The Conservative Friends of Israel

Among the CFI’s early patrons was the former prime minister Anthony Eden, a strong ally of Israel in the 1956 Suez crisis. In 1975, Margaret Thatcher gave the group her endorsement.

Chair of the CFI’s Commons group MP Stephen Crabb (extreme left) leads delegates on a visit to the Western Wall in February  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chair of the CFI’s Commons group MP Stephen Crabb (extreme left) leads delegates on a visit to the Western Wall in February
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The organization known as the Conservative Friends of Israel was born out of some of Israel’s darkest days and some of the UK’s least commendable.
In 1973, Yom Kippur fell on Saturday, October 6. That was the day chosen by the Egyptian and Syrian presidents to launch a surprise attack on Israel, assisted by a coalition of Arab states. Caught largely unaware, Israel was at first beaten back on its two main fronts, Sinai and the Golan Heights. With Egypt and Syria making substantial gains during the first days of their attack, the US supported Israel with military supplies, but Britain’s Conservative government led by Edward Heath imposed an arms embargo on all the combatants.
Since the Arab states were being massively supported by Soviet arms, Heath must have known the decision primarily impacted Israel, and specifically the supply of spares for Israel’s British-made Centurion tanks heavily engaged in fending off the attack. In addition, Heath refused to allow US intelligence gathering from British bases in Cyprus, resulting in a temporary halt in the US signals intelligence tap. He also barred the US from using any British bases to resupply Israel, and refused permission to any US planes supplying Israel to refuel in the UK.
The episode, which gave rise to a storm of protest from all sides, led a former member of Parliament Michael Fidler to form the CFI in 1974. Fidler, once president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was well aware that the Labour Party had set up its own Labour Friends of Israel as far back as 1957 and many stalwarts of the Labour movement were passionate Zionists. It was generally acknowledged at the time that a fair proportion of the UK’s Jewish community saw the Labour party as their natural political home and he hoped the new organization would go some way to redressing the balance.
It had a good start. Among the CFI’s early patrons was the former prime minister Anthony Eden (Lord Avon), a strong ally of Israel in the 1956 Suez crisis. In 1975, shortly after defeating Edward Heath as party leader, Margaret Thatcher gave the group her endorsement. This was not only an acknowledgment of her genuine admiration for Israel but as clear an indication as she could provide that she disapproved of Heath’s actions during the Yom Kippur War. Increasing numbers of Conservative MPs followed her lead.
The CFI has been a feature of British political life ever since. In the last parliament, it claimed a membership of 80% of Conservative MPs, but the organization is not confined to parliament. With more than 2,000 supporters, the CFI – dedicated to the twin aims of supporting Israel and promoting Conservatism in the UK – is active at every level of the Conservative Party.
For some 25 years the chairmanship of the CFI’s Commons group was held by Stuart Polak, now Lord Polak, but it has also been in the hands of prominent non-Jews. In the early years, the chairman was Conservative backbench MP, former minister Sir Hugh Fraser, who was both a practicing Roman Catholic and a Zionist. Currently, the chairperson is MP Stephen Crabb, a Christian who believes in the practical value of prayer.
The full effects of the Conservative Party’s sweeping victory in the UK’s recent general election have taken some time to sink in. From a so-called “hung” parliament, in which a minority Conservative administration was dependent on the 10 votes of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party – which were not always forthcoming – the December 2019 election vaulted Prime Minister Boris Johnson into 10 Downing Street as prime minister with a thumping majority of 80 seats.
That statistic does not tell the whole story, for not only did scores of solid Labour seats switch to the Conservative Party, but a considerable number of Conservative seats were won by a new generation of politicians. The end result was that no fewer than 108 new Conservative MPs took their seats in the House of Commons. Clearly the CFI have a major task ahead of them in winning over as many of the new intake as possible.
One vitally important method of gaining the interest, sympathy and eventually support of parliamentarians is by bringing them to Israel, escorting them on visits around the country, demonstrating some of the achievements  – as well as some of the problems facing the nation – and providing them with briefings from Israeli leaders and experts. The CFI, which organizes such trips on a continual basis, aims to provide delegates with greater insight into the issues affecting the region. The programs are not only political, but cultural and historical, and always include time spent in the Palestinian Authority meeting Palestinian politicians and officials. The CFI explains its objective is not for delegates to return with all the answers, but equipped to ask more informed questions.
In mid-February, Crabb led a delegation of five MPs and a peer on such a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. They met officials from both sides, including senior officers of the IDF on the Golan Heights and PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat in Jericho. The group discussed US President Donald Trump’s peace plan with Erekat and Crabb subsequently declared himself frustrated and disappointed by his refusal to regard it even as an opportune jumping-off point for possible peace talks.
Last August, the CFI coordinated a delegation to Israel consisting of five Conservative MPs, three Conservative Lords and two prospective parliamentary candidates – many of them visiting the region for the first time. The trip, led by Crabb, included a series of high-level meetings with Israeli politicians, journalists, entrepreneurs and academics, as well as strategic briefings and visits to organizations that promote peaceful coexistence. The delegation also traveled to the West Bank, visiting the first Palestinian-planned city in Rawabi.
Such visits are a permanent feature of the CFI program of activities, but the organization also runs an active schedule designed to present Israel in a positive light to leading figures within the UK. For example, in February some 40 Conservative MPs, including 35 newly elected members, met with Israeli Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev at a lunch hosted by the CFI in the Westminster Palace, the home of Britain’s parliament. The idea was to provide an opportunity, especially for new MPs, to meet the ambassador and discuss the latest situation in Israel and the wider region. The discussion was led jointly by Crabb and Lord Eric Pickles, its chairperson in the Lords.
Another such event took place at the end of January when Minister Robert Jenrick gave the keynote speech at the CFI’s annual parliamentary reception. Addressing an audience of more than 250 CFI supporters, including 100 parliamentarians, Jenrick underlined the government’s pledge to fight antisemitism. Guests included cabinet ministers and, surprisingly perhaps, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, who relayed his prayers for “our continued friendship and mutual support.”
Inevitably an organization dedicated to supporting Israel has its detractors in the UK and beyond. One of the most prominent appeared in a TV series called “The Lobby,” produced by the Qatar-based media organization Al Jazeera, and broadcast in 2017. It claimed to expose the covert and undesirable way in which the “Israel lobby” influences British politics.
The investigation relied on an undercover journalist working for Al Jazeera infiltrating pro-Israel organizations, acting as an agent provocateur, and using a surreptitious bodycam and other cameras whose presence were not known to those being filmed. The series applied a broad brush in its investigation, targeting the CFI among a host of other pro-Israel bodies. From amidst the plethora of innuendos about secret conspiracies and powerful pro-Israel influences at work within Britain, the production did throw up a particularly unacceptable exchange between the Al Jazeera journalist and an official attached to the Israeli embassy in London. As a result of the broadcast that officer was dismissed and the Israeli ambassador offered a formal apology to a government minister.
Opposition parties in the Commons pressed hard for a major inquiry into the issue, but Johnson – then foreign secretary – rejected calls to take action against the Israeli embassy and declared the matter closed. Nevertheless, the incident did demonstrate the fine line between promoting causes in a way acceptable to public opinion and aggressive lobbying that public opinion would deem objectionable. It is a lesson which no doubt the CFI, in common with the many other pro-Israel groups in Britain, has taken to heart.