How Clegg's adviser came to run the go-to Israel think-tank

Interview: James Sorene


By Marcus Dysch, March 23, 2016
James Sorene

James Sorene

Eyebrows were raised when James Sorene was appointed as chief executive of research group Bicom last year.

He was billed as having been a key adviser to Nick Clegg during the former Liberal Democrat leader's time as Deputy Prime Minister - one of the most tumultuous periods in the now-diminished party's relationship with the Jewish community.

However, the reality of Mr Sorene's previous role was quite different to what many imagined. As Mr Clegg's official spokesman and communications director, he was a senior civil servant, completely detached from party politics.

Heavily rooted in both the Jewish community and Israel, the 41-year-old now seems ideally placed to steer Bicom at a typically turbulent time for the Middle East.

For 15 years, Mr Sorene had been the "man behind the minister", working in a series of government departments after starting his career in public affairs at the Israeli embassy.

When the opportunity presented itself to run his own organisation, it was too good to refuse.

"Nick Clegg described being in government as like being lobotomised," Mr Sorene said. "You do feel slightly divorced from reality. What I liked about leaving the civil service was the ability to get my voice again. As a civil servant you become the perennial advisor, writing material for other people, a vessel for other people's opinions."

The British Israel Communications and Research Centre (Bicom) is an independent organisation which seeks to advance the image of Israel in this country. In the past it has done that through working with the media, but it is increasingly undertaking its own academic research, publishing papers and organising conferences. In April it is launching a new website to increase access to its research output.

Mr Sorene was Nick Clegg's official spokesman when the Lib Dem leader was Deputy Prime Minister

Mr Sorene was Nick Clegg's official spokesman when the Lib Dem leader was Deputy Prime Minister

It has been a conscious effort, Mr Sorene said. "Bicom has earned the right to be called a think-tank. Does it produce novel research on a regular basis? Yes. Does it act as a hub of the best minds around on various subjects? Yes. Do people read our material? Yes. That's what excites me, moving into that space and strengthening it as a think-tank.

"We are one of the few organisations that has doors open to us both in Israel and here - in academia, former security figures, analysts, government figures. We can really get people together."

Bicom occupies a unique role - seen by British Jews as a "communal organisation", but presenting itself to the outside world as more detached than the Board of Deputies or Jewish Leadership Council, for example.

"We don't represent the Jewish community but we are a resource for it," Mr Sorene explained. "There are a lot of organisations that would be in trouble if it were not for the research we are doing. We are doing a pivotal job."

Six months into his role, the hard work is well under way. Supporters of Israel regularly complain about the British media's coverage of the conflict. Some would have you believe there is a strong anti-Israel bias at media juggernauts such as the BBC - whose new Broadcasting House headquarters in central London are, ironically, just a stone's throw from Bicom's offices.

"Things get distorted," Mr Sorene admitted. "When there's a subject you know a lot about, and you care passionately about, to see that refracted in the media is sometimes painful.

"The media is not reality - it's a representation of reality. The media is essentially entertainment. You need to work with it and that's what we try to do. We are the only organisation that takes UK journalists to Israel. It's not our job to rap the media over the knuckles and say 'you've got that headline wrong'. That's the Israeli embassy's job."

Mr Sorene, who grew up in north-west London, travelled to Washington this week for his first experience of the Aipac (American Israel Political Action Committee) conference - an annual event featuring thousands of delegates. It provides an opportunity to draw an obvious distinction between the pro-Israel camps on both sides of the Atlantic.

"In the US, lobbying is a power game that is unashamedly out in the open," he said. "The UK is very different; it's a much more tranquil way of doing things. If you adopted some of the tone and style that fits the American system and did it here, it wouldn't work.

"Israel looms very large in the American political imagination and that's not because of the size of a lobby or the size of the Jewish community. Israel matters there. It's an icon of freedom and a plucky, pioneering country against all odds fighting off tyranny. It's completely different to [how it's viewed] here."

To many, the challenge of explaining the Middle East crisis would seem an insurmountable task. But for Mr Sorene, after his years in government, such efforts have become second nature.

The former JSoc chair and BBYO education co-ordinator spent six years in the press office at the Home Office, leading on counter-terror issues post-9/11, before shifting to the Department for Health.

As the Deputy Prime Minister's spokesman, the father-of-two was a close observer of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.

Mr Sorene said: "It was fascinating. Nick Clegg seemed like a really nice guy caught in an incredibly difficult position. I found that compelling."

But how difficult was it to be so close to Mr Clegg during the period in which the comments of then Lib Dem MP David Ward - who accused "the Jews" of "inflicting atrocities on Palestinians" - made the party, and to some extent its leader, toxic for Jewish voters?

"It's not something I dealt with. Cabinet ministers wouldn't seek counsel of a civil servant on party issues," Mr Sorene said, before adding, intriguingly, "I think he knew what I thought about it, he didn't need to ask. But he didn't seek my counsel on it. It was clearly a party issue."

The pair did discuss Middle East issues and Mr Sorene praised the "good things" Mr Clegg achieved in government, including his work with the Holocaust Educational Trust.

He travelled the world with the Deputy PM, including a visit to Afghanistan, a trip to meet the Grand Mufti of al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, and tours of the Palestinian territories. Mr Sorene met Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas twice, in London and in New York.

"He might not realise that he has shaken the hand of the chief executive of Bicom, but he did," he joked.

A job working with the Jewish community and focusing on Israel was perhaps a more predictable post-government outlet for Mr Sorene than many may have initially realised.

All the signs were there - a year out in Israel and a job in a youth group before progressing to work at the Israeli embassy. At that time, in the 1990s, Mr Sorene's brother, Elliot - now one of Britain's most eminent hand surgeons - was an officer in the IDF in south Lebanon. Their sister still lives in Tel Aviv.

The extent of the effort required at Bicom is clearly relished by Mr Sorene. "I like difficult issues," he said. "As much as people might feel bleak, I'm always trying to be overwhelmingly positive. You don't survive in government for that long without being positive."

Last updated: 3:58pm, March 29 2016