BICOM: Defending the Occupation

Originally published at Middle East Monitor.

Lorna Fitzsimons believes that Israel’s lurch to the right is just one facet of a global democratic crisis, but I would argue that the Israeli rejectionism that she defended during her time as head of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) was a key factor in creating an era of militarism that helped to bring that crisis about. Moreover, the former Labour MP noted last month that, “A notion is spreading in the West that Israel is fast becoming an illiberal ethno-democracy – fear-driven, bigoted, and small minded.” She was introducing a debate on Israeli democracy in what turned out be one of her final acts with the lobby group and, she insisted, “that notion is just not true”.

The claim drew a powerful response from activist Ben White, which outlined the thoroughly illiberal ethnocentric history of Israeli repression of the Palestinians since 1948 in the New Statesman. That in turn drew a rejoinder from BICOM’s Dr Toby Greene and Professor Alan Johnson, who argued that a majority of people in Israel endorsed “full equality of rights for Arab citizens of the state” in a recent survey by the Israeli Democracy Institute. A similar majority of Israelis support the long-overdue establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, which will fulfil the national rights of Palestinian Arabs.

Israeli public support for a two-state solution is taken by Greene and Johnson as evidence of Israel’s democratic credentials. Yet even if one accepts the premise, a further step in the argument is necessary, in the shape of evidence that the Israeli state is prepared to implement that popular will. Just why, for example, is a Palestinian state so long overdue?

The myth of no partner for peace

BICOM was founded a decade ago on the proposition that the Palestinians had only themselves to blame. In 2001, a year after the failure of the Camp David talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, BICOM’s Brian Kerner told the Guardian he had shifted “from being leftwing to supporting a rightwing government”. The then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, he claimed “offered everything and got a kick in the head for doing so. By offering so much, it encouraged violence.”

Although this view was widespread among Israel’s supporters in Europe and the US, it was not one shared by key Israeli government analysts. Haaretz journalist Akiva Eldar revealed in 2004 that a number of top intelligence officials, including former heads of the Shin Bet security service and military intelligence, believed that Arafat had made a serious attempt at a two-state settlement. The head of military intelligence at the time of the talks, Amos Malka, told Eldar:

“We assumed that it is possible to reach an agreement with Arafat under the following conditions: a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and sovereignty on the Temple Mount; 97 percent of the West Bank plus exchanges of territory in the ratio of 1:1 with respect to the remaining territory; some kind of formula that includes the acknowledgement of Israel’s responsibility for the refugee problem and a willingness to accept 20,000-30,000 refugees. All along the way … it was MI’s assessment that he had to get some kind of statement that would not depict him as having relinquished this, but would be prepared for a very limited implementation.”

In Eldar’s view, it was Barak’s belief that Arafat could be pushed into further concessions that caused the failure of the summit, and the myth of “no partner for peace” was devised by more politically malleable intelligence officers to justify Israel’s tilt towards unilateralism at the recriminations that followed.

It is this underlying reality which Fitzsimons’s argument does not acknowledge. A state which founds its claim to legitimacy on a two-state solution is bound to face a crisis of legitimacy when it spurns the chance to implement that solution. It is not a “de-legitimisation network“, but the fact of growing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, that has sparked growing scepticism about a two-state solution among disparate voices, from Israeli right-wingers like Moshe Arens to Palestinian activists like Ali Abunimah.

Where Fitzsimons is on stronger ground is in her belief that Israel’s crisis needs to be set in a context of a “the global crisis of representative democracy”. There is, after all, an obvious similarity between the political manipulation of intelligence that Akiva Eldar describes, and the campaign for war against Iraq that began in the US and Britain at around the same.

Covert alliance: Israel and Cold War liberalism

A look at the history of the alliance between Israel and the West underlines the common roots of both these crises of legitimacy.

Historians Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman identify the “intelligence lobby” as a key plank of this alliance, which they trace back to the 1950s. America’s staunchly anti-communist trade unions played a key role in brokering the relationship between the US and Israeli intelligence communities at a time when Israel’s allegiance in the Cold War was still uncertain. Israel became a useful American ally in areas of the third world where the US itself was unwelcome. Raviv and Melman record:

Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, Israeli experts in agriculture, construction, and military training were welcome guests and contract employees in over 30 African countries. Israelis helped jittery leaders form their own bodyguard brigades. The CIA secretly underwrote some of these projects, occasionally with labour union funds from the AFL-CIO, in the belief that Israel’s influence was pro-western.i

The covert nature of the relationship meant that it was essentially a deniable alliance between elites, inherently unaccountable and insecure. Labour historian Paul Buhle has argued that it was ultimately corrupting for both sides:

As American liberalism redefined itself within a cold war garrison mentality, Israel became an operative affection, as well as a perfect symbol of the garrison itself for many a career-conscious union functionary…
…Israel’s gradual conversion from a bureaucratic but also intensely populist Labour-Zionist project into an ambitious regional economic and military elite helped to reinforce a parallel shift from social democratic to military-intelligence politics within American labour leadership.ii

Soltam and the privatisation of Labour Zionism

Much of western support for Israel even today has roots in this tradition of cold war military Keynesianism. BICOM itself is arguably a significant example. The group’s founder Poju Zabludowicz is heir to a fortune that originated with the arms manufacturer Soltam, founded by his father Shlomo Zabludowicz in the early 1950s when a Finnish arms factory merged with a company owned by Israel’s Histadrut trade union federation. The company is one of a number of Histadrut-linked firms accused by South Africa’s COSATU labour federation ofsupplying arms to the former apartheid regime.

In 1980 the Zabludowicz father and son hired Richard Perle as a consultant in order to break into the US arms industry. The deal sparked controversy when Perle subsequently joined the Reagan administration and recommended that the US Army buy Soltam mortars, in preference to those of its existing supplier, Royal Ordnance.iii

Poju Zabludowicz has reportedly divested many of the family’s defence interests in favour of property investments. Nevertheless, the Perle episode was not the last time Zabludowicz would become involved in a controversy about outside influence on defence ministers. When Liam Fox was forced to resign last year over the activities of his unofficial adviser Adam Werritty, Zabludowicz’s investment firm Tamares Real Estate was revealed as one of six companies which funded Werritty’s company, Pargav. The Guardian reported at the time:

A spokesman for Zabludowicz said he owned a “legacy” arms business in the US, but added that it was not a significant part of his empire. Most of his assets were now in property, he said.

“Any suggestion that he has benefited from this relationship [with Pargav] would be completely wrong,” he said. “For many years, Poju Zabludowicz has helped fund not-for-profit organisations, not individuals, due to his passion for the promotion of peace and understanding between peoples in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.”

The legacy arms business is most likely to be Pocal Industries, a Pennsylvania-based mortar manufacturer, of which Zabludowicz still appears to a director.iv

Beneficiaries of Zabludowicz’s not-for-profit funding over the years are reported to include the Centre for Security Policy (CSP) whose head, Frank Gaffney, spoke alongside Liam Fox in 2007.v

Today an extreme neo-conservative, Gaffney began his career in the 1970s working alongside Perle in the office of Henry Jackson, a US senator with close ties to the defence industry and to the AFL-CIO cold warriors who established links with Israel in the 1950s.

The subsequent career of Jackson’s followers underlines the truth of Paul Buhle’s assertion that this tacit alliance reinforced a rightward shift on both sides. In the US, Cold War Democrats became Reagan-era Republican neo-cons. In Israel, the socialised economy of early Labour Zionism was increasingly privatised, with well-placed insiders profiting in the face of growing inequality among Israelis, and increasing exploitation of the Palestinians.

Israel and the defence lobby

The British end of these Cold War labour networks, rooted historically in the right-wing of the Labour Party, is notably well represented among BICOM’s staff, even after last month’s departure of CEO Lorna Fitzsimons. Luke Akehurst, the director of campaigns for BICOM’s We Believe in Israel network, is a key activist on the Labour right, and a former Weber Shandwick lobbyist specialising in defence and aviation. Senior Research Fellow Alan Johnson was a founder of Labour Friends of Iraq, and of Democratiya, a magazine which, when not publishing soft interviews with Islamophobic writers, was padded out with reprinted tracts from 1970s AFL-CIO cold warriors.

Without the support of this wider defence lobby, the Israel lobby would have much less traction in Britain and the US. Indeed, this was clearly recognised by a key neoconservative study group, which counselled that Israel should increase its involvement in US missile defence, because “it would broaden Israel’s base of support among many in the United States Congress who may know little about Israel, but care very much about missile defence.”

It is perhaps appropriate that Lorna Fitzsimons ended her career at BICOM arguing that Israel’s democratic crisis is just part of a wider global trend. On that point, she is right, but the conclusion we should draw is that the struggle against the occupation is also a struggle against the militarist ideology that has helped to bring that global crisis about.



iDan Raviv and Yossi Melman, Friends in Deed: Inside the US-Israel Alliance, Hyperion, 1994, p.90.
iiPaul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor, Monthly Review Press, 1999, p.158.
iiiJeff Gerth, Aide urged Pentagon to consider weapons made by former client, New York Times, 17 April 1983.
ivA full list of Pocal directors does not appear to be available online from the Pennsylvania Department of State, but Zabludowicz is listed as chairman of the company in the Jigsaw Business Contact Directory.
vThe Donor List, The Guardian, 2 June 2006.






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