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UK parliament speaker rules out Israeli diplomat investigation

John Bercow responds to Israeli embassy scandal, saying: 'I don't think it would be helpful to discuss further'
John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons (AFP)

The speaker of Britain's House of Commons has responded to an ongoing scandal over Israel’s alleged influence in top-level UK politics, saying it is not currently a matter for him to investigate.

The scandal broke over the weekend when leaked recordings revealed a UK government employee and a diplomat with the Israeli embassy allegedly plotting to “take down” senior members of the British government, including Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan, a Conservative who has vocally opposed Israeli settlement-building.

Conservative MP Sir Hugo Swire, who is also chair of the Conservative Middle East Council, raised a point of order in the House of Commons on Monday evening over the scandal, despite the Foreign Office saying on Sunday that it considers the matter “closed”.

“Many will be alarmed by recent reports of attempts by a foreign government to ‘take down’ members of this house, including a senior minister,” Swire said, addressing John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons.

“Given the very serious implications of this,” Swire went on, “what measures will you take to investigate, not least as one party to the discussions…was or is at least partially a paid employee of this house?”

Swire was referring to Maria Strizzolo, who until Sunday was an employee of the government’s Department for Education, and had previously worked as an assistant to Robert Halfon, then Conservative Party deputy chairman.

Strizzolo resigned on Sunday, hours after the scandal was broken by a number of publications, including Middle East Eye.

In response to Swire’s point of order, the speaker John Bercow insisted that Strizzolo had not been a “paid employee” of the House of Commons at the time of her alleged actions.

However, Bercow admitted that Strizzolo had resigned from one full-time and one part-time job as a result of the scandal, acknowledging that the latter had “caused her to work with a member of the house”.

Bercow did not specify which MP Strizzolo had been working with at the time of her resignation.

“The pass that was available to the individual is being returned,” Bercow told MPs.

“I don’t think it would be helpful further to dwell on the matter now,” he said.

“At this stage...I am not aware of anything which has happened that is a matter for the chair,” he added, referring to the post he holds.

“If it transpires that something has happened which is a matter for the chair, I will of course consider what action to take.

Bercow did not respond to wider concerns that diplomats from the Israeli embassy have been able to exert undue influence over the House of Commons, or allegations that Strizzolo persuaded Halfon to ask questions in parliament about Israel.

In the tapes, which were recorded by an undercover Al Jazeera journalist, Strizzolo is heard boasting about “preparing” Israel-related questions for MPs to ask at Prime Minister’s Question Time.

The Israeli ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, has apologised to Duncan, saying the embassy employee’s comments were “completely unacceptable”.

A spokesperson for the UK Foreign Office said on Sunday: “The Israeli ambassador has apologised and is clear these comments do not reflect the views of the embassy or government of Israel.

“The UK has a strong relationship with Israel and we consider the matter closed.”

Meanwhile, Israeli diplomats sent a cable to the foreign ministry saying that Israel's strategic affairs ministry does not know what it is doing, particularly in regards to British Jewish organisations in Jerusalem. News of the cable was unveiled by a Guardian report on Monday, but the cable was sent to the foreign ministry months before Massot was filmed by Al Jazeera's Investigative Unit.

“The strategic affairs ministry must understand that ‘operating’ organisations directly from Jerusalem by email and telephone isn’t good for their health”, it read.

“It’s not clear that the strategic affairs ministry understand the local law with regards to the activities of charities,” it added.

The cable came at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cut Foreign Ministry resources while boosting funding for strategic affairs to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, according to a report in the Guardian.

“Attempts to act behind our back have happened before and will happen again, but ‘operating’ Jewish organisations directly from Jerusalem, with no coordination and no consultation, is liable to be dangerous,” the cable read.

“Operating like this could encounter opposition from the organisations themselves, given their legal status: Britain isn’t the US!”

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