Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The shadowy role of Labour Friends of Israel

Such lobbyists and their back-room influence should make us very uneasy

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Pardon me for asking. Perhaps I shouldn't. For an easy life, some things, you learn, are best left unsaid. Nervous, am I? You bet. But these questions will not stand aside or lie down. They have been bothering me since the Labour party donor row broke last week. They are raised here in good faith. I have no wish to bring the wrath of Moses upon me and I can already hear the accusations of anti-Semitism because I dare to raise the question: Can someone explain what exactly is the role of the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) in our political life? And its twin, the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) too. In an open democracy, we are entitled to make such queries indeed, it is a duty.

David Abrahams, the strange shape-shifter at the centre of the funding furore, was once Mr Big in LFI; so is John Mendelsohn, the smart fundraiser picked by Gordon Brown to garner "election resources" to finance the next Labour win. Lord Levy is also a key member of LFI. We witnessed the tortuous police investigation into the peer's affairs during the cash for honours investigations, but not once was there any scrutiny of Levy's connection to LFI and how that might have led to the offer of his prestigious position as the Middle East envoy, handed to him by his tennis partner, Tony Blair.

I rang some of my Jewish friends who support LFI and are well acquainted with Abrahams and Mendelsohn. Two have known both professionally for some time and others have personal relationships with these men. I felt their unease as we talked about this latest unsavoury New Labour scandal. Some of these contacts confirm that Abrahams and Mendelsohn fell out at a dramatic LFI meeting when Abrahams wanted the group to make contact with a particular Palestinian organisation and Mendelsohn vehemently disagreed. OK. Internal strife among campaigners is part of the deal, and Palestine, as we know, divides Jewish opinion the whole world over. Such things happen all the time when communal champions gather. It happens within Palestinian forums too. But LFI is not only an activist network. It enviably attracts the support of top parliamentarians, almost all prime ministers for a start. Its fringe meetings are packed because, on the platform, they can guarantee the biggest names from the political parties.

Founded in 1957, it then had a lot of politicians on side, says one of my contacts. After the 1967 war, support for Israel became more problematic and LFI had to become more strategic and focused to keep MPs on side.

Mendelsohn is a passionate Zionist and infamous lobbyist, described by the Jewish Chronicle as "one of the best-connected power brokers". So we can assume LFI plays a part in shaping our foreign policies in the Middle East the most inflammable tinderbox in the world today. And that is neither right nor fair. The LFI take, by definition, has to be partisan. It exists to present the official Israeli view; it cannot be nuanced or considerate to "the enemy". I would venture to suggest that Tony Blair's abject performance during the last Israeli assault on Lebanon was partly the result of the special relationship he had with LFI.

The current scandal and its links to LFI only encourages fascist and Islamicist propagators of the idea of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Look on the crazed websites today and you see how they feed on this crisis and rejoice. LFI is the most successful of many interest groups which have been allowed to exert undue pressure on policies.

There is Labour Friends of India, more courted and favoured than ever before. When the Hindu fundamentalist BJP was in power, this group ensured the support of British MPs who should have known better. The Muslim Friends of Labour has donated large amounts of money in Glasgow, I imagine for some reciprocal advantage. Such lobbyists and their considerable back-room influence, how they can manipulate politicians and the media, and the secrecy of the conversations they have with the powerful, should make us very uneasy. There are no records we may look at, no transparency. As far as I know, no civil servants take notes. Yet decisions they can drive through do affect the future of the whole world.

Whatever the outcome of the various investigations into the unlawful proxy donations, and who did what when with Abrahams' 600,000, the issue of insider lobbying by interest groups is as serious, possibly more so, and must not be ignored. It is astonishing that we have allowed it to spread through the corridors of power and infuse the air that breathed there. This corruption has no whiff, no colour. It is deadly and must now be stopped at source.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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