Thursday, January 19, 2017

Was Blair's "sweatshops for Palestine" agenda shaped by a Labour donor?

It is eerily apt that the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum coincides with Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president.


The business leaders and their political lackeys who huddle together in Davos, Switzerland each January write and then dispense prescriptions that have caused inequality levels to soar. Eight men possess as much wealth as the poorer half of the globe’s population, according to a new analysis by Oxfam.


Trump’s ascent can be directly attributed to the disillusionment that ensues when the wealth gap widens – notwithstanding the irony that Trump epitomises the super-rich and all its vulgarity.


The establishment figures against which Trump pitted himself were very much identified with what the writer and activist Susan George has dubbed the “Davos class.” Trump’s campaign team even zoomed in on comments made by Hillary Clinton at the forum when ranting against trade policies that her husband implemented and that she had favored. (Bill Clinton became the first sitting US president to attend the Davos jamboree in 2000 and has been a frequent participant since then.)


Palestine has not been spared from the World Economic Forum’s activities.


Conflict of interests?


In 2012, the forum established an initiative called Breaking the Impasse. Its ostensible goal was to hook up Palestinian and Israeli entrepreneurs with major corporations so that they could discuss how to prime-pump the economy of the occupied West Bank and Gaza.


Responsibility for a follow-on initiative was given to Tony Blair the next year. Blair was supposed to represent the Middle East Quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia – at that time.


Yet he was given this responsibility by the most powerful of those four players – the US; Blair’s assignment was announced by John Kerry, then secretary of state.


Blair, in turn, appears to have recommended to Kerry that Kito de Boer, a director of the consulting firm McKinsey, should steward the whole scheme. The recommendation raises ethical questions, which have not previously scrutinized.


Before being recommended by Blair, de Boer had worked on a project about private sector investment in Palestine run by the Portland Trust, a London-based organization. Portland is headed by Ronald Cohen, a venture capitalist who had been a major donor to Britain’s Labour Party when Blair was its leader.


In an interview published by the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) – a corporate club – de Boer said that Blair “knew of the work” he had undertaken for Portland. De Boer was “approached” when Kerry asked Blair “for an economic strategy for rebuilding the Palestinian economy,” according to that interview.


Those comments indicate that Blair’s work for the quartet was influenced by Ronald Cohen.


Cohen had been a Labour donor when Blair was the party’s boss (and prime minister). So Blair has, to put it mildly, some explaining to do here.


Was de Boer headhunted by Blair based on Cohen’s advice? If so, is this a case of jobs for the boys? Is there a conflict of interests?


I contacted de Boer, enquiring if Cohen had introduced him to Blair. I also enquired if he was aware that Cohen had helped bankroll Labour when Blair was in Downing Street.


De Boer sent me a convoluted reply, which did not answer those questions directly. He did, however, confirm that Blair had been aware of his work for Cohen.


He confirmed, too, that Blair had “steered” Kerry to McKinsey when the secretary of state wished to have a blueprint for the Palestinian economy drawn up. “I also led that work,” he stated.


Neither Blair nor Cohen replied to requests for comment.


Exploitation


The blueprint which de Boer was tasked with drawing up was titled the “Initiative for the Palestinian Economy” and published in 2014. De Boer has confirmed that he was appointed by Kerry to oversee the blueprint’s implementation that same year.


One proposal made by de Boer’s team was that industrial estates in the areas nominally under Palestinian Authority control should be designated as “special economic zones.”


The “special” ingredients of this recipe have not been spelled out in detail. But there is enough evidence from how “special economic zones” have functioned elsewhere to regard the proposal as highly problematic.


“Special economic zone” is a euphemism for a sweatshop. Generally, such a designation allows companies within the zones to pay lower wages and less taxes than those applying in the wider economy.


A de facto ban on trade union activism, for example, has been introduced in Cambodia’s “special economic zones,” according to a 2016 investigation by the magazine In These Times.


Put simply, de Boer’s blueprint would, if put into practice, potentially enable corporations to reap vast profits, while paying no more than a pittance to Palestinian workers. It should really be called the “sweatshops for Palestine” initiative.


Blair stepped down as the Quartet’s representative in 2015. But the operation he led in Jerusalem is still in place.


When Blair resigned, de Boer took over as head of the office. Because Blair has not been replaced, that means de Boer is now running the show, although he told me: “I am not the [Quartet] representative because I am not a politician.”


De Boer is still intent on putting his plan into practice and has assembled an outfit named Shurook for that purpose.


“Our mandate is economic not political,” de Boer stated.


Who does he think he is kidding? A plan to increase exploitation of workers in an area subject to a brutal military occupation is inherently political – and extremely dangerous.


It is the kind of plan likely to win approval within the Davos bubble and inflict great harm in the real world.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 18 January 2017.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Who pulled Tony Blair's strings?

Tony Blair “believes that the arc of history still bends towards progress and enlightenment,” a recent profile in the New Statesman proclaimed.


The former prime minister’s casual attire and views on the popular TV show “Strictly Come Dancing” were carefully noted by the London weekly, eager to publicize his re-engagement in British politics. Blair’s reverential interviewer did not shy away completely from the Iraq war, yet seemed more concerned about its effects on Blair’s own wellbeing than about its actual victims.


By using the phrase “arc of history,” the interviewer was probably invoking Martin Luther King’s aphorism “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” A reputedly serious magazine twisted the words of a civil rights leader to laud a war criminal.


With just a few exceptions, the mainstream press has failed to properly scrutinize Blair’s activities. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, phony intelligence was treated as incontrovertible by stenographers masquerading as journalists. After Blair left Downing Street, the stenographers labeled him a “Middle East peace envoy.”


Blair stepped down as an “envoy” last year. There are still many questions about his post that have not been properly examined. Here is one such question: who precisely did he serve?


Formally, Blair was a representative of the Middle East Quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia. In reality, many of his activities appear to have either been directed from or closely watched by Washington officials.


That fact was implicitly acknowledged now and then – such as when John Kerry, the secretary of state, tasked Blair with drawing up a plan for boosting investment in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.


Blair was not a full-time envoy; his lucrative activities as a corporate lobbyist meant he was often away from his quartet desk. Who, then, was running his office in Jerusalem?


Penchant for praise


As well as being the largest donor to the Quartet envoy’s office – providing $13.5 million between 2007 and 2013 – the US supplied some of its top personnel.


Robert Danin was head of Blair’s office from 2008 to 2010. Danin, who had previously worked in both the State Department and the National Security Council, shared Blair’s penchant for praising Israel when it did not deserve any praise.


For example, when Israel agreed in 2010 that a small number of trucks carrying goods could be allowed into Gaza, Danin claimed there had been a “positive step forward.” Danin avoided saying publicly that Gaza was under an Israeli siege.


Today, Danin makes his living as an “expert” with the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.


He has used that position to advocate that the relationship between Israel and the US should be properly consummated. Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Danin recommended that the Israeli government seek a formal pact with the US.


Entering into a treaty-based alliance with the US would “not necessarily have a significant practical effect on Israeli freedom of maneuver,” he argued. That is a fancy way of saying that Israel would still be able to behave with impunity in oppressing the Palestinians and bombing its neighbors.


Hugging Israel tighter


Another career diplomat, Gary Grappo, succeeded Dannin as Blair’s head of office. Grappo’s bio states that he had previously led the “super-sized political division” at the US embassy in Baghdad.


Grappo’s faith in imperial aggression remains strong – despite being exposed to its messy consequences. In a 2014 opinion piece, he advocated that the US be more forceful in “fighting and defeating terrorism, especially the jihadist-kind that pervades much of the Middle East.”


By displaying greater vigor “US foreign policy might also regain the moral and political high ground, where America and its friends want it to be,” he added. Unless I missed something, Grappo did not state when the US last commanded the moral high ground.


Grappo has now moved on to manage his own firm, Equilibrium International Consulting. Its website promises “sober, balanced and insightful perspectives” on the Middle East to firms and institutions dealing with the region.


For their sake, I hope that there is more balance and insight in what he tells his clients than in what he writes. Many of his comments parrot official US and Israeli propaganda – such as his patently absurd allegation that Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza was “launched” by Hamas.


Grappo, who has also served in Riyadh, pays particularly close attention to Saudi Arabia. Last year, he suggested that Saudi Arabia and Israel should liaise on security and intelligence matters.


The case admittedly has a perverse logic: the Israeli and Saudi ruling elites are both proficient in abusing human rights, so they might as well swap notes. The ongoing Saudi war crimes in Yemen bear some similarities to Israel’s offensives against Gaza and Lebanon.


Grappo, however, did not express himself in such crude terms. Instead, he tried to convey the impression that his motives were altruistic. Greater cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel would “set the stage for the first-ever meaningful and constructive dialogue about the Palestinian question,” he wrote.


He also wants the US to have the same kind of bond with Saudi Arabia that it has with Israel. His rationale – based on observations he made while working for Blair – is that “the US was always far more succesful in getting the Israelis to do things that they felt uncomfortable doing” when it embraced them as tightly as possible.


Alas, Grappo has not specified what results American hugging can yield.


Under Barack Obama’s presidency, the US embrace of Israel has become tighter than ever. The awarding of a $38 billion military aid package to Israel is the most tangible manifestation of that embrace.


Tony Blair was included within that embrace and never showed any desire to be released from it.


・First published by The Electronic Intifada, 12 December 2016.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Europe's "turbo boost" for war industry will benefit Israel

White supremacists are about to take up residency in the White House. Climate change deniers are mapping out the future of environmental policy. A man who seems to be constantly losing his temper on Twitter will – in less than two months from now – lead a nuclear-armed superpower.


And what are Europe’s top politicians doing in preparation for Donald Trump’s presidency? Are they asserting an alternative worldview to the heady blend of imperialism and capitalism that has intoxicated Trump’s entourage?


No, they are still parroting the old idea that the US should be constantly copied.


A new paper by the European Commission is particularly repugnant. Lamenting that the EU “lags behind” the US in military strength, it recommends steps to rectify that apparent problem.


The most troubling of the proposals would involve setting up a new scheme under which taxpayers’ money would be splurged on developing more advanced weapons. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s president, covets a “defense fund” to, in his words, “turbo boost [military] research and innovation.”


Juncker is a right-wing ideologue, who has strong-armed Greece into introducing painful and far-reaching economic reforms.


There is no public clamor in Europe for bolstering the weapons industry. Juncker and his – largely unaccountable – colleagues are driving through their proposals on military research in much the same way as they foisted austerity on Greece.


The new paper is the latest in a series of EU blueprints on military research. And Israel’s war strategists have helped shape the underlying agenda.


Juncker’s suggestion of a “defense fund” chimes with the recommendations previously made by the European Security Research and Innovation Forum (ESRIF). Bringing together lobbyists from major weapons producers with sympathetic civil servants, that club was assembled by the EU authorities in 2007.


Why catch up?


Though Israel is not a member of the European Union, ESRIF was eager to avail of the “expertise” it had gained from oppressing the Palestinians. Nitzan Nuriel, a retired Israeli brigadier general, took part in the forum’s activities.


Nuriel has an impressive career history – for those who find cruelty impressive. He won promotion after it emerged that he had ordered troops serving in a battalion he commanded to torture Palestinian detainees in 1987.


He went on to hold senior positions in military units occupying both the West Bank and Gaza and play a prominent role in Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon.


Following that invasion, Nuriel joined Israel’s National Security Council, a body that advises the Israeli prime minister, and soon became director of its “counter-terrorism bureau.” He sat on ESRIF in that capacity.


The forum advocated that the EU’s activities on “security” research – a euphemism for innovation which may have military applications – should grow. Israel’s war industry has soaked up numerous grants from those activities until now.


Juncker’s new effort to “turbo boost” weapons innovation is essentially a sequel to a “security” research scheme which came into effect in 2007.


It is too early to say if Israel will directly get money should Juncker’s dream of a “defense fund” materialize. There can be little doubt, however, that these kinds of proposals stand to benefit Israel’s arms manufacturers.


Israel has carved out a lucrative niche for itself in the global weapons market by investing heavily in drones and cybersecurity software, both of which feature in the European Commission’s new paper.


The EU’s governments have committed themselves to the objective of having drones made in Europe’s factories by 2025. Attaining that goal will almost certainly require some Israeli technology or expertise.


France and Britain are the two EU countries to have made the greatest use of drones to date. Drones flown by both the French and British militaries were Israeli-designed.


Israel has deployed the same type of drones as those used by France in Mali and Libya and Britain in Afghanistan during its major operations against Gaza.


Contrary to the impression conveyed by the Brussels elite, none of this is necessary.


If Europe lags behind the US in military might, then why should it catch up? Why should Europe’s leaders be part of a contest to prove they can fetishize the war industry just as much as their American counterparts?


And if catching up requires cooperation with Israel, that’s all the more reason to quit the contest.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 2 December 2016.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

How EU secretly embraced Israeli ministry in East Jerusalem

European Union representatives secretly decided to cooperate with an Israeli ministry based in occupied East Jerusalem, it has been revealed.


The decision is at odds with the EU’s official stance that it does not recognize Israel’s colonization of the territories captured in 1967.


Dating from 2013 but not previously reported, the decision relied on a loophole in an EU paper on cooperation with Israel.


The paper received a hostile response from the Israeli government. It stated that activities undertaken in the settlements Israel is building in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, were not eligible for EU funding.


Although the paper was dry and insipid, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, publicly condemned it by saying Israel would “not accept any external edicts on our borders.”


Often referred to as the “guidelines,” the paper was prepared in anticipation of Israel’s involvement in Horizon 2020, the EU’s latest program for scientific research. Amid the controversy, however, a salient fact was overlooked: Israel’s science and technology ministry has its headquarters in East Jerusalem.


That point was raised in a 2013 briefing document drafted for Catherine Ashton, then the EU’s foreign policy chief.


The briefing, obtained under EU freedom of information rules, effectively told Ashton not to worry about this matter as a loophole had been inserted into the guidelines to ensure that they did not cover public authorities.


The location of Israel’s science ministry in East Jerusalem “will not obstruct” cooperation with it, the document stated.


Tainted


The science ministry is part of the Israel-Europe R&D Directorate, a body that coordinates Israel’s participation in Horizon 2020. A formal accord setting out the terms of Israel’s involement in the program was signed between the EU and Yaakov Perry, then Israel’s science minister, in 2014.


The loophole means that the entire program – for which almost €80 billion ($85 billion) has been earmarked between 2014 and 2020 – is tainted.


The EU cannot seriously claim to oppose Israel’s gobbling up of East Jerusalem if it has embraced an Israeli ministry that is ensconced in East Jerusalem.


The European Commission, which oversees Horizon 2020, trotted out a typically bureaucratic excuse when asked for an explanation as to why it cooperates with Israel’s science ministry. Pointing to the aforementioned loophole in the guidelines, a Commission spokesperson said that, as a public authority, the science ministry was “exempted” from their scope.


Different from Trump?


To all intents and purposes, the EU’s stance differs little to that of Donald Trump, the newly-elected US president, and the Republican Party.


In the platform on which they fought the recent election, the Republicans undertook to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital if Trump won the presidency. By embracing Israeli institutions in East Jerusalem, the EU is essentially doing the same.


At least, the Republicans have been more transparent about their objectives.


The EU stands accused of saying one thing in public and something quite different behind closed doors.


During her five years as foreign policy chief, Ashton issued a number of statements against how Israel was tightening its grip on East Jerusalem. Her objection to the demolition of Shepherd’s Hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of the city, for example, was covered extensively by the Israeli press.


Her willingness to approve an accord with the science ministry – which is located near Sheikh Jarrah – indicates that her concern was insincere.


Worse, Ashton was hugely accommodating to firms which profited from Israel’s crimes against humanity.


Towards the end of 2013, she negotiated a deal with Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister at the time. The deal enabled Israeli weapons producers to receive grants under the Horizon 2020 program.


As a result of that deal, the makers of drones and surveillance equipment tried out on Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank are currently being subsidized by the EU. Stop the Wall, a Palestinian campaign group, has documented how a major EU scheme nominally concerned with airport security may be utilizing technology that has been tested in settlements built by Israel in violation of international law.


Israel is treated as equal to the EU’s own member countries in the research program.


That Israel’s arms industry has been adept at soaking up subsidies is especially alarming given that there is a concerted push within the EU’s institutions to reserve part of a future research program for developing new weapons.


The only positive thing that can be said about that push is that it might usher in a modicum of honesty. Until now, the EU’s representatives have insisted that they only allow funding for civilian research.


That claim has become increasingly implausible as Israel’s war profiteers grab every grant they can get their bloodstained hands on.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 23 November 2016.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

U2 manager supports Israeli war crimes

The manager of U2, a rock band well known for human rights campaigning, has taken part in fundraising activities for an organization that supports Israel’s war crimes.


Guy Oseary, who also manages Madonna, attended a 2014 fundraising gala in Los Angeles, California, for Friends of the IDF.


The event – which reportedly brought in $33 million to the organization’s coffers – was held just a few months after Israel’s 51-day bombardment of Gaza that year.


Although photographs of Oseary attending the event were posted on the Internet, his participation has not drawn any criticism before now.


His participation can only be interpreted as an endorsement of the Israeli military and its activities. Friends of the IDF helps recruit for the Israeli military. It does so by sponsoring “lone soldiers” – Israeli troops with family living abroad – for the entire duration of their service.


The gala that Oseary attended featured a tribute to soldiers who had attacked Gaza earlier in 2014. Friends of the IDF assisted that offensive by supplying mobile showers, snacks, underwear and cell phone chargers to troops invading Gaza.


By giving that aid, Friends of the IDF can pose as a charity that is providing comfort to Israeli soldiers. The group has stretched the concept of “humanitarian” activities to its limit. Genuine humanitarians would be more concerned with helping the victims of Israeli aggression than meeting the personal hygiene requirements of the aggressors.


Friends of the IDF can count on support from the most powerful political and business figures in the US. Donald Trump, the president-elect, has pledged money to the group in the past – although it has been reported that someone else actually made the $250,000 donation that he promised.


Oseary did not respond to multiple requests asking how much he has donated to Friends of the IDF. The organization itself also did not reply to a request for comment.


Organizing galas is one of Friends of the IDF’s preferred methods of fundraising. Tickets for one such gala – scheduled to take place in Boston next month – are priced at $3,600 for a table of 12.


The gala which Oseary attended was hosted by Haim Saban, an entrepreneur who helped finance Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign for the presidential election.


Oseary’s support for Friends of the IDF is at odds with U2’s professed concern for human rights.


“Callous”


Since the 1980s, U2 has been vocal in its support for human rights group Amnesty International. Amnesty has accused Israeli troops of displaying “callous indifference to the carnage” they caused while attacking Gaza in 2014. According to the group, Israel’s violence against civilian homes “brazenly flouted the laws of war.”


Amnesty International issued a brief statement when asked if the organization was concerned about Oseary’s support for Friends of the IDF.


“We are not in a position to comment on a private donation made by an individual who is not a staff member or official representative of Amnesty International and would urge you to contact U2 or their representatives directly,” the group stated. “U2 are prominent supporters of Amnesty International’s work and have regularly sought to raise awareness of human rights issues.”


The band and its then manager Paul McGuinness were given Amnesty’s annual “ambassador of conscience” award in 2005.


Oseary replaced McGuinness as U2’s manager in 2013. Born in Jerusalem – though based in the US for most of his life – Oseary combines his music industry activities with investments in Israel’s technology industry.


Band of hypocrites


Sound Ventures, a firm which Oseary established with the actor Ashton Kutcher, is part owner of Meerkat, an Israeli app maker. U2 heavily promoted Meerkat’s livestreaming service during its world tour last year, using the app to broadcast clips from the band’s concerts.


While that streaming service is no longer available, the company behind Meerkat is still active and has recently launched a new video chat application called Houseparty.


Meerkat exemplifies the cozy relationship between the military and the Israeli technology industry. As part of efforts to build up Israel as a leading manufacturer of weapons and surveillance equipment, the Israeli military has devoted considerable resources to developing the computer skills of its soldiers. One of Meerkat’s founders, Roi Tirosh, is a former instructor in the Israeli military.


Oseary’s Sound Ventures has also provided funding to Moovit, the Israeli firm that boasts of inventing the world’s most popular public transport app. Moovit’s CEO, Nir Erez, is a graduate of the computer science academy run by the Israeli military.


U2 – and, especially its lead singer Bono – have long displayed double standards.


Bono has defended and personally benefited from tax exemptions for the super rich, while masquerading as a campaigner against poverty. And despite writing “Bullet the Blue Sky” – a protest song against militarism and the arms industry – Bono has lavished praise on Shimon Peres, the recently deceased Israeli politician who helped introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East and who ordered massacres in Lebanon.


Bono and U2 are not credible advocates of human rights. Amnesty should have realized that ages ago.


The clear proof that the band’s manager has supported Israel’s war crimes means that Amnesty no longer has any excuses. It is past time for Amnesty to publicly disown U2, a band of hypocrites.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 14 November 2016.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

From Brussels, I reject Israel's solidarity

I have lived in Brussels for 21 years but never considered this city as my home -- until Donald Trump insulted it.


By describing Brussels as a “hellhole” because of its sizeable Muslim population, Trump was attacking my friends and neighbors. Trump was attacking people like the cheerful Syrian I see almost every day; his daughter is in the same class as mine.


As it happens, my Syrian acquaintance was the last person I saw as I left the school on Tuesday morning. A short while later, I received a text message from my wife, telling me about the explosions. She had made it safely to work, thank God. On the way, she had traveled through Maalbeek metro station, just minutes before a bomb went off there.


We don’t yet know the identities of all the people killed. We do know, however, that they belonged to a mixture of ethnicities and nationalities. They spoke different languages. Some were probably religious, others not.


In short, they represented the thing that I like most about my adopted home: its multiculturalism.


Donald Trump’s first reaction to the attacks was to claim vindication for his “hellhole” comments. Once again, he was displaying his bigotry. The wannabe president will use any opportunity to whip up fear.


Hellhole?


It shouldn’t be necessary to spell this out but I will. Muslims in Brussels contribute massively to the city’s multicultural spirit. They help to make Brussels vibrant and convivial, the very antithesis of a hellhole. The men who carried out this week’s attacks did not enjoy any mandate from their community. Insisting, as bigots do, that Muslims prove their abhorrence for these crimes is profoundly ignorant.


Unfortunately, the Muslim community is suffering because of that ignorance. When it emerged that the Paris attacks last November had been planned in Brussels, large numbers of police and soldiers were deployed on the streets of this city. I have witnessed incidents where young men have been harassed by the police in recent months. There was no indication that the young men were doing anything illegal. As far as I could see, they were hassled solely for being Muslim.


The usual response to these kind of atrocities is that think tanks publish pamphlets about how to deal with “radicalization.” The think tank analysts rarely grapple with the causes of terror or seek to understand it (and, as Frank Barat writes in a new essay, understanding is never the same as condoning). Accepting that imperialism might be at fault is something of a taboo for such analysts, many of whom have their “research” funded by corporations and Western governments.


Right to anger


The residents of Brussels have every right to be angry about what has happened this week. We should certainly demand that the authorities do everything they can to apprehend the suspects. But we should not accept that Muslims may be bullied and stigmatized.


Let’s direct our anger at the small number of people who have set the Middle East ablaze. The terror of Islamic State is a direct consequence of war declared against Iraq in 2003. If it wasn’t for that illegal invasion, there would not have been an attack on Brussels on Tuesday, or Istanbul on Saturday or Baghdad last month.


Two men were ultimately responsible for the invasion and destruction of Iraq: George W. Bush, then the US president, and Tony Blair, then the British prime minister. Why are they still at large?


Most of the messages sent to the people of Brussels this week were heartfelt and appreciated. A few, however, were cynical. One was contemptible; it came from Israel.


The Israeli government claimed it “stands with Brussels.” As a resident of Brussels, I refuse that solidarity.


Ofir Akunis, the Israeli science minister, tried to play politics. He suggested the attacks occurred because, rather than fighting terrorism, Europe was too busy placing labels on goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.


His comments are too inane to merit a detailed rebuttal. And besides, the labeling idea is an initiative taken by the political elite. Many ordinary Europeans have gone beyond demanding labels: they are too busy boycotting all Israeli goods and campaigning against companies who seek to profit from the occupation.


We shall remain busy. The most fitting tribute to victims of violence is to tackle its root causes. That means fighting imperialism, bigotry and inequality. It means defending multiculturalism, a beautiful idea that Israel has rejected.


·First published by The Electronic Intifada, 23 March 2016.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Israel lobbyist doubles up as adviser to European Parliament

A pro-Israel lobbyist is playing a direct role in organizing some of the European Parliament's key activities on the Middle East.


Nuno Wahnon Martins, a representative of the European Jewish Congress, describes himself as an adviser to Fulvio Martusciello, the Italian right-wing politician who chairs the Parliament's committee for relations with Israel.


Since assuming that "title" in late 2014, Wahnon has been so prominent during the committee's meetings that he appears to be "running the show," a well-placed source told me on condition of anonymity.


His prominence raises fundamental issues about the independence of the committee (or "delegation," as it is officially known).


The European Jewish Congress routinely puts pressure on the EU to adopt positions favorable to Israel. Has it succeeded in parachuting one of its lobbyists into a post within one of the EU's most powerful institutions?


When I emailed Wahnon with some questions, he offered to meet me. Over coffee, he said that he works as a freelance consultant for the European Jewish Congress, even though he is listed as the organization's director of European affairs


Wahnon claimed he does not draw a salary for his work in the Parliament but that he has twice had expenses of around €100 reimbursed. He admitted that he is acting as an adviser without the approval of the parliament's administration.


The Parliament's rules have no provisions on the recruitment of advisers -- as opposed to research assistants or secretarial staff -- by its elected members. "Officially, these positions [advisers to committee chairpersons] do not exist," he said.


Transparent?


He claimed that there is no conflict of interests involved and that he has been open about his activities. A note on his Twitter account, for example, states that he is an adviser to Martusciello.


"It would be much easier not to say anything," Wahnon added. "But it would be much less transparent."


The Parliament's delegation to Israel recently hosted a visit to Brussels for what it described as "young political leaders, mainly from Israel and Palestine." On the program for that visit, Wahnon was named as an "assistant" to Martusciello.


I asked the Parliament's administration if it regard the hiring of a professional pro-Israel lobbyist by its delegation to Israel as a conflict of interests and if it would investigate the matter. Marjory van den Broeke, a spokesperson for the administration replied: "Mr. Martusciello has no assistant on the payroll of the European Parliament called Nuno Wahnon Martins."


I then informed her that Wahnon's own Twitter account describes him as an adviser to Martusciello and enquired if the parliament pays advisers to chairpersons of its committees. "No, it does not," she replied.


Dismissive


Her dismissive attitude is symptomatic of a wider problem. The European Parliament overlooks how lobbyists with destructive agendas shape many of its policies and activities.


In my book Corporate Europe, I documented how members of the Parliament signed and proposed amendments to financial sector regulations that were drafted for them by banks and hedge funds. As many of these amendments were approved by a parliamentary majority, the effect was that proposals supposedly intended to prevent an economic crisis of the type Europe is still enduring were altered by the gamblers who caused the crisis in the first place.


A similar thing is happening with regard to the parliament's relations with Israel.


Because of his position, Fulvio Martusciello commands respect from the Israeli elite. He uses the platforms afforded to him to express views that are at odds with both public opinion in Europe and, on occasion, with EU policy.


According to The Jerusalem Post, he has argued that an EU decision that goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank be labeled as such amounts to "criminal discrimination" against Israel.


"Europe is loud about Israel, but quiet about 200 other conflicts around the world," Martusciello has also said. The opposite is closer to the truth, by the way: last year the EU imposed an arms embargo on Russia but refused to even entertain the idea of halting its weapons trade with Israel.


In a personal capacity, Martusciello should be free to say whatever he wishes. Yet he is not entitled to invite a pro-Israel lobbyist to effectively hijack part of a public institution.


The European Jewish Congress is not the voice of Jews across this continent, despite how it may give that impression. Rather, it is a highly partisan lobby group. By habitually taking a pro-Israel stance, it does a disservice to the numerous Jews horrified by Israel's belligerence.


Wahnon, a qualified attorney from Portugal, has made a career out of promoting Israel in Brussels. He has previously worked for two other pro-Israel groups, B'nai B'rith and European Friends of Israel.


Wahnon confirmed to me that his access badge for the parliament's buildings categorizes him as an intern. This morning, I phoned Martusciello's office asking to speak to Martusciello himself. Instead, my call was transferred to Wahnon.


I don't believe that he just happened to be in that office. It is much more likely that the pro-Israel lobby is paying him to be there in an effort to buy influence.


This is a squalid case of democracy being undermined by supporters of Israeli apartheid -- and of the powers that be not giving a damn.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 10 December 2015.