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Lobby groups face tricky future after fiasco

There are signs of hope and despair for the Conservative and Labour Friends of Israel groups

    Priti Patel during the annual service of remembrance at Witham War Memorial in Essex.
    Priti Patel during the annual service of remembrance at Witham War Memorial in Essex.

    It may be too early to assess the full implications for the Conservative and Labour Friends of Israel groups after the second major lobbying row in barely 11 months but there are signs of hope — and despair — post the Priti Patel affair.

    While January’s Al Jazeera “sting” operation, which used an undercover reporter to secretly film Israel advocates for months, revealed barely anything we didn’t already know and snared only a couple of junior employees, it raised the question of how people in British politics view Israel.

    For those who are determined to see the country in a negative fashion, it made the situation look as murky as they hoped.

    The revelations last week only heighten that suspicion.

    There may be some mileage in the suggestion made last week that CFI will be regarded as “toxic” now, but it is worth remembering just how strong Westminster’s largest such campaign group remains. The Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and many other Cabinet members remain key supporters of CFI’s work. Hundreds of Tory MPs and peers have close connections with CFI.

    There will remain an exceptionally high level of loyalty to CFI.

    Admittedly, next month’s annual lunch may not be the spectacular jamboree of recent years, when 700 people — including almost the entire parliamentary Conservative Party and Cabinet — have been in attendance.

    Much will hinge on the future of CFI’s honorary president, Lord Polak. His role in the Patel mess will be an almighty set back, both personally and for the group which he has nurtured for more than quarter of a century.

    Jewish figures in Westminster have expressed their hopes that the peer will take a far more low-profile stance on the sidelines and allowing fresh faces to campaign for Israel.

    That may be possible. CFI’s young professional team, led by James Gurd, is decent and hard-working, but they remain very much under Lord Polak’s wing.

    Different problems face LFI. The group has had to come to terms with working under two party leaders who have been if not hostile, then certainly unfriendly.

    But under the directorship of Jennifer Gerber, LFI has overcome the challenges of the Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn eras with remarkable success.

    Following Labour’s 2015 election disaster, Ms Gerber and her team set about rebuilding and since Mr Corbyn cemented his position as leader they have added dozens of new, moderate Labour MPs to their ranks.

    Joan Ryan, LFI’s parliamentary chair, has been a firm but fair critic of Mr Corbyn and the group has become, for many Labour centrists, an outlet for their frustrations.

    There has been further success in LFI’s campaigning, particularly on challenging how taxpayers’ money is funnelled to the Palestinian Authority, and especially in terms of bolstering co-existence projects for Palestinians and Israelis.

    It may seem ironic but LFI is in many respects in rude health. Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, last week enjoyed a tour of Israel with the group — surely a sign of LFI’s continuing importance to the party.

    But there is a further reality. LFI knows only too well it must contend with a leadership rooted in anti-Israel fervour and a grassroots Labour support which is openly and enthusiastically opposed to the Jewish state.

    The days of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown throwing lavish Downing Street receptions for left-wing Israel advocates are very long gone.

    Nonetheless, the wider picture should be kept in context. The political events thrown to mark the Balfour centenary were proof of strong cross-party support for Israel.

    There are friends throughout both chambers of Parliament. Britain remains a leading ally of Israel in numerous sectors which really matter — healthcare, technology, security, intelligence.

    But the Patel affair, on the heels of the Al Jazeera fiasco and against the backdrop of a possible — or maybe even probable — Corbyn government should act as serious causes for concern.

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