Friends groups head to Israel

Sporting MPs seek path to peace via bat and ball in Israel this year

By Martin Bright, September 20, 2012
You tell them: Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub at last year’s CFI event, with Communities Secretary Eric Pickles

You tell them: Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub at last year’s CFI event, with Communities Secretary Eric Pickles

A combined Lords and Commons cricket team will fly to Israel the day after David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference. The delegation aims to use Britain’s greatest sporting export to combine Middle East fact-finding with cultural diplomacy.

While there, the UK parliamentarians will play a Palestinian team in the village of Houra and also take in some net practice with young Bedouin players as part of the Cricket 4 Peace initiative.

The tourists will play a game against the Israeli champions, Young Ashdod, and an invitation XI assembled by the chairman of the Israeli Cricket Association, Stanley Perlman.

The initiative was the brainchild of Conservative MP Nigel Adams, who came up with the idea on a Conservative Friends of Israel delegation, and is backed by the Peres Centre for Peace as well as the Israeli Cricket Association itself. The team includes players from across the political spectrum, including Labour’s Graham Jones and the DUP’s Ian Paisley Junior.

The trip is led by the cricket team, while the administration has been provided by Conservative Friends of Israel. “We are really excited about this,” said Stuart Polak, the director of CFI. “It’s a completely different way of introducing people to Israel.” The tour will include a visit to Sderot while in the south of the country, and members of the delegation will have the opportunity to discuss the political outlook as well as the latest developments on the Israeli cricket scene.

It marks a new approach by the Friends of Israel groups to the usual round of panel discussions, fundraising dinners and parliamentary receptions.

During party conference even CFI, the best-funded of the “Friends of Israel” groups, is scaling down its activities (partly because the week in Birmingham coincides with the Succot festival).

The organisation will be holding a single public reception, but no lunch as in previous years. However, this year, the organisation has secured Foreign Secretary William Hague to deliver the keynote speech. He will appear alongside Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub.

Necessity has been the mother of invention for cash-strapped Labour Friends of Israel, which has had a good year despite the tragic death of its inspirational chair David Cairns last May. Determined to carry on with Mr Cairns’s “Progressive Case for Israel” project, LFI produced a collection of essays in his memory earlier this year. At Labour’s conference in Manchester, Labour leader Ed Miliband will again address the LFI reception, as will Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander. Daniel Taub, still keen to continue his dialogue with the left, will also make an appearance at Labour’s event.

But key to LFI’s future credibility will be the visit to Israel planned for October when key Labour figures will be discussing the high-tech and digital industries, and links to the university sector.

Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna and Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne will lead the initiative, which will unashamedly look at how Britain can emulate Israel’s success in encouraging high-tech startups. The JC understands Tottenham MP David Lammy and Lord Glassman will also be on the trip as well as long-time LFI supporter Sir Trevor Chinn. A trip with Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls will take place later in the year.

While Israel has been losing friends on the left it seems to be gaining them on the right, with the relaunch of Friends of Israel in UKIP, which claims to have exposed the anti-Zionist agenda of the European Union. Delegates at this weekend’s UKIP conference will receive leaflets explaining why Eurosceptics should support Israel.

Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel has been going through a quiet patch, but has been extremely effective behind the scenes, for example, in persuading the party leadership to take action against Baroness Jenny Tonge by removing the whip.

The new chairman, Gavin Stollar, is keen to move use the limited influence the group has within the party to move away from its knee-jerk approach to Israel. Unfortunately, he could not persuade any Liberal Democrats to join the cricket tour, with Lord Razzall pulling out at the last minute.

Last updated: 2:00pm, September 20 2012