European Friends of Israel: Founded by Tories, funded by big business

David Cronin

Under David Cameron’s leadership, the Conservative Party has often conveyed the impression that it wanted Britain to disengage from the European Union. The impression jars with reality on at least one crucial issue of foreign policy: relations with Israel.

One little-known fact is that it was a few Tories who took the initiative to form what has become arguably the most influential Zionist lobby group in Brussels.  European Friends of Israel (EFI) was established in 2006 by those who had been active in a similar outfit within the Conservative Party.

The EFI’s chief instigator, Stuart Polak, had been director of Conservatives Friends of Israel(CFI) since 1989 (a position he still holds). Named one of the UK’s 100 most influential right-wing figures by The Daily Telegraph in 2007, he has been credited with doing more than anyone else in promoting Israel’s case among British conservatives. As a pressure group within Westminster, the CFI is perhaps unparalleled in terms of its clout. By its own estimates, 80 per cent of Tory MPs are signed up to it. These include a number of cabinet ministers: William Hague, the foreign secretary, joined CFI during the 1970s, when he was still a teenager.

Hannu Takkula, a Finnish Liberal MEP who has been involved with the European Friends of Israel since the beginning, confirmed that it is modelled on the Conservative Friends of Israel. A number of MEPs held discussions with representatives of the British Conservatives, he said, about forming a pro-Israel alliance that would act as a counterbalance to the Palestine solidarity movement, which according to Takkula, was ‘very strong’. He added that ‘some guys visited here’ (Brussels) from the Conservatives to explain how the CFI operated. 1

At least three Tory MEPs – Charles Tannock, Geoffrey Van Orden and Timothy Kirkhope – can be seen in a video filmed at the launch of EFI in September 2006. In a speech to that dinner, Tannock said: ‘We have been working very hard in the European Parliament for a number of years to build up a network of friends and tonight this is the realisation of our hard work.’

Tannock, a foreign affairs specialist, sat on the EFI’s political board between 2006 and 2011. Despite the clear suggestion in his speech that he had personally taken part in some of the preparations for the EFI’s establishment, Tannock’s office denied he had done so. After repeated requests for a comment, his assistant replied that Tannock was ‘not involved in the setting-up of EFI at its inception nor was he involved with the idea of launching the group’. 2

Van Orden, a retired brigadier-general in the British Army who served in NATO’s headquarters during the 1990s, refused to answer questions about what precise role he played in the EFI’s early stages. Contacted by telephone, he alleged that I had ‘put something obnoxious’ about him on the Wikipedia website. When I insisted that I had never done such a thing, he said: ‘Or someone did on your behalf’. Following a vague threat – ‘I’ll be in touch with you about that’ – he hung up.3 (For the record, I was unaware that the page devoted to Van Orden on Wikipedia referred to one of my articles until he drew this to my attention. Far from being ‘obnoxious’, the article in question simply stated that Van Orden was ‘especially close to the arms industry’. That assertion was no more than a paraphrasing of Van Orden’s own words: in October 2013, he told me that as a Conservative spokesman on defence issues, he was ‘a strong advocate for UK industry, including the arms industry’). 4

Papers filed with the Belgian authorities state that EFI was officially established as a not-for-profit association by Stuart Polak, along with Marc Cogen, a Belgian academic, and Jean-Pierre Haber, a veteran Brussels official. Its stated objective was to ‘unify’ the various pro-Israel groups within the national parliaments of EU countries by coordinating their activities. Such groups would be linked to one in the European Parliament, according to these papers. 5

Neoconservative hue

Throughout its history, EFI has enjoyed some success in straddling the political divisions within the European Parliament. Its supporters range from individual Greens to the extreme-right – although it has generally been shunned by MEPs from the far-left. Nonetheless, the participation of Marc Cogen meant that it had a neoconservative hue.

Cogen had offered his unequivocal backing to the ‘war on terror’ declared by George W. Bush. His status as a professor of international law did not stop Cogen from trying to justify America’s trampling on the rights of due process. For example, he has argued that the detention of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay was permissible on the grounds that ‘members of private armies’ should be ‘tried outside the common criminal justice system’. He praised Israel for enabling the use of similar practices through its approval of a law on ‘unlawful combatants’ in 2002. In January 2009, he and several politicians signed a letter to Flemish newspapers defending Israel’s attack on Gaza.

Both Polak and Cogen stepped down as administrators of the EFI in November 2011. 6 The previous year Cogen was reportedly suspended from his teaching post in the University of Ghent for ‘inappropriate behaviour’. He was subsequently hired by the VUB, the main Dutch-language university in Brussels.  Cogen did not respond to requests for a comment but a colleague of his at VUB confirmed that he is still working there. 7

Cogen remains in contact with the Zionist lobby. The 2013 annual report of NGO Monitorlists him as a member of its legal advisory board.8 Run by Israeli academic Gerard Steinberg, NGO Monitor is dedicated to preserving Israel as an apartheid state, in which Palestinians face systematic discrimination. It campaigns against the public financing of human rights and peace activists who promote a ‘one-state solution’ based on full equality for Jews, Muslims, Christians and non-believers, accusing such activists of striving to ‘eliminate’ Israel.

Jean-Pierre Haber has a lower profile than the other founders of EFI. Now living in the south of France, he has considerable knowledge about the inner workings of the EU institutions. From 1973 to 1984, he was an economics adviser to the European Progressive Democrats – then a political group in the European Parliament that included the French Gaullist party and Ireland’s Fianna Fáil.

Perhaps more importantly for a propaganda outfit like the EFI, Haber is considered something of an authority on promoting the EU. According to his curriculum vitae, he once headed the Euro Information Centres, a network of offices that provides assistance to small firms. He also sat on a panel of ‘experts’ on communications policy appointed by Jacques Delors, the European Commission’s then president, in the early 1990s. Haber drafted that committee’s final report. Unintentionally comical, the report complained of how too many of the statements issued in Brussels were replete with ‘incomprehensible jargon’ before recommending that a project aimed at making the European Union hip could be based on a slogan in the ancient language of Latin.

Arms industry connections

Such a ham-fisted approach to what is often misleadingly termed ‘public relations’ does not seem to have reduced Haber’s appeal to European Friends of Israel. For it is important to stress that EFI is more concerned with shaping elite opinion than that of the wider public.

That might explain why EFI has been supported by those who benefit from activities that most decent people would find repulsive. During the first nine months of 2006, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) reported a profit of $115 million, a 247 per cent increase over the same period in 2005. As one of the largest suppliers of weapons to the Israeli military, IAI evidently did well from the attack on Lebanon in the summer of that year. The offensive enabled Israel to ‘battle-test’ its armed drones for the first time.  Since then IAI has become one of the world’s top drone manufacturers.

IAI (then called Israel Aircraft Industries) was among the sponsors for the EFI’s launch; the company’s information stall can be seen in a video taken at the event. Stuart Polak, meanwhile, doubles up as an arms industry lobbyist. The Westminster Connection, a consulting firm that he set up, puts ‘defence’ at the top of the list of the sectors to which it has provided advice. Elbit, another Israeli warplane-maker, has been named by The Sunday Times as one of his clients.

EFI’s leading figures are reluctant to admit that they have received support from the arms industry. Gunnar Hökmark, a Swedish conservative MEP who was the first chairman of the EFI’s political board, declined to be interviewed. When Hökmark was asked by email if he had any concerns about IAI’s participation in the group’s launch, his adviser replied: ‘It is profoundly insulting to believe that Mr Hökmark’s deeply-felt support and engagement for the people who have been most persecuted and discriminated against in the world throughout history would have anything at all to do with who paid for a dinner five, six, seven years ago or whenever.’

Tannock’s assistant stated that the British MEP did not have ‘anything to do with the fundraising at any time nor did he have detailed knowledge of all the sponsors of EFI events. And he was not aware, if it is the case, that Israeli defence contractors were closely involved with EFI as you seem to suggest when he was involved with the group between 2006 and 2011.’

Secrecy

Like most Israel lobby groups, EFI does not publish details of its donors. Marek Siwiec, a Polish Social Democrat MEP who chairs the EFI’s political board at the time of writing, contended that it is a ‘transparent organisation’. Yet he refused to reveal how it is funded.

Although EFI has held quite a few events on the European Parliament’s premises and been able to avail of that institution’s facilities, it is not subject to the same rules covering other cross-party alliances (‘intergroups’ in Brussels parlance). Administrators of those ad hoc alliances – dealing with subjects as diverse as hunting, Tibet and minority languages – arerequired to declare all financial support which they receive. As EFI functions largely in the same way as those ‘intergroups’, I asked Martin Schulz, the European Parliament’s president, why it wasn’t registered as one. His office referred my question to a ‘citizens’ enquiries unit’, which claimed that the EFI is an ‘informal grouping’ comprised of both MEPs and representatives of national parliaments. EFI’s ‘informal’ nature means it publishes neither a full list of politicians affiliated to it nor even rudimentary details of how it is funded.

An EFI staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that it relies on ‘private donors from Europe and Israel’. The source admitted that one of these donors has been Alexander Machkevitch, a mining magnate with dual Kazakh and Israeli citizenship. Machkevitch’s support had been limited to ‘a single project’, the source claimed: financing a visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank for a few hundred MEPs and members of national parliaments in February 2011. That visit was described as ‘the largest ever mass gathering of European parliamentarians in Israel’ by The Jerusalem Post.

EFI did not sign up to an official register of ‘interest representatives’ (a synonym for lobbyists) until August 2011 – almost five years after the group’s inception. While it is not mandatory for lobbyists working in Brussels to join this database, they have been offered incentives to do so. Most significantly, obtaining an access badge to the European Parliament is effectively conditional on taking this step.

EFI’s entry in the register is scant on details. It says that the organisation had a total budget of €400,000 in 2012, all of which came from donations. Intriguingly, it maintained that less than €50,000 of that sum was directly spent on ‘representing interests to the EU institutions’. Six staff members had been granted access badges for the European Parliament. These included its director Elinadav Heymann, an Israeli who had previously been a foreign policy adviser to Britain’s Conservatives and their colleagues from several other right-leaning parties in the European Parliament, and who had served as an Israeli Air Force ‘intelligence analyst’.

In 2011, I asked EFI if it received any money from Zionist organisations in the US. ‘I promise you 100 per cent that no [we do not receive such funding],’ an EFI spokesman said.

Yet in a form submitted to America’s Internal Revenue Service for the 2009 tax year, the New York-based Near East Forum stated that it had given $33,000 to the EFI. When I contacted that forum’s office, a staff member told me it supported ‘organisations in Europe that help Israel.’ Asked if the forum was Zionist in outlook, the staff member responded ‘I guess you could say that’.

The Near East Forum also gave $53,000 to the European Jewish Development Fund(EJDF) in Brussels that year. Describing itself as ‘a source of centralised funding’ for projects that ‘promote Jewish pride’, the EJDF boasts of playing a ‘vital role in informing world leaders of the historical and current character of the Middle East and in lobbying on behalf of Israel’. Just one outfit is listed under the ‘public affairs’ category in the ‘what we support’ section of the EJDF’s website: European Friends of Israel.

The EJDF was set up in 2004 by Moshe Garelik, an Italian-born rabbi with American citizenship. Over the past decade, Garelik has helped make Zionists more visible in Brussels by forming a number of organisations. Among them are the European Jewish Community Centre. Ostensibly a meeting place for Jews working in Brussels’ European quarter, its activities are not purely religious or cultural in nature. On occasions, it hasteamed up with EFI to host receptions to mark Jerusalem Day – an annual event celebrating Israel’s 1967 capture of East Jerusalem – in the European Parliament.

Garelik has quite literally given his blessing to Israel’s crimes against humanity. In 2006, he toured Israeli army bases to emphasise his support for the attack then being conducted against Lebanon. He reportedly tried to lift the spirits of Israeli soldiers with ‘holy words of encouragement’.

EFI is not an exact replica of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the most influential pressure groups in Washington. In 2011, AIPAC raked in more than $70 million in donations and grants.  While there is much opacity surrounding the Zionist lobby this side of the Atlantic, it is safe to assume that no organisation within it commands a remotely similar war-chest.

Some evidence of cooperation between EFI and AIPAC can nonetheless be found. Ranaan Eliaz, who had previously worked with the Israeli National Security Council advising prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, has stated that he was ‘instrumental’ in establishing EFI. He had been a staff member of AIPAC in 2004.

Key players in EFI have clearly made a point of studying how AIPAC works. Dimitri Dombret, EFI’s first director, confirmed to me in 2009 that he had met AIPAC representatives in Washington a number of times. More recently, EFI has sent as many as70 delegates to the annual AIPAC conference. Photographs posted on EFI’s Facebook pageshow Elinadav Heymann, the group’s current director, speaking at a side event held during the conference in March 2014.

Although EFI has not published the names of those who comprised these delegations, anote on its website states that they have boasted ‘leading parliamentarians, business executives from across Europe, experts in foreign policy and policy-makers relating to the Middle East’.

Part 2 of this investigation, which looks at EFI’s corporate backers and its lobbying for trade deals, will be published 21 May 2014.

Notes:

1. Interview with the author, 18 February 2014.

2. Exchange of emails between office of Charles Tannock and the author, March 2014.

3. Interview with the author, 25 March 2014.

4. Exchange of emails between Geoffrey Van Orden and the author, October 2013.

5. Annex to Moniteur belge (Belgium’s official journal), 31 August 2006.

6. Annex to Moniteur belge, 10 January 2012.

7. Telephone conversation with the author, 30 April 2014.

David Cronin is an Irish journalist and political activist living in Brussels. He is the author of Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War (Pluto, 2013). His earlier book is Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation (Pluto, 2011). Via Spinwatch.