Alan Duncan Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan, one of the intended targets of Shai Masot. Photo: Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Compare the Trump spy scandal and the Israeli spy scandal and it tells us a lot about the media and the political establishment, argues Kara Bryan

The media frenzy about stories of nefarious super villain Vladimir Putin and his dastardly plans to undermine ‘American democracy’ with Kremlin stooge, President Elect Donald Trump, in tow, continue unabated. But as it does a fully verified ‘threat to our national security’ has come to light. The Lobby, the first in a four-part documentary series for Al Jazeera revealed a network of activists and embassy officials working behind the scenes to smear politicians, influence British politics, and advance the interests of a foreign state. But the state in question is not Russia. It is Israel.

During a six-month investigation, Shai Masot, a senior political officer at the Israeli Embassy in London was secretly filmed plotting to ‘take down’ a number of officials and politicians critical of the state of Israel, including Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan and Tory MP Crispin Blunt, during a conversation with Maria Strizzolo who was then Minister of State for Education and former chief of staff to Robert Halfon, the Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party. In that conversation Strizzolo responds to Masot’s suggestion of ‘a little scandal’, “if you look hard enough, I’m sure that there is something that they are trying to hide!” Duncan has, in the past, likened Israel’s attitude to Palestinians to Apartheid South Africa and pushed for the recognition of a Palestinian state, denouncing Israeli settlements in the West Bank as an ‘ever deepening stain on the face of the Globe.’

Crispin Blunt is Chairman of the Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group and described John Kerry’s recent criticism of Israeli settlements as ‘completely on the money.’ During the conversation, Strizzolo relays how questions are forwarded to sympathetic MPs to be tabled for PMQs and that speeches are actually written for MPs to give in Parliament. She gave one such example as her boss, Robert Halfon’s question to the PM David Cameron in 2014 after news of the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, asking the Prime Minister to support the Israeli government in doing everything possible to ‘take out’ Hamas’ terrorist networks. To which the Prime Minister duly responded, ‘It is very important that Britain stand with Israel as it seeks to bring to justice those responsible.’

Masot, a senior political officer at the Israeli Embassy unwittingly befriended undercover reporter ‘Robin’ posing as a graduate and aspiring Labour Party activist sympathetic to Israel. Introducing him to pro-Israeli activists, over the course of the investigation Masot reveals a number of incentives for activists working to re-brand Israel’s image and to counter negative news stories and the growing Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, including financial and strategic support, funded trips to Israel, and advice on building movements.

Masot introduced Robin to Richard Brooks, Vice President of the NUS, who was later filmed colluding to depose newly-elected NUS President Malia Bouattia, a human rights campaigner who has been openly critical of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land. Bouattia, the first black Muslim NUS president, had been the subject of allegations of anti-Semitism which she strongly denied. Brooks also admitted on camera, accepting a trip to Israel organised by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) which the investigation alleges are ultimately funded by the Israeli Embassy and which he failed to declare to the NUS. Calls have since been made for his resignation.

Smear tactics are all in a day’s work for Israel’s propaganda arm and this is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg, begging the question as to the origin of the allegations of endemic anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, which led to the witch hunt of Summer 2016 after which the Chakrabarti inquiry into the allegations found to be ‘not endemic.’ Jackie Walker, former vice-chair of Momentum, who has been the subject of a barrage of attacks on social media was suspended from her post last year following allegations of anti-Semitism, made against her over comments she made about Holocaust Memorial Day. Walker said the allegations were part of ‘a constructed crisis for political ends.’ Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, interviewed by Al Jazeera for the expose explains, “In the past anti-Semitism was the hating of Jews for being Jews. Now Israel tries to extend it to say that any criticism about what Jews are doingis also anti-Semitism. If you question the right of Israel to be a Jewish state, then you are not different from these anti-Semites.”

Masot’s primary concern was filling the ‘vacuum’ in the Labour Party and is later seen offering Robin a job at the embassy setting up and chairing a youth wing of the Labour Friends of Israel. He explains, “There’s no-one who is educating the grass roots of the party. Conservatives don’t need it.” Masot goes on, “For years every MP that joined the Parliament, the first thing that they used to do is go and join the LFI.” The Labour Friends of Israel is a powerful parliamentary lobby group. “They’re not doing it anymore in the Labour Party. CFI [Conservative Friends of Israel] they’re doing it automatically.” He explains that out of the forty new Conservative MPs elected at the last election, all of them were in the Conservative Friends of Israel.

Accompanied by Masot to the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool in September 2016, Robin is introduced to various pro-Israeli activists including members of the Jewish Labour Movement and the Labour Friends of Israel and to the Deputy Israeli Ambassador, where Masot is filmed discussing a slush fund of over £1million with Labour MP and ‘Friend of Israel’ chair Joan Ryan, to take selected Labour MPs to Israel. Michael Freeman, Head of Civil Affairs at the Israeli Embassy informed Robin that Masot speaks to Joan Ryan ‘most days’.

Assured of Robin’s confidence, Masot eventually confesses that he has applied for a position as Head of Foreign Affairs at the Intelligence Department in Israel before confiding, ‘I am not a career diplomat.’ Masot’s role at the Israeli Embassy is clear: to set up a network of pro-Israeli lobby groups, mobilize them and feed them information directly from the Israeli government in order to manipulate and subvert the democratic process to suit Israel’s interests.

Boris Johnson was all too quick to accept an apology from the Israeli Embassy, who played down Masot’s position although the extent of his remit and network is self-evident from the Al Jazeera footage. Shai Masot himself has since resigned from his post at the Embassy. The Foreign Office has declared the matter closed. No inquiry and no further investigation necessary. Nor was the Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev summoned for explanation. Jeremy Corbyn has personally written to the Prime Minister demanding an official inquiry into the extent of the ‘improper interference’ and which he said represented ‘an attempt to undermine the integrity of our democracy’ expressing his concern that the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson has publicly stated that he considers the matter closed. Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornbury said Masot’s conduct was ‘extremely disturbing’ and has called for the Foreign Affairs Committee to launch an official inquiry into what she described as a national security issue.

Had this been a Russian official, planning to bring down a senior government minister and several high ranking officials and to bribe MPs with all expenses paid trips to the Motherland, the outcry would be audible from space. The contrast in attitudes towards the two cases is startling and indeed, deeply worrying particularly in light of the diplomatic expulsions of 25 Russian Embassy officials over the alleged Russian interference in the US election. Supposedly ‘overwhelming evidence’ collated in a dossier by a former MI6 operative working for an undisclosed Washington company commissioned by Donald Trump’s opposition. A dossier which former British Ambassador to Russia, Sir Tony Brenton said was ‘dubious’ and which he described as ‘pretty shaky.’ A dossier which so far has not been made available for public scrutiny. Peter Oborne, in his article for the Middle East Eye, suggests that had Masot been a Russian Embassy official a full-scale diplomatic crisis would have erupted but substitute ‘Israel’ for ‘Russia’ and it’s a very different story. ‘No expulsions. No diplomatic row. No threat of sanctions. Matter closed. Business as usual.’ And he is right, ally or not, any improper interference in British politics, including aggressive lobbying, is unacceptable.

Kara Bryan

Kara Bryan is a writer and activist and regular contributor to the Counterfire website. She is a member of Counterfire and Stop the War