Far too many reporters and politicians take free trips to Israel, America and elsewhere. In the vast majority of cases they’re little more than propaganda exercises. When it comes to Zionist lobby visits to Israel, I can count on one hand the number of returnees who write or say anything independent instead of mouthing Israeli government talking points. The Zionist lobby is pleased.
There’s a piece in today’s Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age about this trend:
The shouting had gone on long enough. “The problem is, the microphone is shoved in front of the face of some person who is going to yell in either broken English or Arabic,” despaired Moammar Mashni.
“When was the last time you saw an articulate, educated Palestinian – who there are millions of – before the cameras?”
No issue sparks more anger and argument in international politics than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even in far-off Australia, thousands of kilometres from the fighting, few foreign affairs questions excite such community passion, condemnation and debate, demonstrated once again after the latest flare-up surrounding the killing of a Hamas leader in Gaza by an Israeli missile strike. Protesters took to the streets, letters poured into newspapers, local online forums buzzed with strong opinions.
Long before the latest outbreak of violence, Mashni worried the mainstream debate in Australia had been too one-sided, dominated by supporters of Israel, with the plight of Palestinians poorly understood.
“The stereotypical picture of a Palestinian is that they have got to be a man, a Muslim, have a beard and he’s got to be screaming at the television camera in Arabic. Now there are plenty of people who are not like that. I’m not like that.”
So, in 2006, after Israel and Hezbollah went to war in Lebanon and another battle erupted in Gaza, Mashni abandoned more than a decade of work in retail. Inspired by his father, a Palestinian refugee who fled to Australia more than 50 years earlier, Mashni decided to create a full-time body to get the message out. A lobby group, in other words, an organisation that became known as Australians For Palestine, founded with money Mashni earned from his family business. The motto: Providing a Voice.
“That is exactly what we’ve been doing for the past six years,” he says, “providing a voice for the Palestinian narrative to the Australian public, via members of Parliament, unions, universities, church groups, community groups, wherever we’ve been provided that forum.”
An end to the shouting may be the aim but, in the corridors of power, Australians For Palestine is barely heard as a whisper. The competition is vastly more organised, better funded and connected.
“What I’ve struggled to understand, there seems to be this fear of offending Israel,” Victorian Labor MP and chairwoman of the Palestinian friendship group, Maria Vamvakinou, says.
“To be honest with you, I don’t get it. This is an international issue and if you take an intellectual approach to it, it’s about an ongoing occupation that goes to the question of justice, one people being subjugated by another.
“I can’t see how my colleagues can’t see this. I don’t understand how you can refuse to see what is happening to the Palestinian people is wrong.”
Mashni claims MPs are intimidated, fearful of being tarred as too pro-Palestinian. “Quite often we will find there is strong support for our message, but have been told in no uncertain terms that strong support is only behind closed doors,” he says.
“Unfortunately the narrative created by the other side is that if you are pro-Palestinian, it automatically means you are anti-Israel, and nothing could be further from the truth.”
The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director, Colin Rubenstein, dismisses claims – such as by Zionist critic and author Antony Loewenstein – that these trips amount to mere propaganda missions that reporters should never accept. ”It would be useless if this was a propaganda tour. The idea is to expose our participants to a whole range of views on the Israeli front, on the Palestinian front, of non-Jewish Arab Israelis,” he says.
As to the competing Palestinian lobby, Rubenstein doesn’t see a paper tiger. ”Individuals, people, academic organisations that have been anti-Israel have come and gone. But what’s disappointing to me, as an Australian, is I often find much more stridency and extremism and vituperation here, among Palestinian supporters, than you find among the real people living in the real world in the Palestinian community over there.”
I was interviewed during the week for the story but my quotes were excised. I argued that these Zionist lobby trips intentionally skew the truth on the illegal colonies in the West Bank and the supposed threats from Iran, Hizbollah and Iran.
In Britain, according to The Independent, the situation is little different:
Backbench MPs have gone on more than £1.5m of trips with all expenses paid by foreign governments, pressure groups and companies in little over two years, The Independent can reveal. Several MPs have spent months out of the country on foreign trips, sometimes while Parliament is sitting, while many of those funding the visits have a vested interest in lobbying MPs.
After the trips, a significant number of MPs have made speeches in the House of Commons supporting the political positions of the governments and countries they have visited.
The Independent’s analysis reveals that 242 MPs have declared “fact-finding missions” and visits worth an average £6,500 to countries including Sri Lanka, China and former Soviet States since the last election.
The highest-claiming MPs include the former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband who, since losing the Labour leadership to his brother, has gone on 14 foreign trips costing £47,600 and taking up 47 days – mainly to give speeches and attend conferences.
The foreign trips taken by Mr Miliband, who declared in the aftermath of his leadership defeat that “South Shields comes first”, have helped him to earn £400,000 in addition to his MPs salary.
The findings show that:
* One in five Conservative backbench MPs had been taken on trips to Israel and Palestine since 2010 – the majority paid for by pro-Israeli lobbying groups. In total 79 MPs have been funded to visit the region at an approximate cost to their hosts of more than £130,000.
* Saudi Arabia paid £36,000 to take 12 MPs on a four-day trip to Riyadh. MPs have also accepted £41,000 worth of trips to Azerbaijan.