London hotel and the current Tory leader is usually the keynote speaker. Last June, Conservative party leader David Cameron and shadow foreign secretary William Hague attended the dinner, scenes of which were captured on film for Dispatches. Oborne explained that during Cameron’s speech he “made no reference at all to the invasion of Gaza, the massive destruction it caused, or the 1,370 deaths that had resulted. Indeed, Cameron went out of his way to praise Israel because it ‘strives to protect innocent life.’”

When he criticized Cameron for his pointed omission in a Daily Mail column published after the lunch, Oborne was promptly rebuked by Stuart Polak, the longstanding CFI director who stated that “the snapshot of our lunch concentrating on the businessmen and David’s alleged comments was really unhelpful.” Robert Halfon, the CFI political director, complained that Oborne was making a “moral equivalence” between Israel and Iran.

Oborne explained in his introduction to a pamphlet published to accompany the Dispatches program that “he resolved to ask the question: what led David Cameron to behave in the way he did at the CFI lunch at the Dorchester Hotel last June? What are the rules of British political behavior which allow the Tory Party leader and his mass of MPs and parliamentary candidates to flock to” the CFI lunch after the Israel’s devastating winter invasion of Gaza? Dispatches goes a long way toward answering these questions. It exposes the breadth and scope of the lobby’s reach and the relationship between the Israeli foreign ministry, the Britain Israel Research and Communications Centre (BICOM), the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the CFI, Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), the Zionist Federation, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), HonestReporting and other manifestations of Israel’s well-funded propaganda offensive.

As Dispatches reports, scores of MPs and journalists are regularly flown to Israel to be pampered by one or several of these organizations. Sometimes a “Palestinian businessman” will be produced to give the illusion of balance. While many of these parliamentarians may have no interest whatever in the Middle East, they seem unable to resist these jaunts as the recent scandal over MP’s expenses has shown. If they say a kind word about Israel on their return, a check ranging from #2,000 to #15,000 will shortly be in the post. As for the journalists, Oborne provides examples of articles in which the authors parrot Israeli spin doctors, without disclosing the source of their stories.

Dispatches reveals how conservative politician William Hague was given an ear-bashing and was targeted in a critical letter to The Spectator from major Tory donor Lord Kalms after using the taboo word “disproportionate” about Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon. More recently, the CFI imposed its will to stiffen Tory opposition to the UN resolution on the Goldstone report.

Dispatches also examines the relationship between Tony Blair and his former pro-Israeli Middle East envoy, Lord Levy. Levy is estimated to have raised over #15 million for Blair before the “cash for peerages” affair put an end to his fundraising activities in the summer of 2006.

The accompanying pamphlet by Peter Oborne and James Jones, which can be downloaded from the Channel 4 website or, provides tables listing MPs’ names, dates and quantities of cash supplied by the CFI. They give the historical background to the formation of both the CFI and LFI.

According to Oborne, many individuals who privately told Dispatches of their concerns about the lobby simply felt they had too much to lose by confronting it. Dispatches approached Jonathan Dimbleby, the doyen of BBC presenters, who authored a powerfully argued article for the UK-based website Index on Censorship, criticizing the BBC’s betrayal of Jeremy Bowen, its Middle East editor. Dimbleby was keen to be interviewed by the show’s producers and the Dispatches team were baffled when he abruptly backed out.

In 2000, Bowen witnessed an Israeli tank near the Lebanese border incinerate his local colleague and driver, Abed Takkoush. Bowen was shot at himself. Andrew Balcombe, Zionist Federation Chair, immediately wrote to the BBC Trust demanding Bowen’s removal as Middle East editor, claiming this incident was a “tragic mistake” that “may have colored [his] views about Israel.” Ever since, Israel’s allies have targeted Bowen.

The BBC Trust caved in to Jonathan Turner, attorney for the Zionist Federation, and CAMERA. Turner complained that Bowen’s online analysis “How 1967 defined the Middle East” and his 12 January 2008 report “From Our Own Correspondent” for BBC Radio 4, were “chronically biased.” Bowen was accused of using language that “appears to be calculated to promote hatred of the Jewish state and the Jews.”

However, Dispatches points out that Bowen had an article titled “Israel still bears a disastrous legacy,” (31 May 2007) published in The Jewish Chronicle a week earlier than one of BBC pieces that were successfully targeted by CAMERA. The BBC Trust upheld a complaint that Bowen had breached their standards of accuracy and impartiality by stating: “Zionism’s innate instinct to push out the frontier” and “the Israeli generals, mainly hugely self-confident Sabras in their late 30s and early 40s, had been training to finish the unfinished business of 1948 for most of their careers.” Yet The Jewish Chronicle article contained exactly the same wording without being challenged by the paper, sympathetic to Israel, or its readers. Oborne comments, “Perhaps the BBC Trust’s interpretation of due impartiality is different to that of Britain’s Jewish community.”

Moreover, Dispatches discovered that the BBC’s Dimbleby is now experiencing exactly the same process of complaints that he described in the Bowen case. After attacking Bowen, the Zionist Federation’s Turner is now arguing that Dimbleby’s defense of his colleague makes him unfit to host the BBC’s popular radio program Any Questions.

In addition to the BBC, Dispatches discovered other members of the media that have been targeted by the Zionist lobby. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper, described a 2006 visit from Gerald Ronson, chairman of the Community Security Trust, a charity for British Jews, and Henry Grunwald, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The meeting was triggered by an article in the Guardian by Chris McGreal that compared Israel to apartheid South Africa. After an emergency meeting at the Israeli ambassador’s residence that was also attended by BICOM chairman Poju Zabludowicz, Grumald and Ronson were dispatched to confront the Guardian editor. Ronson accused the Guardian of fomenting anti-Semitic attacks, stating that “There is a line which can’t be crossed, you’ve crossed it, and you must stop this.”

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the program are those who refused to talk on camera. Oborne describes how while gathering material for the show, he was subjected to taunts from a Member of Parliament who stated that “You would never have the guts to make a television program about the pro-Israel lobby.” The MP explained that it was “the most powerful lobby by far in parliament. It’s a big story. If you have any balls you’ll make a program about it.” Like many others approached, the MP who made those comments declined when Oborne asked to interview him on camera. One can only hope that this is will be the first of many programs to expose the influence and implications of the pro-Israel lobby on British politics and policies.

Diane Langford is a novelist and campaigner for human and civil rights. She is a proud member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.