In response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request initiated by NGO Monitor, the British Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) released a series of emails with the Israeli NGO B’Tselem. Heavy redaction notwithstanding, the emails reveal warm, frequent contact between the Israeli NGO and the British government, as well as extensive lobbying efforts on the part of B’Tselem.
In September 2017, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request was submitted to the UK Department for International Development (DFID) asking for “details and documentation of all meetings held between DFID officials (Ministers and civil servants) and representatives of the organizations ‘NGO Monitor’ and/or ‘UK Lawyers for Israel’ between August 2014 to present.”
In preparing a response to the FOI, DFID approached NGO Monitor and asked to publicize the details of the single meeting between NGO Monitor staff and DFID officials. We readily complied.
Then, using identical language, NGO Monitor submitted matching FOI requests to the DFID and the FCO, asking for “details and documentation of all meetings held” with B’Tselem and the international group Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), also from August 2014 to present.
This time, DFID rejected the FOI request, claiming that the “large volume of data” exceeded the department’s “cost limit.” Apparently, these two organizations hold frequent meetings with DFID, to the extent that it would take too much time and money to review all of them.
Similarly, FCO did not release substantive information about meetings with NRC, claiming that there were no notes for two of the meetings and that the release of information on the others would constitute “an actionable breach of confidence” with NRC (Section 41 of the Freedom of Information Act).
FCO did, however, supply email correspondence concerning B’Tselem.
What we learn from the B’Tselem emails
On the simplest level, an internal FCO email from December 2016 notes that the British Consulate-General sees B’Tselem staff “regularly.”
At these regular meetings, B’Tselem, particularly Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of the organization, engages in lobbying efforts punctuated by repeated calls for international action against Israel.
In one such instance, a released email from B’Tselem to FCO dated April 2017 refers to two op-eds written by El-Ad, lamenting a lack of international action against Israel over settlements following UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2334. In one of those op-eds, El-Ad went as far to claim that “inaction is complicity.”
In the email to an unnamed FCO official, a B’Tselem staff member notes that the op-eds covered “topics we discussed” during a previous meeting. In other words, during their frequent meetings with FCO officials, B’Tselem staff push for sanctions and international action against Israel for what they deem violations of UNSCR resolutions.
British officials seem to have taken notice of these lobbying efforts using the UN Security Council to pressure Israel, with one official advising another to be “muted on any possible UNSCR activity” in meetings with B’Tselem.
As is often the case with information provided in FOI requests, there are more questions raised than answers provided.
Why does the UK government refuse to release the NRC documents? What happens in these meetings? To what extent is the powerful Norwegian NGO involved in setting British foreign policy on Israel?
These questions take on added significance when noting that NRC has a well-documented and extensive history of attempting to influence Israeli policy-making. One of NRC’s principle projects in Israel, “Information, counseling, and legal assistance (ICLA),” exploits judicial frameworks to manipulate policy in the territories and Jerusalem, bypassing democratic frameworks. They do so with UK funds, which in 2014-2016 totaled approximately $6.5 million.
In addition to NRC, the information that was provided indicates B’Tselem’s emphasis on political advocacy, in sharp contrast to their proclaimed human rights agenda. It is also possible that there was additional correspondence and other contacts that were not detailed in the FCO’s FOI response – not to mention undisclosed contacts with DFID.
Do these two NGOs, heavily funded by European governments, exert a major influence on UK foreign policy on Israel and the conflict? Without full transparency on the part of the British government, it is impossible to know.