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A lobby is a lobby is a lobby

The first thing I was told when I started in journalism all that time ago and in all seriousness was “don’t upset the Catholics”. But no one ever talked about the Rome Lobby, writes David Aaronovitch

    Shai Masot was caught being indiscreet on camera
    Shai Masot was caught being indiscreet on camera

    Last weekend, my Times colleague Hugo Rifkind was accused on Twitter of being a colonel in Mossad. This struck me as being all too likely, given that agency's almost infernal cleverness. Hugo is outwardly the most gentle and reasonable man I know, but those who understand something of his history will know that several months in his school cadet force gave him the capacity to strip and fire a machine gun. The man is a killer. 

    As for Mossad, so much for the uniquely effective “Israel lobby”. We know — because we have been told over the years — that the Israel lobby wields exceptional power. Greater than the Saudi lobby, the oil lobby, the arms lobby or even the Council for the Preservation of Rural England.

    In the Mail this week, an anonymous former minister (why anonymous? After all, Hugo surely knows who he or she is) wrote that “British foreign policy is in hock to Israeli influence at the heart of our politics, and those in authority have ignored what is going on”. A former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan, Sir William Patey, said: “we know there is a lobby in this country that seeks to portray in the best possible light, and seeks to isolate and denigrate critics of, Israeli policy.”

    And an anonymous “senior Conservative” added: “No MP who has taken an active interest in the affairs of the Middle East, not least the central issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will be unaware of the strength of the Israeli lobby. Like Israel itself, they are powerful and effective and sail pretty close to the line of what is normally acceptable.”

    This cleverness makes it all the harder to understand the Masot affair. If you are going to be almost preternaturally and successfully manipulative, there are a number of qualities you are going to want to exemplify. Discretion is one. Competence is another. Judgment is a third.

    Running your mouth off in a public place to someone you barely know while under the misapprehension that they are a key cog in your plan for world domination when in fact they are a journalist with a hidden camera falls foul of all three qualifications.

    Any brief perusal of Shai Masot’s activities as depicted on Al Jazeera TV and in the Mail will convince you that the man is not someone you’d want staking out Hamas operatives in Beirut.

    What he said about “taking down” antagonistic politicians was a daft thing for a diplomat (even a part-time one) to say. Even dafter because he had no means to fulfil such a desire. In fact, the headline on the story — Israel Plot To Take Down Tory Minister — suffered from the problem that there was no plot. Of any kind. There was a windy, boastful aspiration and that was all.

    I’ve been in this business for nearly 35 years, working in news and current affairs. I’ve come across all the lobbies and received invitations from many, including travel-paid trips to visit this or that place. I’ve lunched with the food lobby, applauded with the theatre lobby, dinnered with Museumocrats, breakfasted at the Swedish embassy — and turned down many, many more such approaches.

    So I will tell you right now that this idea of the uniquely powerful Israel lobby is bunkum. It really is. The various organisations that support Israel do what everyone else does — they seek to persuade you of their view. They’ll send you their bumf, plead with you to meet the ambassador, or take part in a seminar or go on a fact-finding trip.

    Some are pushy, some take no for an answer right away. And that’s it. There is nothing else. You can take notice of it, or not. If you’re so much a fool as to be swayed by the simple fact of such attention, then you’re in the wrong job.

    What weak politicians feel when they moan about the lobby is not devilishly organised wrath, but emails and calls and letters from people who are zealously and militantly pro-Israel and who know how to make a fuss. These people don’t have to be organised, any more than Roman Catholics are if you write something disobliging about the Pope.

    In fact, the first thing I was told when I started in journalism all that time ago and in all seriousness was “don’t upset the Catholics”. But no one ever talked about the Rome Lobby.

    David Aaronovitch is a ‘Times’ columnist

    Watch his JDOV talk, ‘Choosing a faith’.

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