The Patel affair points to a murky future for Israel's supporters in the UK

The Patel affair, on the heels of the Al Jazeera fiasco and against the backdrop of an increasingly likely Corbyn government, gives serious cause for concern.

November 09, 2017 12:25

In the midst of Wednesday's apparent conclusion to the Priti Patel affair, shortly after the JC revealed the involvement of Number Ten, one Jewish journalist tweeted that he'd like to be a fly on the wall at the Downing Street Chanukah party next month. 

Which prompted me to respond: "You think Corbyn will throw a Chanukah party?!"

It's easy to joke about the situation facing Jews and the pro-Israel community in Westminster - and indeed our nation's political, social and economic future - but some sober reflection to this week's latest shambolic episodes is also necessary. 

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. 

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 about how people in British politics view Israel. For those who are determined to see it in such a negative fashion, it made the situation look as murky as they hoped. 

The past few days heighten that suspicion, fairly or not. 

There may be some mileage in the suggestion that CFI will be "toxic" post-Patel, 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, including, in some cases, reasons to thank the pro-Israel group's campaigning for getting them elected in the first place. 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, repenting 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 remain very much under Lord Polak's wing.

Further problems could lie ahead in the uncertain future of Stephen Crabb, the former minister who was selected as CFI chair in Parliament only weeks ago, shortly before he was revealed, for the second time, to have sent inappropriate text messages to younger women. 

With its leadership under such a cloud, CFI should retreat for some time and keep out of the headlines wherever possible. So much is unknown about the direction of the government and politics that new possibilities are inevitable in 2018.

But this is also one of the most bullish groups in Britain, with decades of heavyweight Tories having argued Israel's point vociferously in Parliament and in public. It is simply not the done thing for them to shy away. 

For LFI the situation is rather different. For years the group has had to come to terms with working under party leaders who have been if not hostile, then certainly for the large part, unfriendly. 

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

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. 

Many think it is ironic, but LFI is in many respects in rude health. Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, is right now enjoying a tour of Israel with the group - a sure sign of its 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. 

The wider picture should be kept in context. Only last week, 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. 


November 09, 2017 12:25

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