Israel sleepwalks into PR hell
With backing from the BNP and Michal Kaminski, Israel must keep tabs on its ‘friends’ - as well as its enemies
For supporters of Israel, it was like a punch to the gut.
Last Thursday night on Question Time, BNP leader Nick Griffin told the country that the BNP was the only party to support Israel in its war “against the terrorists” during Operation Cast Lead.
This was possibly the worst public relations blow to Israel in this country since Operation Cast Lead itself, perhaps longer. Mr Griffin has just ensured that anyone who supports Israel, or its right to defend itself, can be linked to the BNP. The association might take years to shake off.
Clearly, a man who at one point was a Holocaust-denier (and has now — he claims — changed his mind, although he refused to explain why), cannot also be a true friend of Israel.
So why did he do it? Asserting that he is a friend of Israel has two immediate benefits. First, it allows him to argue that he is not antisemitic or racist (which was the exact point he was trying to make on Question Time).
Second, it allows him to portray himself, to his supporters, as anti-Muslim. In today’s political climate, Islamophobia carries far more electoral benefit than antisemitism.
For Israel, the damage is compounded by the national spotlight on Polish MEP Michal Kaminski, the Tories’ European ally who is accused of holding antisemitic views.
Mr Kaminski, after all, is also a staunch public supporter of Israel and its right to defend itself in Brussels. This summer, he even visited the Jewish state.
But while Israel itself has had nothing to do with Mr Griffin (as far as I know), Israel, and some of its UK supporters, have embraced Mr Kaminski. During his visit, which was organised by the Conservative Friends of Israel, he was welcomed by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. He was also guest of honour at the CFI lunch at the Tory party conference earlier this month.
How genuine are his views on Israel? Do they come from similar places to those of Mr Griffin? It remains unclear. Either way, the issue here is that this ally of Israel is seen as at least borderline antisemitic by many Jews — and by many non-Jews, who find the Conservative alliance with him deeply troubling. Israel’s relationship with him is a real problem — for its own image, as well as for diaspora Jews and indeed anyone fighting racism.
Israel should be extremely careful about choosing to embrace this man. But now it emerges that Mr Ayalon was not aware of his questionable background when he met him — and remained completely ignorant of the row over Mr Kaminski raging in the UK, until he read about it on the front page of the JC while waiting for an interview in our offices this week.
This astonishing admission raises significant questions about his advisers, who clearly did not vet their guest properly. The behaviour of the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, is even more troubling. Why had he not made sure that his bosses were fully informed about the spat once it broke out, particularly since Mr Ayalon had been named in the media in connection to Mr Kaminski? Having neglected — apparently — to do so, how could he have let his deputy minister come to the UK so shoddily briefed?
Even now, I am not sure that Mr Ayalon — whose media adviser called me the day after our meeting to re-iterate what a good friend of Israel Mr Kaminski is — understands the implications of this relationship. At what point, local Jews are entitled to ask, does support for Israel begin to “make up” for problematic attitudes to diaspora Jews?
Over the years, out of a position of isolation, Israel has co-operated with and even endorsed many dubious, and even racist, individuals and regimes, such as apartheid South Africa. This is short-sighted. As Griffin’s poison embrace last week showed only too clearly, with friends like these, enemies are unnecessary.
Miriam Shaviv is the JC’s foreign editor. Follow her on twitter@miriamsh