Israeli group submits freedom of information request as evidence grows of meddling by Netanyahu government in UK politics
Has Israel been covertly fuelling claims of an "anti-Semitism crisis" purportedly plaguing Britain's Labour Party since it elected a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, three years ago?
That question is raised by a new freedom of information request submitted this week by a group of Israeli lawyers, academics and human rights activists.
They suspect that two Israeli government departments – the ministries of foreign affairs and strategic affairs – have been helping to undermine Corbyn as part of a wider campaign by the Israeli government to harm Palestinian solidarity activists.
The Israeli foreign affairs ministry employs staff of the country's embassy in London, which was at the centre of suspicions of meddling in UK politics provoked by an Al Jazeera undercover documentary aired last year.
Eitay Mack, an Israeli lawyer, has written to both ministries requesting information on Israel's contacts and possible funding of anti-Corbyn activities by pro-Israel lobby groups in the UK. The letter specifically seeks information on possible ties with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Community Security Trust, Labour Friends of Israel and Conservative Friends of Israel.
It also requests information on any efforts by the two Israeli ministries and the Israeli Embassy to influence journalists and civil society groups in the UK.
The move follows an outburst by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on social media last week, in which he accused Corbyn of laying a wreath at a cemetery in Tunisia in 2014 for a Palestinian faction that took hostage Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Eleven Israelis were killed during a bungled rescue bid by the German security services.
Netanyahu's high-profile intervention followed days of similar claims in the British media against Corbyn.
The Labour leader has insisted that the wreath was laid for Palestinian and Tunisian victims of an Israeli attack on Tunisian soil in 1985, an operation that was denounced by most Western leaders at the time.
'War against the Jews'
The suggestion that Corbyn supported Palestinian terrorists is an escalation in long-running allegations of a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism in the Labour Party since he became leader. Such claims have been rife despite statistics showing that the party has less of a problem with anti-Semitism than both the ruling Conservative Party and British society generally.
While initial charges of anti-Semitism in the party targeted mostly Corbyn supporters, the focus has increasingly shifted to the Labour leader himself.
This week Labour MP Joan Ryan, who heads Labour Friends of Israel, wrote a commentary in the Jewish Chronicle newspaper directly blaming Corbyn for what she termed the party's anti-Semitism crisis. She said the party's problems had grown out of his "past associations with 'Holocaust deniers, terrorists and some outright anti-Semites'".
Britain's main opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn (C) talks with Professor Deirdre Heenan (L) and Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Tony Lloyd (R) during a visit to Lifford Bridge (AFP)
Fellow MP Margaret Hodge had earlier called Corbyn "an anti-Semite and racist".
Marie Van Der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies, appeared this week on i24, an Israeli English-language channel, to berate Corbyn: "It's like Jeremy Corbyn has declared war on the Jews ... We as the Jewish community are spending our time fighting the leader of the opposition."
A recently created British group, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, solicited testimony this week from British Jews in a case it has submitted to the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission alleging "institutional racism" in the Labour Party.
Meddling by Israel
Netanyahu's tweet is far from the first example of public meddling by Israel in Labour politics. Last December Gilad Erdan, Israel's strategic affairs minister and a close ally of Netanyahu's, all but accused Corbyn of being an anti-Semite.
He was reported saying: "We recognise and we see that there are anti-Semitic views in many of the leadership of the current Labour Party."
An Israeli app developed by Israel's strategic affairs ministry was reportedly used this month to amplify erroneous criticism of Corbyn on social media for making supposedly anti-Semitic comments at a 2010 meeting.
A "mission" issued to Israel lobbyists urged them to spread claims that Corbyn had compared Israel to Nazi Germany, based on a misreading of a report in Britain's Times newspaper. In fact, Corbyn had attended an anti-racism event at which a Holocaust survivor, Hajo Meyer, had made such a comparison.
But while these interventions have angered Corbyn and many of his supporters, there are suggestions that, behind the scenes, Israel has been playing a much larger role in helping to stoke the party's "anti-Semitism crisis," as the freedom of information request suggests.
Dirty tricks unit
The main source of Labour's current woes looks to be Israel's strategic affairs ministry, which has been headed by Erdan since 2015.
It was set up in 2006, mainly as a vehicle to prevent far-right politician Avigdor Lieberman from breaking up the governing coalition. Lieberman and his successors used it chiefly as a platform from which to stoke concerns about either Iran building a nuclear bomb or a supposed problem of "Palestinian incitement".
But more recently, reports suggest that Netanyahu has encouraged the ministry to redirect its energies towards what he terms "delegitimisation," chiefly in response to the growing visibility of the international BDS movement, which promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel.
They hope that by taking action against him, they can decapitate what they see as the most powerful figure in this network. By making an example of him, they can sow division, spread fear and suppress speech on Israel
- Asa Winstanley, journalist
As a result, the strategic affairs ministry has moved from being a relative backwater inside the government to playing a starring role in Israel's struggle on the world stage against "enemies" damaging its image.
It is hard to determine precisely what the ministry is up to, so sensitive is its work. Even the names of many of its staff are classified.
In the summer of 2016, it advertised a position for an intelligence operative to head a "tarnishing" – or dirty tricks – unit. Its role, according to Amir Oren, a commentator on Israel's security services, was to "establish, hire or tempt nonprofit organisations or groups not associated with Israel, in order to disseminate the sullying material".
The ministry now has an annual budget of tens of millions of dollars, and there are clues aplenty that it is playing a leading, if covert, role in shaping public perceptions of Israel around the world.
'Civil targeted eliminations'
Erdan's number two, Sima Vaknin-Gil, a former military intelligence officer, told a parliamentary committee in 2016 that most of the ministry's activities had to stay "under the radar" because of "sensitivities".
"I can't even explain in an open forum why there are such sensitivities," she said.
The ministry's job, she added, was to build a "community of warriors".
Yossi Melman, a veteran Israeli analyst who has spent decades covering Israel's intelligence services, reported at the time that the ministry was receiving help from a "special unit" of military intelligence to run "black ops" that might include "defamation campaigns" and "harassment".
The ministry's underhand methods were alluded to two years ago, at a conference in Israel against BDS. A colleague of Erdan's, intelligence minister Yisrael Katz, called for "targeted civil eliminations" of high-profile proponents of BDS.
That could be achieved, he suggested, by drawing on information provided by the Israeli intelligence services he oversees.
Katz used language intended to play on the term "targeted assassinations" – how Israel describes its extrajudicial execution of Palestinian leaders. Katz appeared to be calling for "black ops" designed to character-assassinate Israel's leading critics.
Plan to marginalise critics
If Israel regards it as necessary to go to such lengths against BDS activists, it seems reasonable to ask: what is it prepared to do to undermine Corbyn, who heads the largest political party in Europe and was in sight of winning last year's British general election?
If Corbyn eventually becomes prime minister, he would be the first European leader to prioritise the cause of justice for Palestinians over Israel's continuing occupation.
Clues are provided in a report written last year by two prominent pro-Israel lobby groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the Reut Institute, in collaboration with Israeli government "experts" and endorsed by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. The report was leaked to the Electronic Intifada website.
It warned that solidarity with Palestinians had "migrated into mainstream left-wing parties in Europe". The damage could be curtailed, according to the report, by "driving a wedge" between what it termed "harsh critics" and "soft critics" of Israel.
It proposed "professionalising" the existing network of pro-Israel lobby groups and improving "information-gathering" to target Palestinian solidarity activists – or what it called a "delegitimisation network". Such work needed to be done "covertly" and "uncompromisingly," the authors stated.
Harsh critics, the report concluded, could then be "marginalised to a point where it [their criticism] is considered socially inappropriate".
The report praises the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs for having "inserted a great degree of sophistication and creativity to the pro-Israel network".
Vaknin-Gil, the ministry's director-general, is quoted in the document as endorsing its findings: "I am glad to see that we share a very similar point of view regarding the challenge and desired strategy."
Whether connected or not, much of the report reads like a playbook for what Israel lobbyists have been doing to promote the idea of an "anti-Semitism crisis" in the Labour Party. The issue has indeed driven a wedge between "harsh critics" of Israel – Corbyn and his supporters – and much of the rest of the party bureaucracy.
Asa Winstanley, an investigative journalist who has extensively covered the claims of an anti-Semitism crisis in the Labour Party for the Electronic Intifada, argues that Corbyn is viewed by Israel as effectively the "figurehead of the delegitimisation network".
"They hope that by taking action against him, they can decapitate what they see as the most powerful figure in this network," he told Middle East Eye. "By making an example of him, they can sow division, spread fear and suppress speech on Israel."
Certainly, Israel's fingerprints look to be present in the current claims of an anti-Semitism crisis supposedly revolving around Corbyn.
Active interference by the Israeli government in British politics was highlighted last year in a four-part undercover documentary produced by the Qatari channel Al Jazeera. It secretly filmed the activities of an operative in Israel's embassy in London named Shai Masot.
The Al Jazeera investigation provoked numerous complaints that it breached broadcasting rules relating to anti-Semitism, bias, unfair editing and invasions of privacy. However, Ofcom, the British broadcasting regulator, cleared the programme of all charges.
What little coverage there was of the documentary in the British media focused on Masot's meetings with pro-Israel activists in the Conservative Party. Masot is shown plotting to "take down" a junior foreign office minister, Alan Duncan, who was seen by Israel as too sympathetic to the Palestinians.
But the documentary itself concentrated on Masot's much more extensive meetings with pro-Israel activists in the Labour Party. One of his main efforts was to establish a front organisation, a youth wing of Labour Friends of Israel that would have been opposed to Corbyn.
Complaints of bias
Masot was also filmed collaborating with two key Israel lobby groups within the party, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Friends of Israel – membership of the latter includes dozens of Labour MPs.
Winstanley, of the Electronic Intifada, observed that the JLM had in recent years become a largely defunct organisation until it was revived in February 2016 – just as claims of an anti-Semitism crisis in Labour took off.
Those who have tried to investigate how the JLM expanded its operations so rapidly say its funding sources are "completely opaque".
Shortly after the JLM became more active, a new director, Ella Rose, was appointed. It was Winstanley who revealed that Rose had been recruited straight from Israel's London embassy, where she worked as its public affairs officer.
Although the JLM has argued it represents the diversity of Jewish opinion in the Labour Party, that has come under challenge since the Al Jazeera investigation. A new faction, Jewish Voice for Labour, has since been established with a declared intention to show that many of the party's Jewish members are supportive of Corbyn.
"It looks suspiciously like the JLM has become a proxy of the Israeli state," Winstanley said.
"It is not an organic grassroots movement, as it likes to claim. And it is no accident that it has been the driving force behind the claims of an anti-Semitism problem under Corbyn."
Both Ella Rose and the JLM were contacted for comment on these allegations, but neither had responded at time of publication
Turf war in London
Who was Masot working for? Perhaps not surprisingly, Israeli officials and the Israeli media have downplayed his significance, portraying him as a minor player at the embassy who pursued a rogue, personal policy.
That view appeared to be accepted by the British government and the British media, which allowed the controversy to quickly die down after Masot was sent back to Israel.
But there is considerable evidence that Masot's collaborative work with British pro-Israel organisations against Corbyn was being carried out at the direction of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs.
In September 2016, as Al Jazeera was filming its undercover documentary, Haaretz reported on a growing turf war in Britain between the Israeli foreign ministry and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, the two groups targeted in the freedom of information request.
In a leaked cable sent to the Israeli foreign ministry and obtained by Haaretz, its senior staff at the London embassy complain that Erdan’s strategic affairs ministry is "operating" British Jewish organisations behind the embassy's back.
People wear flag of Israel glasses and hold up placards as they gather for a demonstration organised by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism outside the head office of the British opposition Labour Party in central London (AFP)
The embassy's apparent concern is that such operations are likely to break British law and could have "dangerous" repercussions for the embassy's work. "Britain isn't the US!" the cable states.
Haaretz explained the concern behind the cable: "The potential legal problem stems from the fact that most British Jewish organisations are defined as charities. As such, they are barred from activity of a political nature unless it is directly connected to the organisation's charitable goals."
According to the Haaretz report, strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan had visited Britain two weeks earlier to try to iron out differences. His advisers in the UK had promised "not to pose as the embassy," though the cable identifies an incident shortly afterwards when one such adviser did so.
Was Masot another of Erdan's "advisers" in the UK, operating out of the embassy? His covert operations – caught on camera – are of precisely the kind his own embassy was complaining about.
At one point during Al Jazeera's many weeks of secret filming, Masot dramatically changes direction. He announces to the undercover reporter that he can no longer be directly involved in creating a Labour youth movement and must remain in the background. He is seen winking at the reporter.
His sudden change of tune appears to coincide with the spat between the embassy staff and the strategic affairs ministry.
Problems over anti-Semitism
One Labour activist, who did not wish to be named given the purges taking place inside the party, told MEE: "Corbyn is up against an unholy, ad hoc alliance of right-wing MPs in both the Labour and Tory parties, the Israeli government and its lobbyists, the British security services and the media.
"They have settled on anti-Semitism as the best weapon to use against him because it is such a taboo issue. It's like quicksand. The more he struggles against the claims, the more he gets sucked down into the mire."
That has been all too evident in months of wrangling inside Labour about how to define anti-Semitism. Under pressure from Corbyn's critics, the party approved a new code of conduct in July based on a highly controversial "working definition" drafted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
The adoption of the IHRA definition, however, did nothing to placate Jewish leadership organisations, such as the Board of Deputies, or the JLM. They objected because Labour's code of conduct excluded four of the IHRA's 11 possible "examples" of anti-Semitism - the main ones that relate to Israel.
Labour officials feared that including them would severely curtail the party's ability to criticise Israel.
Experts agree. David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Birkbeck College, London University, has warned of "a danger that the overall effect will place the onus on Israel's critics to demonstrate they are not anti-Semitic".
Under pressure from pro-Israel groups, however, Labour looks close to adopting all of the IHRA examples.
Creating a new definition
Israel's fingerprints are evident in these recent efforts to redefine anti-Semitism in a way that moves the centre of gravity away from hatred of Jews towards criticism of Israel.
That shift inevitably ensnares any political leader who, like Corbyn, wishes to express solidarity with Palestinians.
The IHRA's definition is itself based on one proposed in 2004 – and discarded after much criticism – by a now-defunct European Union body called the Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC).
That definition was derived from the work of Israeli academics such as Dina Porat, who was part of an Israeli foreign ministry delegation to an anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. At that time Israel was facing a barrage of criticism for its use of lethal force to put down a Palestinian uprising.
Nathan Thrall, an analyst in Jerusalem with the International Crisis Group, has noted that the aim of Porat and others was to create "a new definition of anti-Semitism that would equate criticisms of Israel with hatred of Jews".
The role of the strategic affairs ministry, given its covert nature, is harder to assess. But the existence of a 'dirty tricks' unit points towards a strategy to vilify and isolate high-profile Palestinian solidarity activists such as Corbyn
They were largely responsible for the way the EUMC's "working definition" was formulated.
But Israel and its lobbyists were frustrated by the definition's failure to gain traction. That began to change in 2015.
A conference in Jerusalem sponsored by the Israeli foreign affairs ministry, the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, recommended that year that the working definition of anti-Semitism "be reintroduced into the international arena with the aim of giving it legal status".
The task was taken up by a senior pro-Israel lobbyist, Mark Weitzman, of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre. As chair of the IHRA's committee on anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, he lobbied on behalf of the discredited EUMC definition. The IHRA formally adopted it in 2016.
In a new book, Cracks in the Wall, analyst Ben White points to an Israeli government document that approved the change of emphasis in the definition. The document states: "The main innovation in the working definition is that it also includes expressions of anti-Semitism directed against the state of Israel, when it is perceived as a Jewish collective."
'Open season' on Corbyn
A tool originally intended to suppress student debates about Israel and block Israel anti-apartheid week on campus has now been successfully pressed into service against the leader of a major British political party.
According to Winstanley, if the full IHRA definition is approved by Labour: "It will be open season on Corbyn and his supporters in the party."
He added that the strategy outlined in the report by the Anti-Defamation League and the Reut Institute was being closely followed. "Well-tested disinformation strategies are being used to isolate Corbyn from his base of support," he said.
The Israeli academics and lawyers seeking access to information on the activities of two Israeli ministries – foreign affairs and strategic affairs – believe that official documents could help to expose a role played by Israel in fomenting the current problems facing Corbyn.
The foreign ministry has demonstrably been at the centre of efforts to expand the definition of anti-Semitism from hatred of Jews into a catch-all for criticism of Israel – a definition that Corbyn and his supporters are bound to fall foul of.
The role of the strategic affairs ministry, given its covert nature, is harder to assess. But the existence of a "dirty tricks" unit points towards a strategy to vilify and isolate high-profile Palestinian solidarity activists such as Corbyn.
There is evidence that, in cooperation with the foreign affairs ministry, it has run at least one agent out of the London embassy assisting and possibly directing pro-Israel lobby groups to amplify a supposed anti-Semitism crisis in the Labour party.
Given his long track record of being at the forefront of anti-racism initiatives that have emphasised Palestinian solidarity and criticism of Israel, Corbyn may find there is an endless supply of readily mined "scandals" the two ministries can keep digging up.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.