Channel 4 Documentary on “The Israel Lobby”

A Channel 4 Dispatches documentary by Peter Oborne on “the Israel lobby” in the UK has provoked a predictably wrathful response, which in many cases consist of bad faith accusations of anti-Semitism; however, while many of these attacks can be dismissed, the documentary was problematic and unfocused. Oborne moved between funding for MPs to visit Israel, a few notes on pro-Israel groups in the UK, and finally a look at some websites in the USA and Israel that take a pugnacious approach to criticism of Israel in the British media.

But what does it all add up to? Do some MPs support Israel because they get donations from pro-Israel groups, or do they get donations from pro-Israel groups because they support Israel? There was no sense of what motivates pro-Israel MPs – doubtless the extra funding is welcome, but the reality is that scenes of Islamist fanaticism in Gaza and the West Bank and its violent consequences in Israel proper are far more effective in shoring up support for Israel. There’s some interesting background about Poju Zabludowicz, the chairman of the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre and a major donor to the organisation – but although we learn that Zabludowicz has a business interest in the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, Oborne is unable to show that BICOM does his bidding. The BICOM website does not give the impression of being run by “Greater Israel” settler fanatics; it promotes the fairly mainline solution of peace in return for territorial compromise, including some “land swaps” around the Green Line, which would presumably include Ma’ale Adumim anyway. One can argue over whether this really would be a just solution to the occupation, but it’s hardly an extreme position.

Moving on to the media, the existence of websites and organisations dedicated to attacking criticism of Israel is less than revelationary, and we’re subjected to that old journalistic standby of concocting some action by having a camera crew show up at an office unannounced and not getting very far with underlings who tell Oborne that no-one is available for interview. Why didn’t he just phone ahead? Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger tells Oborne that after publishing an article comparing Israel to apartheid-era South Africa he received a hostile deputation from Gerald Ronson and Henry Grunwald; but although he tells us that other (unnamed) editors avoid criticising Israel to escape the hassle that follows, he doesn’t appear to have been cowed by the encounter. Oborne is on firmer ground when considering how the BBC appears to have buckled under pressure – the observation that it was willing to broadcast a humanitarian charity appeal during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon but baulked at doing so in relation to Gaza earlier this year does indeed speak for itself. But some proportion is needed: the BBC Trust found that Jeremy Bowen had been at fault over a couple of statements which had probably prompted email campaigns, but most of complaints against him were rejected and Bowen remains in post. Of course it was annoying to see the crowing that followed the Trust’s findings, but given that every word Bowen writes and speaks is doubtless scrutinized at length by hostile readers, that’s a very limited achievement.

Oborne appears to have read John Mearsheimer and Stephan Walt’s book The Israel Lobby, which looks at the situation in the USA. It’s a shame that he didn’t also read Walter Russell Mead’s review in Foreign Affairs, which engaged with the book seriously and so was able to make a critique which was the all the more powerfulMead’s most general complaint also fits the bill for the Oborne documentary:

 Mearsheimer and Walt fail to define “the lobby” in a clear way. Their accounts of the ways in which it exercises power, as well as their descriptions of the power it wields, are incoherent. Their use of evidence is uneven…