Tuesday, 20 May 2014 09:34

European Friends of Israel: Founded by Tories, funded by big business [part 2]

Israel Economy Minister Naftali Bennett at an EFI-organised lunch with MEPs in the EU Parliament in February 2014 Israel Economy Minister Naftali Bennett at an EFI-organised lunch with MEPs in the EU Parliament in February 2014

In part two of his investigation into Europe's most powerful pro-Israel lobby group, David Cronin examines its corporate backers and efforts to boost trade ties with Israel.

The European Friends of Israel (EFI) has always been able to count on support from high-ranking entrepreneurs.  After his death in August 2013, EFI issued a terse tribute to Yaron (Ronny) Bruckner, describing this Belgian investor as one of the group's founders. Bruckner had established Eastbridge, a Luxembourg-registered firm specialising in property and consumer goods that, according to its promotional material, manages more than €1.5 billion worth of assets. For much of his professional life, Bruckner had concentrated on Europe, yet had become more active in the US during the last decade of his life. In 2011, Eastbridge snapped up a Manhattan skyscraper that had previously housed the insurance giant AIG.

A document filed with the Belgian authorities states that Bruckner was formally nominated an administrator of the EFI in November 2011. 1  That document stipulates, too, that EFI members may pay an annual subscription of up to €5 million. That was a massive increase on the €1,000-per-year threshold for subscriptions which the EFI set on its inception.2  The increase indicates that EFI has been largely funded by its corporate backers.

On the same day that Bruckner was appointed as an administrator, the Paris-born Marc Grosman became EFI's vice-president and treasurer. 3  The two businessmen were acquainted with each other before then; Grosman had served on Eastbridge's supervisory board.  Yet he is better known as the owner of Celio, a men's clothing retailer with more than 1,000 stores in 60 different countries. 

Another businessman who has been involved with EFI is the Belgian native Isidore Leiser, currently head of Stratus Packaging, a leading manufacturer of adhesive labels.  Leiser sat on EFI's board from 2007 to 2012. 4 (Confusingly, EFI has both a political board - comprised of MEPs - and a board of administrators). When I phoned Leiser at his Brussels home, he would only say that he was no longer active in EFI ‘because I finished my mandate’. 5 Neither he nor Grosman responded to queries about whether they had helped EFI financially.

Vladimir Sloutsker, the EFI's president for most of its history, is not short of money either.  A Russian senator from 2002 to 2006, he has a background in banking and private equity. He also has a reputation for giving generous assistance to causes and individuals. He reportedly donated $250,000 per year to the Russian Jewish Congress in 2005 and 2006. Even more significantly, he enabled his wife Olga Sloutsker to form World Class, a highly lucrative chain of gyms, in 1993 by lending her $400,000.  In February 2014, Goldman Sachs and VTB Capital announced that they were buying a 50 per cent stake in World Class's parent company, Russian Fitness Group.

Boosting trade

With all that business nous at its disposal, it is perhaps logical that the EFI's has concentrated much of its efforts on boosting commercial ties between Europe and Israel.  Ensuring the European Parliament's approval for a major trade deal has been the group's most significant achievement to date.

The Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (ACAA) agreement may have a technical-sounding name. But it is profoundly political. That much was underlined by a European Commission memo on relations with Israel in the year 2009. The memo stated that the entry into force of the agreement would mark Israel's ‘first entry’ into the Union's ‘single market’ for goods and services. Put more simply, it enabled Israeli exporters to be treated equally to their counterparts based in the EU's member countries. It also meant that the EU has been prepared to strengthen its bonds to Israel despite the attacks committed against Gaza and Israel's numerous other human rights violations in recent years.

The agreement was the first in a series of similar accords that the EU aims to reach with its neighbours.  Its main effect is that the standards applying to particular goods in Israel will be recognised as valid by the EU authorities. Manufacturers would, therefore, be spared the hassle and expense of having to undergo quality checks when shipping their goods here. Initially, the agreement with Israel is limited to pharmaceutical products. But it contains a clause stating that its scope may be broadened to cover other goods in the future.

Clinched between EU and Israeli representatives in 2009, the agreement did not enter into force until 2013 largely because of delays encountered in the European Parliament.  After Israeli forces shot dead nine Turkish activists taking part in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla on 31 May 2010, the Parliament's committee on international trade decided to postpone its discussions on the dossier indefinitely. That decision was taken unanimously by the committee's ‘coordinators’, who included members of all the main political groupings in the assembly.

Without any immediate prospect of the dossier becoming unblocked, EFI's most zealous supporters began to vent their frustration.  In February 2011, Charles Tannock blamed the ‘anti-Israel lobby’ for the deadlock. In an article for the Conservative Home website, Tannock indicated that EFI was active in trying to move ACAA - ‘the latest milestone in EU-Israel relations’ as he termed it - forward. This work would soon start to show results: the following month, a majority in the Parliament's Liberal group voted that discussions on the agreement should be reopened

As the Liberals were the third largest group in the assembly - behind the centre-right European People's Party and the centre-left Social Democrats - their position could be crucial in determining the eventual outcome of particular debates.  In this case, the Liberals convinced themselves, as one of their MEPs put it, that blocking ACAA was ‘not the appropriate way’ to register disquiet over the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  When the agreement went before the full assembly in October 2012, 42 of the 73 Liberal MEPs present voted ‘yes’.  As a result, the Liberals helped the more right-wing groups in the Parliament form a majority in favour of the agreement.  Finnish Liberal Hannu Takkula stated that EFI played ‘quite an important role’ in realising that success. 6

Véronique De Keyser, then an MEP with Belgian's Socialist Party, said that European Friends of Israel exerted a ‘hellish pressure’. De Keyser, who has a long track record as a Palestine solidarity activist, added that EFI persuaded the Liberals to ‘swing from left to right’. 7 Her compatriot Frédérique Ries helped secure that swing.  First elected as a Liberal MEP in 1999, Ries is one of EFI's most prominent supporters, currently serving as vice-president of its political board.

Cleverly, Ries and other EFI members inferred that because the agreement covered pharmaceuticals, it had an altruistic rationale.  Teva, an Israeli firm, has been named the world's largest manufacturer of generic drugs by The Wall Street Journal.  Seizing on this ranking, pro-Israel advocates argued that by facilitating more imports from Teva, the availability of cheaper medicines would benefit ordinary Europeans and, in Ries' words, ‘the health of the world's citizens’. Teva itself also became involved in the debate, hiring D&D Consulting Services, a ‘public affairs’ company run by EFI's erstwhile director Dimtri Dombret, to offer it advice.  Details supplied by Dombret to the EU's transparency register indicate that Teva has been his main client for a number of years.

As part of this work, Dombret had been monitoring activities within the Parliament focused on the right to affordable medicines. I recall meeting him at the inaugural meeting of a cross-party alliance on access to medicines that was formed by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in early 2010.  Significantly, Dombret is also a former parliamentary assistant to Ries.

Sarah Ludford, an MEP with Britain's Liberal Democrats, was another important player in the ACAA debate.  Ludford has been outspoken in denouncing the conduct of the American-led ‘war on terror’ - particularly its use of torture.  Yet she has displayed a remarkable reticence about how Israel frequently inflicts pain on Palestinians, including child detainees.

Even when Ludford criticises some aspects of Israeli behaviour - she has called for an end to the siege of Gaza - she parrots Zionist myths by, for example, claiming that Israel is a ‘thriving democracy’. 

Ludford's enthusiasm for ACAA was not shared by some of her own party's activists. The Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine wrote to her, pointing out that the party's 2009 annual congress had formally endorsed a call for the ‘association agreement’ underpinning the EU's relations with Israel to be suspended if Israel failed to urgently lift its blockade on Gaza.  (ACAA was negotiated under the rubric of the earlier association agreement, which came into effect in 2000.) A letter signed by several Liberal Democrats in the British Parliament requested that Ludford step down as a party spokeswoman on justice and human rights if she was not prepared to support the party's formal position on Israel. In response, Ludford accused her colleagues of conducting ‘witch-hunts’.

Rather than respect Liberal Democrat policy, Ludford teamed up with MEPs from more right-wing parties. In a joint opinion piece with Charles Tannock, she argued that the ‘provision of effective and less costly medicines is highly relevant in the current economic climate and will be even more so in the future as Europe's population continues to age rapidly. The significance of increased EU-Israeli trade in pharmaceuticals, which totalled approximately €1.1 billion in 2010, is thus essential for Europe's better health and well-being.’ Opponents of the agreement were trying to ‘prevent EU citizens from gaining access to high-quality and affordable medicines,’ they added - a patently absurd suggestion, considering that Israeli drugs were already available in our pharmacies.

That position echoed that of EFI's director Elinadav Heymann, who portrayed ACAA as the antidote to this continent's economic woes. ‘In these times of austerity, where cutbacks are biting into health provision, this is a win-win situation for Israel and Europe,’ he wrote in a separate article.

Ludford confirmed that she has been a member of European Friends of Israel, as well as being a leading figure in a pro-Zionist committee in the Liberal Democrats.  She refused, however, to give details of her contacts with Israeli diplomats on ACAA and other matters, apart from saying that she had a ‘few meetings with Brussels and London-based embassy staff’.  Ludford expressed surprise that anyone could ask why she bats for an apartheid state. ‘There is nothing of any great interest in any case in my exchanges with the Israeli authorities - an occasional briefing or invitation to meet the ambassador, which is fairly natural as I am vice-president of the Lib Dem Friends of Israel,’ she stated. 8

Embracing extremists

According to Elinadav Heymann, the ‘one common agenda’ of EFI's supporters from different political parties is that they are ‘friends of the state of Israel, not necessarily the government of Israel, this government or that government but, in general, the people of Israel and the state of Israel’.  9 Yet it is difficult to see where EFI has drawn such a distinction: it has been happy to embrace some of Israel's extreme politicians, who happen to also be part of the government.  In April 2014, EFI hosted a lunch for Naftali Bennett, Israel's economy minister. The leader of the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party, Bennett had been a vociferous opponent of EU moves during 2013 to bar firms and institutions based in Israel's West Bank settlements from receiving scientific research grants. Settlers should respond to such efforts with ‘more kids, more trees, more vineyards, more homes’ on occupied Palestinian land, he argued. Bennett's advocacy of perpetual colonisation did not deter Sarah Ludford from dining with him in a gesture of solidarity despite how she had previously acknowledged that the settlements are illegal. 10

EFI's leading members have similarly welcomed openly-racist Israeli politicians to Brussels. David Rotem, a member of Israel's national assembly, the Knesset, was the best-known speaker at a conference held on the European Parliament's premises in September 2013.  Representing the far-right Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party, Rotem has made the kind of statements about Palestinians that would be widely condemned if they targeted other ethnic groups. ‘Every Jewish community needs at least one Arab,’ he said in October 2010. ‘Otherwise, who will repair my fridge when it breaks down on the Sabbath?’

Described as a ‘one-man legislative machine’ in Max Blumenthal's book Goliath, Rotem has authored a series of measures aimed at making Palestinians face new types of discrimination. Among them were a bill requiring Palestinian citizens of Israel to sign an oath of allegiance to a ‘Jewish and democratic state’ and a ban on funding organisations deemed to clash with Israeli values. The latter initiative was originally known as the ‘Nakba law’ after the Arabic word for catastrophe; it targeted Palestinian groups who held events which recognised that some 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes in the Nakba, the wave of ethnic cleansing at the time of Israel's establishment in 1948.

The conference at which Rotem spoke was organised by Bastiaan Belder, a Dutch MEP sitting on EFI's political board.  A Christian Zionist, Belder has supported almost every Israeli act of aggression.  Israel, he has claimed, displayed a ‘real concern for Palestinian lives’ when it bombed Gaza for three consecutive weeks in late 2008 and early 2009. ‘Look at all the precautions they [Israel] took during the operation,’ he added. 

Belder has combined his work for EFI with being chairman of the European Parliament's committee - or delegation in official parlance - handling its relations with the Knesset.  Indeed, most members of the EFI's political board also sit on the Parliament's official delegation to Israel.  This considerable overlap has probably given EFI's activities greater weight. Véronique de Keyser has written of how some of the MEPs who would soon join European Friends of Israel signed a letter to The Jerusalem Post opposing Hamas' participation in elections held in early 2006. The letter created much confusion, according to De Keyser, because many Israelis assumed it had an imprimatur from the entire Parliament. At that time the EU was preparing to dispatch an official team to observe the elections. 11

Making apartheid sexy 

There can be little doubt that EFI is in regular, perhaps daily, contact with Israeli diplomats.  At least three of the staff in Israel's Brussels embassy have been assigned the task of cultivating a good relationship with MEPs.  One of the three, David Saranga, has trained EFI staff on how to make optimal use of ‘social media’ websites like Twitter and Facebook.  And when Israel began a new round of airstrikes against Gaza in October 2012, Saranga travelled to Strasbourg, where the Parliament was meeting, so that he could brief EFI stalwarts.  His key messages were that Israel was seeking to avoid harming civilians and that it was providing Gaza with humanitarian assistance.  Both messages were dishonest: Israel soon launched an all-out attack, while Israel's siege of Gaza has created a situation where 80 per cent of its inhabitants have become dependent on aid for survival.

Saranga has been spotted at many other EFI events. In May 2013, for example, he accompanied Israel's ambassador in Brussels, David Walzer, to EFI's annual dinner. Saranga has been portrayed as a ‘rebranding’ specialist by The Jewish Chronicle. During a previous stint as a media officer in Israel's New York consulate, he placed a feature in ‘lad's magazine’ Maxim in which women who had served in the Israeli military were photographed in skimpy swimwear. 

Emulating Saranga, EFI has tried to project an image of Israel as liberal and sexy, rather than being synonymous with human rights abuses.  It kicked off its activities in 2013 by hosting a conference within the European Parliament titled 'Humanitarian aid - Israel as a world leader'. A blurb prepared for the event claimed that whenever disasters occur around the world, Israel has teams ready to assist rescue efforts. One of these teams was first on the ground after an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, invitees were informed. The blurb made no reference to the humanitarian crisis which Israel has caused in Gaza.

Similar material is frequently posted on EFI's Facebook page. It pays special attention to Israel's scientific and technological triumphs. One Israeli innovation, it says, will help the visually-impaired to see better.12 Another will help children with disabilities to walk.13  And a cure to cancer and a corrective to water pollution are constantly being sought in Israeli labs.14  An EFI channel on YouTube, meanwhile, directs viewers to a video naming Israel as the sole country in the Middle East where homosexuality is tolerated.

The apparent concern for civil liberties belies EFI's enduring connections with reactionary political forces.  In January 2014, EFI hosted an all-day conference on Iran, Syria and the Middle East ‘peace process’.  Most of the invited speakers either represented the state of Israel or ‘think tanks’ with a neoconservative orientation.15 Among them were Oren Kessler from the Henry Jackson Society; that London-based outfit is dedicated to promoting American military strength and counts Richard Perle, a former Pentagon insider who planned the invasion of Iraq, as one of its international patrons. Another speaker was Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King's College London.  Neumann founded the ICSR along with Boaz Ganor, an Israeli academic who has called on the Israeli army to undertake both ‘pre-emptive and reactive strikes’ - code for extrajudicial executions - against Palestinians resisting the occupation of their homeland.  At the EFI conference, Neumann summarised the results of a study carried out by his centre on European fighters in Syria.  As many of those fighters were ‘genuinely altruistically motivated’, he said, there was a ‘need for something more innovative than simply putting them in prison’ when they come back to this continent. 16 It is highly unlikely that EFI would have invited someone to make the case that Palestinians who fight back against Israeli apartheid are ‘genuinely altruistically motivated’ and should, therefore, be treated leniently.  Yet that inconsistency did not appear to trouble its staff: in an email message, the EFI's Daniel Orelowitz informed Neumann that the feedback to his presentation had been ‘overwhelmingly positive’ and there had been ‘a particular interest in the topic of foreign fighters going to Syria, something which many in the Parliament had not come across previously in any meaningful detail’.17

It would be a mistake to view Zionist advocacy as detached from other types of lobbying.  As EFI is dedicated to drumming up support for Israeli aggression among Europe's ruling classes, it is logical that the group would build alliances, whether formal or informal, with those who have broadly similar interests.  Perhaps the most obvious allies for EFI are those who sell weapons to Israel, thereby profiting from its acts of aggression.

The arms industry has stepped up its lobbying activities in Brussels over recent times. One notable manifestation of this increased activity was the foundation of a ‘think tank’ funded by that industry in 2002. Known as Security and Defence Agenda (SDA), it pushes both for higher military expenditure and for the EU to finance the development of new weapons. 18  Lockheed Martin, a principal beneficiary of US military aid to Israel, has funded many of SDA's activities. 19  It comes as little surprise, then, that the names of EFI staff can be often be found in the lists of participants for the ‘debates’ that SDA organises.

In July 2012, reports appeared in the press saying that the EU planned to strengthen its ties with Israel even further. EFI responded with a note on its Facebook page, stating: ‘It is precisely for these kinds of headlines that the European Friends of Israel exist. We would like to think our hard work among the parliamentarians across Europe during the last seven years contributed to this decision.’ 20

The jubilant tone of that message does not mean that EFI was resorting to hyperbole.  Helping to steer an EU-Israel trade deal through the European Parliament has undoubtedly been EFI's biggest achievement in its relatively short history. 

Its ability to convince elected representatives to bolster an apartheid state indicates it is a very dangerous organisation.


1. Annex to Moniteur belge, 10 January 2012
2. Annex to Moniteur belge, 31 August 2006.
3. Annex to Moniteur belge, 10 January 2012.
4. Annex to Moniteur belge, 30 April 2012.
5. Telephone conversation with the author, 2 February 2014.
6. Interview with the author, 18 February 2014.
7. Notes taken by the author at public meeting in Liège, Belgium, 6 March 2014.

8. Exchange of emails between Sarah Ludford and the author, January and February 2014.
9. Interview with the author, 22 January 2014.
10. ‘Sarah's speech to Parliament on Israel/Palestine’, Sarah Ludford's website, 12 June 2012.  Note: Ludford can be seen in photographs taken at the lunch with Naftali Bennett and posted on European Friends of Israel's Facebook page. 

11. Stéphane Hessel and Véronique De Keyser, Palestine, la trahison européenne, Fayard, 2013.
12. Note on European Friends of Israel's Facebook page, 5 April 2014.
13. Note on European Friends of Israel's Facebook page, 27 March 2014.
14. Note on European Friends of Israel's Facebook page, 26 March 2014.
15. European Friends of Israel, Myths and Reality: The European Union and the Middle East, booklet circulated at conference held in Brussels, 22 January 2014.
16. Notes taken by the author at European Friends of Israel conference, Brussels, 22 January 2014.

17. Email message from Daniel Orelowitz, European Friends of Israel, to Peter Neumann, King's College London, 23 January 2014.  Document obtained under British Freedom of Information Act.
18. David Cronin, Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War, Pluto Press, 2013.
19. Security and Defence Agenda, 'Europe's defence: What the December 2013 European Council should yield', December 2013.
20. Note on European Friends of Israel's Facebook page, 23 July 2013.

David Cronin

David Cronin is an Irish journalist and political activist living in Brussels. He is the author of Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War (Pluto, 2013). His earlier book is Europe's Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation (Pluto, 2011).