Israel’s European Friends Get Active

BRUSSELS – The pro-Israel lobby is seeking to increase its influence among members of Europe’s parliaments by offering them an expenses-paid trip to the Middle East.

Brochures circulated in several elected assemblies invite their representatives to take part in a visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, organized by the group European Friends of Israel (EFI). Established in 2006, the EFI has emerged as Europe’s closest equivalent to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group in Washington.

The brochures give no details about how the visit from Feb. 5 to 8 is being financed, other than requesting a 300 euro ($408) contribution from each member of parliament who accepts the invitation. The contribution, which will only cover a fraction of the visit’s costs, is described as “non-mandatory.”

Marek Siwiec, a Polish member of the European Parliament (MEP) who sits on the EFI board, said the organization has a “fundraising system, where the money is coming from the private sector.” When asked to name its main donors, Siwiec referred IPS to the organization’s Brussels office.

A spokesman for that office said he could only release such details if granted permission by the MEPs sitting on the organization’s board.

Although the EFI’s website gives viewers links to AIPAC and similar organizations in Washington, the spokesman insisted that it does not receive funding from the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. “I promise you 100 percent that no [we do not receive such funding],” he said. So far, however, EFI has declined to say how it is financed. It has also not signed up to a register of “interest representatives” set up by the European Commission as part of a reported initiative to shed light on how pressure groups operate.

The forthcoming visit is being promoted as the EFI’s second “policy conference.” It will commence with a “gala dinner” in Jerusalem, hosted by Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, feature day-trips to the headquarters of arms-makers and technology firms, and conclude with another gala dinner, which Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is scheduled to attend. The visit coincides, too, with the annual Herzliya security conference, which usually attracts the top military and political figures in Israel, as well as eminent guests from abroad.

Other tours on the itinerary include visits to the Israeli settlements of Ofra, Kfar Adumim, and Gush Etzion in the occupied West Bank. Those settlements are officially regarded as illegal by the European Union as they were constructed in violation of international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 forbids an occupying power from transferring its own civilian population into the land that it occupies.

Spouses of elected representatives have been invited to join the visit, provided they pay 300 euros each. A return flight from Brussels to Tel Aviv on El Al, Israel’s national carrier, for the dates in question costs 570 euros.

Piet de Bruyn, a Belgian senator, said he has decided to take part in the visit, despite being critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. “I am curious to find out how it will be,” he said. “Will they be brainwashing us, or will they be more subtle?”

De Bruyn stressed that he is taking part in an individual capacity, rather than as a representative of his country’s senate. He would be particularly interested, he said, to see how the tour of Israeli settlements is presented. “I don’t know what message will be given to us,” he said.

In a lecture given in the Lebanese capital Beirut during November last year, Daud Abdullah from the London-based Middle East Monitor (MEMO) argued that there has been a marked increase in the impact of the pro-Israel lobby in Europe over the past decade. “If the influence of the Israel lobby was manifested in the policies of the individual European countries, it was even more apparent in the collective policies of the EU,” he said.

Abdullah noted that several pro-Israel groups have set up European affairs offices in Brussels and are in regular contact with some of the highest-ranking officials in the EU institutions. These groups include the American Jewish Committee, the European Jewish Congress, and B’nai B’rith. One of their greatest achievements to date was a decision taken by EU foreign ministers in 2008 to “upgrade” their relations with Israel by integrating Israel into the Union’s single market for goods and services.

The pro-Israel lobby had mounted a vigorous campaign for the “upgrade” ahead of that move and is continuing to advocate that the decision be given practical effect, even though work on doing so has stalled because of Israel’s three-week attack on Gaza later in December 2008 and January 2009.

The EFI’s visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories follows its inaugural “policy conference” in Paris in 2008. Israeli politicians taking part in that event were granted meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

A spokesman for Israel’s embassy in Brussels said that the EFI has not been given any finance from the Israeli state to organize its forthcoming visit. “We have lots of friends in Europe,” the spokesman said. “We have contacts with like-minded people, and we have good dialogue with people who are opposed to our policies.”

Michel Legrand, chairman of the Luxembourg Committee for a Just Peace in the Middle East, complained that the EFI’s activities are “not at all transparent.” Its efforts to win support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine are “really crass,” he added.

(Inter Press Service)