‘High-level’ Israel lobby interference in British politics, says ex-minister

Alan Duncan on a 2012 visit to Gaza (Shareef Sarhan - UNRWA)

Asa Winstanley

The Electronic Intifada  /  April 9, 2021

In a new book, Britain’s former deputy foreign minister Alan Duncan accuses the Israel lobby of “disgusting interference in our public life.”

Speaking to the Mail+ website this week Duncan said that lobby group Conservative Friends of Israel “interfere at a high level in British politics in the interest of Israel, on the back of donor power within the UK.”

He told journalist Michael Crick that this is “a sort of buried scandal that has to stop.”

Duncan’s new book In The Thick of It was serialized by the Daily Mail this week. The book comprises his diaries from his time in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Duncan writes that Conservative Friends of Israel successfully vetoed his appointment as Middle East minister in 2016. Then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told him that Conservative Friends of Israel were “going ballistic” at the prospect, Duncan writes.

“It is for no other reason than that I believe in the rights of Palestinians and it’s quite clear that they don’t,” he adds. “They just want to belittle and subjugate the Palestinians.”

Duncan was instead appointed as minister of state for foreign affairs – effectively deputy to the foreign secretary.

Duncan’s diary records that he was offered the role – which “they insist is the most serious portfolio” – because “everyone is very concerned that I might immediately resign and cause a massive stink about this outside interference” by the Israel lobby.

Fear of the lobby

In his interview with Crick, Duncan said Conservative Friends of Israel push “a sort of Netanyahu type view of Israeli politics into our foreign policy.”

“A lot of things do not happen in foreign policy, or a government, for fear of offending this lobby,” he added.

According to Duncan, Conservative Friends of Israel presents the issues it wants to lobby on as “too hot to handle” and as linked to donor money which comes into the Conservative Party.

Duncan was a member of Parliament for 27 years before stepping down ahead of the 2019 general election.

Conservative Friends of Israel has claimed in the past that 80 percent of Conservative MPs are members. Its funding sources are opaque, but are thought to be mostly wealthy pro-Israel businessmen in the UK.

In January 2017 an undercover series filmed by Al Jazeera revealed that Duncan had been on a hit list of British MPs that an Israeli embassy agent wanted to “take down.”

Israeli embassy spy Shai Masot and civil servant Maria Strizzolo were caught on undercover camera conspiring to engineer “a little scandal” for Duncan, who was the first openly gay Conservative MP.

Masot was thrown under the bus by the embassy and sent back to Tel Aviv. Strizzolo quit her government job.

Priti Patel

Later in 2017, then international development minister Priti Patel was forced to quit by Prime Minister Theresa May, after breaking government rules during a “holiday” to Israel.

Patel – who is now back in government as home secretary – held 12 undisclosed meetings with Israeli ministers and business leaders.

Her meetings included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. Patel had not declared the meetings to British officials or had them minuted in the normal fashion.

According to UK government rules, ministerial meetings discussing official business should be attended and recorded by civil servants – whose role is to serve the government in a nonpartisan fashion.

After initially lying about the affair, Patel later admitted her actions “fell below the standards of transparency and openness” expected of ministers.

In his diaries recounting his view of the 2017 incident, Duncan accuses “Priti Horrendous” of being “deceitful, morally corrupt” and “quite despicable.”

“She has engaged offline with a foreign government over issues of policy,” he writes. “It is contemptible.”

Patel’s meetings were arranged by Stuart Polak, a leading Conservative Friends of Israel lobbyist.

The BBC reported at the time that “some ministers and MPs accused Ms. Patel of trying to win favour with wealthy pro-Israeli Conservative donors who could fund a potential future leadership campaign.”

In his book Duncan describes Polak as “the principal pro-Israel donor lobbyist in the UK.”

It is Polak that Duncan excoriates for vetoing his appointment to the Middle East desk, along with fellow lobbyist and Conservative politician Eric Pickles: “Clearly Pickles and Polak have been lobbying against me. This is the most disgusting interference in our public life.”

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London