Thursday, April 13, 2017

UKIP dominates new support group for Israeli settlers

The UK Independence Party specializes in distorting reality.


Nigel Farage, UKIP’s former leader and still its best-known representative, poses as a no-nonsense patriot. Curiously, his patriotism does not extend to insisting his chief backers pay their taxes in his beloved Britain.


One of Farage’s allies and donors was the multi-millionaire tax exile Aaron Banks. The aptly-named Banks accompanied Farage as he raced across the Atlantic in November last year, determined to be the first British politician received by Donald Trump, the newly-elected US president.


Banks has subsequently fallen out with the party over apparently trivial matters. Though such squabbles are entertaining, they should not distract from how – despite its claim to champion ordinary folk – UKIP frequently sides with the world’s bullies.


That much is clear from the strong level of UKIP involvement in a recently-formed group dedicated to supporting Israel’s war crimes.


Friends of Judea and Samaria in the European Parliament, as the group is called, has been set up in response to the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.


Fifteen members of the European Parliament support the new group, according to its website. Three of the 15 belong to UKIP, making it the only party to have more than one declared supporter.


Judea and Samaria is the name that Israel gives to the occupied West Bank. The “friends of” group seeks to legitimize Israel’s settlement activities in the West Bank, all of which are illegal under international law.


Moreover, it seeks to build a direct link between the Brussels institutions and Israeli settlers.


Diehard


The group was founded by Yossi Dagan, chair of Samaria Regional Council, which is a local authority for some of Israel’s illegal settlements.


Dagan – who was invited to Trump’s inauguration earlier this year – is diehard settler.


He came to prominence by vociferously opposing the evacuation of a small number of settlements in the West Bank.


The settlements were evacuated as part of what was (inaccurately) described as a “disengagement” plan implemented by the Israeli government led by Ariel Sharon in 2005.


In a 2015 interview with Arutz Sheva – a media network supporting the settler movement – Dagan bragged of his “public relations” skills. Politicians and journalists that he had brought on tours of Israeli settlements “now form the core of lobbying groups in their respective countries, advocating for Judea and Samaria, as well as against BDS,” he claimed.


Roger Helmer is among the UKIP representatives supporting Friends of Judea and Samaria in the European Parliament. Asked why he has endorsed an organization that defends Israel’s illegal conduct, Helmer replied that there is an issue of “strategic defense.”


“Having stood on the hills of Samaria and looked out over Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport all the way to the Mediterranean – a mere 10 miles or so – it is clear that the State of Israel is simply indefensible without control over those heights,” Helmer added. “This is an existential issue.”


If Helmer really believes his own words, then he has swallowed so much propaganda that he must have constant indigestion.


Only Israel and its supporters view the occupation of the West Bank as a matter of “strategic defense.” Every other analyst recognizes that it is the result of a belligerent act undertaken in 1967 and that the building and expansion of settlements contravenes the Fourth Geneva Convention.


Put more simply, they are war crimes.


Balanced?


Petr Mach, a Czech politician who is allied to UKIP, teamed up with Dagan to form Friends of Judea and Samaria in the European Parliament. Mach claimed that the group’s “main goal” is to promote a “balanced” and “fair” EU approach “regarding the West Bank.”


“We just wish to have free trade with everybody and we wish peace to everybody,” he stated by email.


The group’s professed desires for fairness and peace are bogus. A leaflet it has published alleges that the EU imposes “trade barriers” on “Jewish goods from the West Bank.”


That accusation is based on how the EU officially refuses to regard Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as part of Israel. Whereas the EU allows most goods from present-day Israel to be exported free of tax or customs duties, such privileges do not apply to produce from settlements in the West Bank.


The “trade barriers” of which the group complains have proven easy to circumvent. Casimex, a French company, markets wines from Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights as “Wine of Israel.” The latter territory is a part of Syria, which Israel has occupied since 1967.


The group also peddles the lie that the European Union is funding “terrorism” by giving money to the Palestinian Authority.


“Terrorism” is the catch-all term that Israel and its supporters use to describe acts of Palestinian resistance.


Far from encouraging resistance, the EU has been financing cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. In so doing, it has helped transform the Palestinian Authority into an enforcer of the Israeli occupation.


Apart from endorsing the Friends of Judea and Samaria group, UKIP representatives have flaunted what one called their “absolutely massive” support for Israel in other ways.


An apparently separate outfit, Friends of Israel in UKIP, has been circulating comparable baloney. One of that group’s absurd claims is that calling settlement activities in the West Bank illegal “impedes Israel’s security.”


Three years ago, Friends of Israel in UKIP found its logo derided on Twitter. Featuring a pound sign inside a Star of David, the logo triggered accusations of employing an anti-Semitic trope.


Although the group apologized for any offense caused, that image – or a very similar one – is still emblazoned on its Facebook page.


UKIP’s appreciation of Israel appears clumsy and its representatives appear to have a superficial knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs. That does not make its cheerleading for war crimes any less dangerous.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 12 April 2017.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Britain hands over embassy to Israel's war industry

Does Britain conceal the full extent of its support for Israel?


Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative politician, recently urged the prosecution of British citizens who fight for the Israeli military.


Warsi should be commended for raising an important issue – just as she did when resigning as a government minister over Britain’s refusal to condemn the 2014 bombing of Gaza.


Yet Britain provides more direct assistance to Israel than allowing Londoners and Mancunians join a foreign army.


One example of that assistance has avoided scrutiny: Britain’s embassy in Tel Aviv has hired senior players in Israel’s weapons industry.


Since 2011, the embassy has hosted an initiative called the UK Israel Tech Hub.


The initiative is chaired by Haim Shani, a civil servant-turned-entrepreneur. In 2012, Shani was appointed a director of Israel Aerospace Industries, a leading manufacturer of drones used in attacking Gaza.


The biographical note for Shani on the UK Israel Tech Hub website omits any reference to his post with the weapons firm.


It does, however, state that he is a former head of NICE Systems. No explanation is offered of how NICE, an Israeli corporation, has made surveillance equipment for police services and spying agencies around the world.


Shani is credited with overseeing a seven-fold increase in NICE’s revenues. Following his departure from the firm, its “cyber and intelligence” division was sold to Elbit, another supplier of drones to the Israeli military.


Parroting propaganda


I contacted the British embassy in Tel Aviv, asking why it is hosting an initiative led by a man with such strong connections to Israel’s war industry.


The embassy did not answer that question. Rather, a spokesperson replied that “Haim Shani is a well-respected Israeli businessman.”


The spokesperson claimed, too, that the UK Israel Tech Hub has “improved life” in Britain by facilitating cooperation with Israeli firms involved in health care and the environment.


Those comments indicate that the British embassy is parroting Israeli propaganda. Israel constantly boasts of innovations in water technology and medical treatment – as if such innovation cancels out Israel’s bombing of sewage treatment plants and hospitals.


Other members of Shani’s team also have strong connections to the Israeli war industry.


Naomi Krieger Carmy, director of the UK Israel Tech Hub, is described on the initiative’s website as an “8200 alumnus” – without any elaboration.


Unit 8200 is part of the intelligence corps in the Israeli military focused on technological research. Maor Chester, “digital solutions manager” at the hub, also states on her LinkedIn profile that she served in “an elite intelligence unit (8200)” of the Israeli military.


Amoral outlook


Every so often, the business press publishes articles celebrating how Unit 8200 has contributed to Israel’s “start-up nation” ethos.


Yet there is a far murkier side to its activities than helping to shape the Internet’s activities. Yair Cohen, a former head of the unit, has admitted that it has been involved in spying operations during all of Israel’s major offensives.


Those include activities by Mossad, the Israeli secret service.


In 2014, three dozen Unit 8200 veterans and reservists revealed that the unit deploys its capabilities to collect intimate personal information on Palestinian civilians living under occupation that is “used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself.”


They charged that the unit’s activity against Palestinians “fuels more violence, further distancing us from the end of the conflict.”


The UK Israel Tech Hub was officially launched by George Osborne, then Britain’s finance minister, in 2011.


During a visit to the Middle East, Osborne rhapsodized about Israel’s “amazing economic achievement.”


The achievement is a byproduct of profound injustice.


Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has enabled its weapons-makers to test out their products. Palestinians have been used as specimens in sadistic experiments.


The British embassy is coy about how it is encouraging such experiments. Yet it does hint that Israel’s much-celebrated technology sector is inextricably linked to an army that denies Palestinian rights.


“Cyber security” has been identified as a priority for cooperation. “Israel is a global leader in the cyber field, with a robust ecosystem drawing on capacity developed in the military arena,” the embassy has noted.


Last year, the embassy arranged for businesspeople based in Britain to visit Israel’s “cyber security” industry. Lockheed Martin, a US military giant with investments around the world, was among the firms to take part.


Matthew Hancock, a British government minister who joined that trip, has said that he wished to study how the partnership between private firms and public authorities that was deemed essential to the success of Israel’s technology sector could be emulated in Britain.


His comments reveal the amoral outlook of the British ruling elite. That elite is impressed by how Israel has turned a military occupation into a business opportunity.


The admiration runs so deep that Britain has handed over part of its embassy to the profiteers of occupation.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 4 April 2017.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Cooperating with Israel: sacred or sinister?

p>For Mahmoud Abbas, cooperating with Israel’s military occupation is “sacred.”


It is so sacred that Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, apparently bragged about jailing the intellectual and resistance fighter Bassel al-Araj less than a year before his assassination.


Contrary to what Abbas may infer, he does not have a divine duty to enforce the occupation. Rather, he is following a game plan hatched by governments in the West a couple of decades ago.


During the first six months of 1998, Britain held the European Union’s rotating presidency. As part of that work, diplomats based in Brussels drew up a proposal for “security cooperation” between Israel and the PA.


The proposal was drafted ahead of a visit by Tony Blair, Britain’s then prime minister, to the Middle East in April that year. It recommended that an EU “security” specialist and the heads of “preventive security” in the occupied West Bank and Gaza would meet every two weeks or “at time of crisis.”


The purpose of these discussions would be to allow the EU to identify what “practical assistance” it would provide the Palestinian Authority. The assistance would contribute towards fulfilling the PA’s “security obligations to combat terrorism.”


Those “obligations” were elaborated on in the Wye River Memorandum, a document signed by Yasser Arafat – predecessor to Abbas as the PA’s leader – and Benjamin Netanyahu, then (as now) Israel’s prime minister, in October 1998.


Under the “memorandum,” the PA was required to take a “zero tolerance” approach towards “terror and violence.” That would involve arresting all those suspected of violence and banning “terrorist” groups.


Capitulation


The PA was also told to “issue a decree prohibiting all forms of incitement to violence and terror” – terms which when defined by Israel have been used to suppress a wide range of political activity against the occupation.


The Wye River Memorandum, in effect, made the PA’s forces subservient to Israel.


It required that Israel be given details of all the PA’s police officers – as if to emphasize that Israel was ultimately their master. The US was given responsibility for supervising such “cooperation” – though perhaps capitulation would be a better word.


Britain and the US have been willing to hold the keys for the jailers of Palestine.


That was literally the case during the second intifada. In 2002, Israel approved a deal under which six Palestinians were locked up by the PA in the West Bank city of Jericho.


Part of the deal was that Britain and the US would provide guards to oversee the detention. One of the detainees – Ahmad Saadat, a prominent figure in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – had not been charged with a recognizable offense.


Eleven years ago this week, Israel raided the Jericho jail where the six were being held.


The raid was enabled by Britain and the US. Israel was given advance notice that they had decided to withdraw the prison guards (supposedly for the guards’ safety).


All six of the men were seized by Israel and are still behind bars today.


Britain has subsequently been a key player in an EU operation to mentor the Palestinian police. Most of the men who have headed this operation to date previously served in the British police and the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the north of Ireland.


They include its first chief, Jonathan McIvor. He was the most senior uniformed officer on duty in Plumstead, the area of London where the Black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993.


An official inquiry into that crime found there was a culture of “institutional racism” in the London Metropolitan Police. The inquiry criticized McIvor for failing to meet his responsibilities on the night of the murder and for lacking sufficient knowledge about racist violence in the area.


Tools of repression


The criticism did not stop the British government from nominating McIvor for the EU job.


Britain proved its commitment to McIvor by paying most of the bills during the first year he managed the EU operation. McIvor quickly began assessing how to equip the PA’s police with tools of repression like batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.


The operation’s tacit objective was to make Israel happy. That goal has been attained.


Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesperson for the Israeli police, has credited the EU with boosting cooperation between Israel and the PA.


A related initiative was launched by the US in 2005. It involved appointing a US military general as a “security coordinator” to train the PA’s forces.


Britain and Canada have supplied personnel to that initiative, too.


Keith Dayton, the security coordinator from 2005 to 2010, promoted disunity among Palestinians. He facilitated the mass round-up of people suspected of Hamas connections in the West Bank during 2007.


Dayton was also a key figure behind a botched plan hatched by the administration of George W. Bush. The plan involved arming and training Palestinian proxies in Gaza to overthrow the Hamas-led administration, after the party won Palestinian Authority elections in 2006.


The US intervention provoked deadly battles between supporters of Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah party in 2007 and led to the ongoing political division between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


Later, Dayton gloated about the success he enjoyed in convincing the PA to “allay Israeli fears.” Some Israeli troops stationed in the West Bank joined Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. They left their usual posts, Dayton has claimed, because “they could trust” the PA’s forces.


Those forces did not let the Israeli oppressor down. The PA suppressed protests held in the West Bank against the Israeli invasion of Gaza.


It is continuing to suppress protests.


Palestinians have taken to the streets of Ramallah in the past week, denouncing the PA’s complicity in Bassel al-Araj’s killing and the persecution of other activists. The demonstrators have been met by police officers wielding batons and firing tear gas.


Bassel’s father, Mahmoud al-Araj, was among those beaten.


It is disgraceful that a man who has just lost his son could be treated with such brutality. That is what happens when the Palestinian Authority strives to please the oppressor by copying its tactics.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 16 March 2017.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Who funds Irish4Israel?

Each time Israel’s supporters in Ireland decide to smear the Palestine solidarity movement, there is a strong likelihood that a man called Barry Williams will be quoted in the media.


Williams and his group Irish4Israel have featured prominently in two recent stories.


First, they objected to a conference on Israeli “exceptionalism” which is being organized by professors at University College Cork. And next, they depicted a protest against a visit by the Israeli ambassador to Trinity College Dublin as a denial of free speech.


Despite the group’s persistent claims that the Dublin media harbor a pro-Palestinian bias, Irish4Israel has enjoyed an easy ride from journalists. The mainstream press has not bothered to ask who Williams represents or to examine how his arguments are riddled with contradictions.


Irish4Israel only demands free and uninterrupted speech for Israel’s apologists, not its critics. Responding to the Trinity College protests last week, Williams declared it “sad” that police and security guards “didn’t do enough.”


What exactly did he mean? Did he want a peaceful protest to be broken up aggressively?


Inconsistent


Williams’ championing of free expression is inconsistent with other positions taken by Irish4Israel.


Last year, the group took pleasure in how Bank of Ireland had decided to close down the account of the country’s main Palestine solidarity group. “This is amazing news,” stated Irish4Israel in a message to its supporters. “Without a bank account their work is extremely restricted.”


Irish4Israel, meanwhile, has made the spurious claim that a slogan chanted during the Trinity protest was “genocidal.” The slogan in question was “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”


The claim reflects a well-worn tactic of the pro-Israel lobby: infer that there is an anti-Semitic motive behind a simple call for equality and justice.


The irony is that Williams has responded in a tepid manner when Israel’s supporters have displayed a lust for extreme violence.


In November 2012, Israel bombed Gaza for eight consecutive days. When a Facebook page was set up for a pro-Israel demonstration in Dublin, one man posted his opinion that Muslims “must be destroyed or at least driven out of Israel.”


Williams replied by writing: “Sorry guys, this forum is public and is probably being looked at by those who would love to demonize us. Comments supporting driving Muslims out don’t help. We must always put our best side out for Israel.”


The 2012 demo was organized by Naomi Dara Gibson. The previous year, she had commented on Facebook that her dream would be to see God destroy Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque – one of Islam’s holiest sites.


Williams has himself expressed a desire for Israel to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to a document seen by The Electronic Intifada. And his insistence on putting “our best side out for Israel” sits uneasily with a willingness to defend the most outrageous pronouncements of that state’s diplomats.


In December 2012, Israel’s embassy in Dublin issued a Christmas message, which read: “If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, probably end up being lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians.”


The message spawned many unwelcome headlines, yet Irish4Israel argued that the embassy was “stating the truth.”


Secretive


That willingness to go to bat for Israel might explain why Williams is the embassy’s favorite lobbyist, judging by how eagerly it promotes his group on Facebook and Twitter.


Until a few years ago, Tom Carew of the Ireland-Israel Friendship League was regarded as the top pro-Israel lobbyist in the country. Carew resigned as chair of that organization in 2013, after publicly opposing an assault by Israeli troops on a French diplomat.


Williams has filled the niche that Carew used to occupy.


From its modest beginnings as Williams’ hobby in 2010 – when he was a Cork-based student – Irish4Israel has morphed into what looks like a slick propaganda machine.


BlueStar, a US-based organization, is known to have raised funds for Irish4Israel. Yet Williams is generally secretive about how his activities are financed.


He did not reply to a request for comment.


At the moment, Irish4Israel is running an essay competition for students, with the prize of a free trip to the Middle East.


An earlier version of this competition was won by Sean Tyrrell, a candidate in 2014 elections to Ireland’s local authorities.


I was told by a reliable source that Tyrell is now working for the Israeli embassy in Dublin.


When I called the embassy asking to speak to him, a receptionist asked me who I was. After I identified myself as a journalist, the receptionist said “where did you get Sean’s name?”


“From a contact, I cannot say who,” I replied. I, then, enquired “You do have a gentleman by that name working at the embassy, yes?” “No, we don’t,” the receptionist said.


I have also emailed the embassy, asking how much money it gives to Irish4Israel. My request has gone unanswered.


The embassy’s reticence looks uncharacteristic. Last weekend, the embassy responded rapidly when I and others challenged it – via Twitter – about Israel’s bombings of Palestinian hospitals.


Last September, lawyers in Israel filed freedom of information requests asking the government to reveal its covert financial support to foreign organizations and individuals assisting Israel in its propaganda efforts.


A documentary broadcast by Al Jazeera in January revealed how Israeli diplomats in London were courting students.


Something similar is happening in Ireland.


Last autumn, Irish4Israel notified its supporters that the country’s first pro-Israel student society had been formed in Maynooth University. Alan Lyne, one of the group’s founders, had gone on an Irish4Israel junket to the Middle East.


In a recent message to its supporters, Irish4Israel indicated that it hopes to facilitate more such trips for students. Participants in previous delegations have been selected “for their potential to be future leaders, politicians or journalists,” the message added.


Can groups like Irish4Israel have an influence on policy? The short answer is yes.


Charlie Flanagan, Ireland’s current foreign minister, is among a number of Irish politicians who are openly sympathetic to Israel. During Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, Williams said that Ireland’s ruling coalition had been more “even-handed” than previous governments had been in comparable situations. The foreign ministry, Williams added, was “not trying to lecture Israel.”


His comments were revealing. Even though there is widespread public affinity with the Palestinians in Ireland, elite figures are willing to accommodate Israeli apartheid.


Barry Williams is trying to convince the elite that it should hug Israel even tighter.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 1 March 2017.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Israel lobby's squirming over settlements won't fool anyone

The task of Israel’s advocates has become a lot more complicated.


At least, that is the argument which one such lobbyist has been making. Alex Benjamin, head of the organization Europe Israel Public Affairs (EIPA), recently lamented that his friends and acquaintances in Brussels weren’t enamored by moves towards annexing most of the West Bank.


Even the “occasional barman” has been voicing his displeasure at how Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, authorized the large-scale theft of Palestinian land, Benjamin has suggested. In a blog post, he asked if there was nobody available to rein in the Israeli government and say that the Knesset bill was “nakedly hostile, unnecessary and wrong.”


Does his mini-rant herald a split in the Israel lobby? Is Benjamin’s EIPA about to rupture its connections to Israel’s settler movement in protest at these “nakedly hostile” activities?


I very much doubt it.


EIPA – which styles itself as a leading pro-Israel group working inside the Brussels bureaucracy – has made no attempt before now to distance itself from politicians who favor annexing Area C, a zone comprising more than 60 percent of the West Bank.


Menachem Margolin, EIPA’s founder, has stated that he wishes to “do great things together” with Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister. Bennett was already a vocal advocate of annexation when Margolin expressed that desire.


Bennett has also personally boasted of killing “lots of Arabs,” while his Jewish Home party colleague justice minister Ayelet Shaked, has become notorious for disseminating a call for genocide of the Palestinians.


EIPA cannot have been caught by surprise that Bennett was jubilant when the Knesset bill was approved earlier this month.


Playing by the rules?


Although Benjamin described the recent bill as “wrong,” his post exemplifies how he is more troubled with image and perception than morality and legality.


For the EU, he writes, the settlement issue has become the “principal impediment to peace” and “whether we like it or not these are the rules of the game here.”


The rules to which he refers are tacit.


Every Israeli government since 1967 has been involved in colonizing the West Bank. Some have been a little more subtle than others.


The EU’s favorite Israeli politicians tend to be “liberals,” who succeed in camouflaging their approval for land theft with rhetoric about a “two-state solution.”


By taking that approach, Tzipi Livni and the late Shimon Peres could strike up a warmer rapport with EU representatives than more brazen hawks like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.


Ironically, EIPA does not actually play by the rules of the game.


EIPA spends much of its time engaging with members of the European Parliament. Its strongest supporters belong to that fringe within the parliament that is prepared to either defend all of Israel’s settlement activities or seek to downplay their significance.


Bas Belder, a veteran lawmaker from the Netherlands, sits on EIPA’s advisory committee. Belder is an unapologetic Christian Zionist.


On a TV program earlier this year, he argued that it was unfair that Israel gets criticized when there are “settlements for so-called Bedouins” in Area C that are “quite clearly against international law.”


That reasoning was absurd. Bedouins are not building settlements; they are struggling to survive.


In a fresh act of belligerence, the Israeli military issued 40 demolition orders to Bedouins living in Khan al-Ahmar village on Sunday. Unlike the neighboring Maaleh Adumim – Israel’s largest settlement in Area C – that Bedouin village lacks any infrastructure.


Gung ho


Another politician on EIPA’s advisory board is Fulvio Martusciello, a stalwart of Forza Italia – the party synonymous with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.


Martusciello is also chair of the European Parliament’s committee for relations with the Knesset. That committee – delegation in official parlance – has displayed a considerable degree of sympathy towards the settler movement, as well as to firms that operate in the settlements.


Earlier this month, it hosted a visit to Brussels by Sydney Knafou, CEO of Casimex, a French company that imports wines from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights.


Casimex labels produce from those settlements as “wine of Israel.” That is a flagrant violation of EU law, which prohibits firms from misleading consumers by suggesting that food or drink are from present-day Israel if they originate from the West Bank or Golan.


Furthermore, EIPA has appeared happy to cooperate with other lobby outfits that are gung ho in the manner with which they endorse Israel’s settlement activities.


In January, EIPA played a lead role in organizing a conference aimed at smearing the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semitic – an aspersion that Israel casts against its critics by default. That event was also sponsored by Israel’s EU embassy and European Coalition for Israel.


European Coalition for Israel is a Christian Zionist group. Its legal counsel, Andrew Tucker, has made one of the most outlandish comments yet recorded about Palestine. He has called Israel’s occupation of the West Bank “the key to peace and prosperity in the Middle East.”


This week EIPA disclosed details of its annual budget for the first time. A statement it provided to the EU’s “transparency register” suggests that it had $370,000 at its disposal in 2015, the year it was established.


Menachem Margolin is now listed as the organization’s treasurer. He also heads the European Jewish Association, which has a stated yearly budget of around $1.7 million.


EIPA’s money – all from unnamed donors – enables it to have an office opposite the Justus Lipsius building, where European Union summits are held.


The lobby group’s efforts to combine proximity to power with deception should not go unchallenged.


Alex Benjamin is posing as someone moderate and reasonable. In truth, he is entangled with extremists.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 22 February 2017.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Was Blair's "sweatshops for Palestine" agenda shaped by a Labour donor?

It is eerily apt that the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum coincides with Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president.


The business leaders and their political lackeys who huddle together in Davos, Switzerland each January write and then dispense prescriptions that have caused inequality levels to soar. Eight men possess as much wealth as the poorer half of the globe’s population, according to a new analysis by Oxfam.


Trump’s ascent can be directly attributed to the disillusionment that ensues when the wealth gap widens – notwithstanding the irony that Trump epitomises the super-rich and all its vulgarity.


The establishment figures against which Trump pitted himself were very much identified with what the writer and activist Susan George has dubbed the “Davos class.” Trump’s campaign team even zoomed in on comments made by Hillary Clinton at the forum when ranting against trade policies that her husband implemented and that she had favored. (Bill Clinton became the first sitting US president to attend the Davos jamboree in 2000 and has been a frequent participant since then.)


Palestine has not been spared from the World Economic Forum’s activities.


Conflict of interests?


In 2012, the forum established an initiative called Breaking the Impasse. Its ostensible goal was to hook up Palestinian and Israeli entrepreneurs with major corporations so that they could discuss how to prime-pump the economy of the occupied West Bank and Gaza.


Responsibility for a follow-on initiative was given to Tony Blair the next year. Blair was supposed to represent the Middle East Quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia – at that time.


Yet he was given this responsibility by the most powerful of those four players – the US; Blair’s assignment was announced by John Kerry, then secretary of state.


Blair, in turn, appears to have recommended to Kerry that Kito de Boer, a director of the consulting firm McKinsey, should steward the whole scheme. The recommendation raises ethical questions, which have not previously scrutinized.


Before being recommended by Blair, de Boer had worked on a project about private sector investment in Palestine run by the Portland Trust, a London-based organization. Portland is headed by Ronald Cohen, a venture capitalist who had been a major donor to Britain’s Labour Party when Blair was its leader.


In an interview published by the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) – a corporate club – de Boer said that Blair “knew of the work” he had undertaken for Portland. De Boer was “approached” when Kerry asked Blair “for an economic strategy for rebuilding the Palestinian economy,” according to that interview.


Those comments indicate that Blair’s work for the quartet was influenced by Ronald Cohen.


Cohen had been a Labour donor when Blair was the party’s boss (and prime minister). So Blair has, to put it mildly, some explaining to do here.


Was de Boer headhunted by Blair based on Cohen’s advice? If so, is this a case of jobs for the boys? Is there a conflict of interests?


I contacted de Boer, enquiring if Cohen had introduced him to Blair. I also enquired if he was aware that Cohen had helped bankroll Labour when Blair was in Downing Street.


De Boer sent me a convoluted reply, which did not answer those questions directly. He did, however, confirm that Blair had been aware of his work for Cohen.


He confirmed, too, that Blair had “steered” Kerry to McKinsey when the secretary of state wished to have a blueprint for the Palestinian economy drawn up. “I also led that work,” he stated.


Neither Blair nor Cohen replied to requests for comment.


Exploitation


The blueprint which de Boer was tasked with drawing up was titled the “Initiative for the Palestinian Economy” and published in 2014. De Boer has confirmed that he was appointed by Kerry to oversee the blueprint’s implementation that same year.


One proposal made by de Boer’s team was that industrial estates in the areas nominally under Palestinian Authority control should be designated as “special economic zones.”


The “special” ingredients of this recipe have not been spelled out in detail. But there is enough evidence from how “special economic zones” have functioned elsewhere to regard the proposal as highly problematic.


“Special economic zone” is a euphemism for a sweatshop. Generally, such a designation allows companies within the zones to pay lower wages and less taxes than those applying in the wider economy.


A de facto ban on trade union activism, for example, has been introduced in Cambodia’s “special economic zones,” according to a 2016 investigation by the magazine In These Times.


Put simply, de Boer’s blueprint would, if put into practice, potentially enable corporations to reap vast profits, while paying no more than a pittance to Palestinian workers. It should really be called the “sweatshops for Palestine” initiative.


Blair stepped down as the Quartet’s representative in 2015. But the operation he led in Jerusalem is still in place.


When Blair resigned, de Boer took over as head of the office. Because Blair has not been replaced, that means de Boer is now running the show, although he told me: “I am not the [Quartet] representative because I am not a politician.”


De Boer is still intent on putting his plan into practice and has assembled an outfit named Shurook for that purpose.


“Our mandate is economic not political,” de Boer stated.


Who does he think he is kidding? A plan to increase exploitation of workers in an area subject to a brutal military occupation is inherently political – and extremely dangerous.


It is the kind of plan likely to win approval within the Davos bubble and inflict great harm in the real world.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 18 January 2017.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Who pulled Tony Blair's strings?

Tony Blair “believes that the arc of history still bends towards progress and enlightenment,” a recent profile in the New Statesman proclaimed.


The former prime minister’s casual attire and views on the popular TV show “Strictly Come Dancing” were carefully noted by the London weekly, eager to publicize his re-engagement in British politics. Blair’s reverential interviewer did not shy away completely from the Iraq war, yet seemed more concerned about its effects on Blair’s own wellbeing than about its actual victims.


By using the phrase “arc of history,” the interviewer was probably invoking Martin Luther King’s aphorism “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” A reputedly serious magazine twisted the words of a civil rights leader to laud a war criminal.


With just a few exceptions, the mainstream press has failed to properly scrutinize Blair’s activities. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, phony intelligence was treated as incontrovertible by stenographers masquerading as journalists. After Blair left Downing Street, the stenographers labeled him a “Middle East peace envoy.”


Blair stepped down as an “envoy” last year. There are still many questions about his post that have not been properly examined. Here is one such question: who precisely did he serve?


Formally, Blair was a representative of the Middle East Quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia. In reality, many of his activities appear to have either been directed from or closely watched by Washington officials.


That fact was implicitly acknowledged now and then – such as when John Kerry, the secretary of state, tasked Blair with drawing up a plan for boosting investment in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.


Blair was not a full-time envoy; his lucrative activities as a corporate lobbyist meant he was often away from his quartet desk. Who, then, was running his office in Jerusalem?


Penchant for praise


As well as being the largest donor to the Quartet envoy’s office – providing $13.5 million between 2007 and 2013 – the US supplied some of its top personnel.


Robert Danin was head of Blair’s office from 2008 to 2010. Danin, who had previously worked in both the State Department and the National Security Council, shared Blair’s penchant for praising Israel when it did not deserve any praise.


For example, when Israel agreed in 2010 that a small number of trucks carrying goods could be allowed into Gaza, Danin claimed there had been a “positive step forward.” Danin avoided saying publicly that Gaza was under an Israeli siege.


Today, Danin makes his living as an “expert” with the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.


He has used that position to advocate that the relationship between Israel and the US should be properly consummated. Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Danin recommended that the Israeli government seek a formal pact with the US.


Entering into a treaty-based alliance with the US would “not necessarily have a significant practical effect on Israeli freedom of maneuver,” he argued. That is a fancy way of saying that Israel would still be able to behave with impunity in oppressing the Palestinians and bombing its neighbors.


Hugging Israel tighter


Another career diplomat, Gary Grappo, succeeded Dannin as Blair’s head of office. Grappo’s bio states that he had previously led the “super-sized political division” at the US embassy in Baghdad.


Grappo’s faith in imperial aggression remains strong – despite being exposed to its messy consequences. In a 2014 opinion piece, he advocated that the US be more forceful in “fighting and defeating terrorism, especially the jihadist-kind that pervades much of the Middle East.”


By displaying greater vigor “US foreign policy might also regain the moral and political high ground, where America and its friends want it to be,” he added. Unless I missed something, Grappo did not state when the US last commanded the moral high ground.


Grappo has now moved on to manage his own firm, Equilibrium International Consulting. Its website promises “sober, balanced and insightful perspectives” on the Middle East to firms and institutions dealing with the region.


For their sake, I hope that there is more balance and insight in what he tells his clients than in what he writes. Many of his comments parrot official US and Israeli propaganda – such as his patently absurd allegation that Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza was “launched” by Hamas.


Grappo, who has also served in Riyadh, pays particularly close attention to Saudi Arabia. Last year, he suggested that Saudi Arabia and Israel should liaise on security and intelligence matters.


The case admittedly has a perverse logic: the Israeli and Saudi ruling elites are both proficient in abusing human rights, so they might as well swap notes. The ongoing Saudi war crimes in Yemen bear some similarities to Israel’s offensives against Gaza and Lebanon.


Grappo, however, did not express himself in such crude terms. Instead, he tried to convey the impression that his motives were altruistic. Greater cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel would “set the stage for the first-ever meaningful and constructive dialogue about the Palestinian question,” he wrote.


He also wants the US to have the same kind of bond with Saudi Arabia that it has with Israel. His rationale – based on observations he made while working for Blair – is that “the US was always far more succesful in getting the Israelis to do things that they felt uncomfortable doing” when it embraced them as tightly as possible.


Alas, Grappo has not specified what results American hugging can yield.


Under Barack Obama’s presidency, the US embrace of Israel has become tighter than ever. The awarding of a $38 billion military aid package to Israel is the most tangible manifestation of that embrace.


Tony Blair was included within that embrace and never showed any desire to be released from it.


・First published by The Electronic Intifada, 12 December 2016.