Lord Levy: Honours even

By Jenni Frazer, May 16, 2008

He stared ruin in the face over cash-for-peerages. Now, Tony Blair’s chief fundraiser is speaking out — about the Jews who failed him, and how close he came to a Middle East peace deal

Michael Levy is tired. He has spent the entire day answering questions in 16 back-to-back interviews, inspired by the publication of his book, A Question of Honour — Inside New Labour and the True Story of the Cash for Peerages Scandal. It is, he notes drily, hard work writing a book, and even harder work promoting it.

Lord Levy’s much-anticipated memoir is, however, much more than a set-the-record-straight account of the fateful year of 2006 to the summer of 2007, when the Labour peer was arrested and repeatedly questioned by the Metropolitan Police over the suggestion that he illegally offered potential donors the possibility of honours.

(The Crown Prosecution Service announced last July that there was no case to answer). A once-chunkier Levy is now noticeably thinner and his face has new lines, almost certainly a testament to the pain of the situation.

Almost half the book, in fact, is devoted to Levy’s personal story — born in Hackney in 1944, an only and much-loved child, whose father was the shammas of Walford Road Synagogue, and whose maternal grandfather was the Reverend Abraham Michael Birenbaum, a deeply committed Zionist, after whom Levy is named. It traces his near meteoric rise to wealth and comfort after he made the leap from accountancy to record-company owner, and then his sale of the company, Magnet Records, to Warner Brothers in 1988.

The Warner Brothers sale — for £10 million — was, Levy writes: “far more than I had earned in my entire working life. Yet the money itself wasn’t the issue… Money, it seemed to me more than ever, was only important or useful as a means to an end — a way of securing not just the necessities of life but genuine quality of life.”

The sale of Magnet enabled Levy to change focus. Though he had previously been involved with the Joint Israel Appeal, the predecessor of today’s UJIA, as its national fundraising chair, he had rarely been close to domestic Jewish charities. Of his involvement in the JIA, he writes: “I was very much a new kid on the block… the initial and obvious reluctance to give up space at the top table was an early lesson in politics and power, that made the battles I witnessed within New Labour a decade later at least slightly less difficult to navigate and understand.”

Given his “Hackney kid made good” status, he was a slight outsider in the more rarefied atmosphere of those who traditionally ran the Jewish community. Levy’s decision to concentrate on the more unsexy Jewish Welfare Board, and overseeing its merger with the Jewish Blind Society so that it became Jewish Care, was initially looked down upon by communal leaders.

But Levy writes that “it was the simple fact that I was extraordinarily good at raising badly needed funds that made the difference. And a related fact: most other people in most charitable or voluntary organisations positively detest raising funds. Some are dismissive and cynical about it… Yet I soon found that I was good at it, that I liked doing it, and was — and very much still am — proud of doing it well.”

Levy became Jewish Care’s first chairman in 1992 and then its president in 1988. He says that from being a “brash outsider” on the community stage, his work with Jewish Care led to his being “very much part of the community’s leadership establishment”. And it was in this guise that he met Tony Blair at a dinner party thrown in March 1994 by Gideon Meir, then number two at the Israeli Embassy in London. Blair was then the shadow home affairs spokesman and John Smith was the Labour leader.

“The atmosphere was pleasantly relaxed and informal,” writes Levy, “and Blair was very laid back. I wish I could say he immediately struck me as a future party leader and prime minister. In fact, as the lamb and red wine were served, my first impression of Blair — and of his wife, Cherie — was that they were bright, articulate, personable. They also struck me as extraordinarily young and unworldly.”

There is a cameo in the book of the Saturday afternoon after the watershed election of May 1997, when Blair’s New Labour finally swept into power. The Blairs, three years after meeting Michael and Gilda Levy, were accustomed to spending many weekends at the Levy home, swimming and playing tennis. Levy urged the Blairs to “come over as usual”.

“When Tony and I finally made our way down to the tennis court, he suddenly stopped dead. He looked around, checking to make sure his security guards were not close enough to overhear him. And then he did something truly astonishing.

He literally jumped up and down, like a small kid who had been let out of school for the day, and shouted, laughing out loud: ‘I really did it!! Can you believe it? I’m prime minister! I’m prime minister! I’m prime minister!’” In the summer of 1997, Blair put Levy on his first peerages list, nominating him, as his chief fundraiser, as Baron Levy of Mill Hill. Two years later, working out of the Foreign Office building, he formally became “The Prime Minister’s Personal Envoy to the Middle East”.

Blair’s interest in the Middle East, says Levy, really began in 1995 when the Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, invited him and Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown to be part of Britain’s official delegation to Yitzchak Rabin’s funeral. The event in Jerusalem had a galvanising effect on Blair. “He kept asking me questions, whenever I’d go to Israel, when I came back from Israel, what I thought of leaders, and that continued when he became Prime Minister,” Levy says.

“Then he would ask me to sit with Robin Cook [Blair’s first foreign secretary] and I got to know senior officials in the Foreign Office and also in Downing Street. And I was privileged to be able to introduce him to some of the key players [in the region], people whom I’d known for some time.” It seems astonishing, and perhaps a little naive, but Levy insists that the fact of his Jewishness, and thus, perhaps, the question of bias, never came up as a factor when Blair asked him to become his Middle East envoy. “It was never mentioned, by either of us. Not at all,” he says.

“He knew that I knew some of the Palestinian leadership, that I knew the key adviser to President Mubarak… I really believed that Blair believed I had integrity, understanding of the issues, and frankly, all the years I was doing my work, sometimes there were difficult times for the Israelis, sometimes difficult times for the Palestinians. I went around the Arab world, North Africa, people recognised that I had a depth of knowledge of the subject and that I listened, and that I made my points. It was not a matter of taking sides.”

The Israelis and the Palestinians, says Levy, “recognised that I was the envoy of the British Prime Minister. Now, were there people in the Jewish community who would say I was not positive enough for Israel, or those within the Arab world who would say I was too positive for Israel? There are always people who will criticise, and it doesn’t matter what your faith is. It goes with the territory.”

It is, however, striking to read Levy’s account of some remarkable negotiations with the late President Assad of Syria, in November 1999. Nowhere is there any mention of the Syrians’ response to Prime Minister Blair’s Jewish envoy, who had a summer home in Israel and was an intimate friend of much of the Israeli political leadership. Levy laughs when asked about this.

“Let me tell you, the Syrians knew me backwards, forwards and sideways,” he says.

“They absolutely knew everything about me. When I went, my tefillin were with me, and I davened in the morning. The embassy [in London] knew my kashrut requirements. I met the very small Jewish community and I went to the synagogue in Damascus. When the Syrians gave a dinner in my honour they again knew precisely what I could and could not eat. In a strange way, perhaps the President was fascinated by the fact that the British Prime Minister was using someone Jewish, who had an intimate knowledge of Israel and what went on there politically.

President Assad, with whom I spent many hours, seemed to like and respect me. I’m not saying that someone of another faith couldn’t have done what I did — all I’m saying is that I was able to do it, I was privileged to have that position, and one didn’t need to wear a badge saying ‘Mr President, I’m Jewish’. It was absolutely known, I made no secret of the fact.”

Levy’s circumspection, and that of his wife Gilda and his children Daniel and Juliet, undoubtedly played a huge part in his ability to carry out his role as envoy. He spent many hours talking to senior Egyptian, Jordanian and, most of all, Palestinian leaders, establishing the kind of personal relationships with them which had proved so successful in his previous life as a fundraiser.

“Fundraising,” he writes, “was like so much else in life — it was about human relationships, building them, nurturing them, valuing them.” Levy’s ability to home in on the personal produced many unimaginable scenarios — going duty-free shopping in Vienna airport, for example, with President Assad’s son, Bashar, an encounter which led the British ambassador in Damascus, Basil Eastwood, to observe:

“By this time, Michael, who’s a very engaging personality, is a friend of the family!” Many of the talks took place in Levy’s own home in London, with the present Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, joining him for dinner.

“I got to know these people very well over many years,” he says. “Life and diplomacy is about relationships… at the end of the day it’s the ability to relate to a person, and for them to relate to you.”

A natural optimist, Levy believes that things were very close to securing a peace deal between Israel and Syria in the wake of his groundbreaking talks with President Assad before his death in June 2000. So what went wrong?

“I’ve asked myself that over and over again,” he says.

"I genuinely believe that Assad wanted to tie up that deal before he died and passed over the reins of power. He said to me that Syria was prepared to talk to the Israelis without preconditions, but the Americans didn’t think that there was that opportunity. The doors opened: President Assad made it very clear that matters had to be passed on to Washington. We [the British] could have acted as a catalyst, which we did, but this could only have been handled by Washington, and obviously the parties directly.”

A conference was convened in West Virginia, but Levy says that the then Israeli premier, Ehud Barak, “was not really sure what he wanted to do. I don’t believe that the Americans succeeded in persuading both sides that they had to put aside the points of contention… Assad was then becoming more seriously ill, and there wasn’t enough time; Barak was facing criticism at home, and it just slipped away.

I will always argue that this deal was always on the table to be done. It doesn’t have the complexities of the Palestinian situation. It doesn’t have the refugee issue high on the agenda, it doesn’t have the Jerusalem issue high on the agenda, the border issues are far less complicated, it doesn’t have the issue of settlements. I believe that all the issues were resolvable: at the end of the day this was for the political leaders to push it through with political will.”

Negotiating with Syria's President Assad as Blair's envoy to the Middle East

Could such a deal be revived? “Certainly there’s been a lot of media speculation, particularly with the recent involvement of the Turkish prime minister. Even when there are deep seeds of pessimism you have to keep some air of optimism, otherwise it would have been impossible. But any deal can be revived if the sides want that to happen. Is this the moment?

Is there the will, the determination? There are problems attached to the Syrian deal and very serious problems attached to the Palestinian deal. But ultimately it is vital and of crucial importance to Israel to have peace deals with its neighbours, and for the Arab world to recognise Israel and live in peace with her.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be problems, but it does mean that Israel could solidly plan for its future. To me, that is a vision and dream that we must all aspire to.”

Even if the cash-for-peerages scandal had not emerged, Levy always made it clear that when Tony Blair stepped down as Prime Minister, his role as Middle East envoy would be at an end. He keeps up his contacts in the region, he says, “but Gordon Brown and David Cameron have their own teams”.

As for Tony Blair himself, despite the hurt Levy expresses in the book at being “hung out to dry” by Downing Street during the cash-for-peerages investigation, the pair remain, he insists, on good terms. To some extent, Blair’s new role as Middle East envoy for the Quartet (America, Russia, the EU and the UN) treads a similar path to that of the globe-trotting Levy. Did his former boss call him for suggestions and advice?

“Have I spoken to him about the issues? Yes. We had dinner a number of weeks ago, and what was going on [in the Middle East] was discussed, certainly”. So would it be fair to say that Blair still consults him? For the first time Levy looks faintly uncomfortable.

“I wouldn’t want to overplay that. I would say, that at this stage in my life, I don’t have anything to prove.” He has, he says, faced flak over the years from the Jewish community, which perhaps did not understand his role.

“I faced flak the whole time on many issues, because our community enjoys giving people flak, our community always thinks they know better about every subject, even when they don’t have intimate knowledge of the details: it’s one of the things that makes the community tick. As far as I was concerned, I never discussed publicly what I was doing, I couldn’t possibly have done that anyway.

On behalf of the Prime Minister I had a job to do. Part of that job was working in the Foreign Office, with the Foreign Secretary, and its officials.” Not everyone, says Levy, understood his friendship with Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who died in 2005.

“We had a very close personal relationship. I miss him.” Levy is insistent that throughout the long and difficult months of the cash-for-peerages inquiry, antisemitism was not an issue — although he acknowledges that after the inquiry’s conclusion he was made aware of a master’s degree thesis about the coverage of the investigation, some of whose conclusions were that there were certainly antisemitic connotations.

“It was a very good and professional thesis,” he says, but perhaps he is in denial. He writes that he was “particularly keen to prevent friends in the Jewish community from suggesting that I was somehow being made a victim of antisemitism. I even had rare harsh words for my own rabbi at Mill Hill, a dear personal friend, when he did so…” With regret, it seems, Levy has “rare harsh words” for those who did not support him during the investigation.

His friends, he says, “were fantastic, no-one could have asked for more”. But there were others who made no secret of their opinion that Levy was about to get what was coming to him. “Our community, sadly, with all its wonderful attributes… the envy and glee of some when others are going through a difficult time truly saddens me. I don’t suppose I’m really shocked by it, but it doesn’t dilute the hurt. From a young man, I’ve tried to give my heart and soul and energy to this community, and tried to carry out my role in every walk of life, with energy, enthusiasm, and, I believe, dignity. But I suppose that’s naive.”

So what now for Michael Abraham Levy? He sighs, and says that after writing the book he feels he would like a period of reflection while he decides what to do with his life. But if he has a dream, he says, it would be to unite the two wings of Anglo-Jewry, from the Charedi stream to the Liberals.

“I would hope for understanding and respect between the real, for want of a better word, extremes. Everyone is entitled to practise their Judaism in a way they feel is right for them, and I sometimes hope that there would be better understanding of everyone’s pride in being Jewish.

“I feel that Anglo-Jewry plc is doing OK… but every strand of religiosity, and every way a Jew practises his religion, if there were a common thread of understanding, that could have a tremendous effect on the disaffected Jews. I really believe that the numbers of Jews in this country are far greater than we have on record. We have to find a way for people to be totally comfortable with their Judaism, however it is practised.” He suggests that representatives of the different denominations could come together.

“They would have to be determined to make the co-operation work.” But he looks startled when I ask him when he is going to launch this ambitious project. Then he grins. “I’m still young enough, and, thank God, healthy enough, to do something else with my life.”

A Question of Honour is published by Simon & Schuster, at £18.99. Lord Levy discusses his book on Thursday May 29 at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, London NW11. Tel: 020 8457 5000

Last updated: 4:37pm, September 23 2009