One on One with David Abrahams: 'It's pure sensationalism'

In an exclusive interview with 'The Jerusalem Post' British land developer David Abrahams tells his side of the 'dodgy donor' scandal.

David Abrahams 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
David Abrahams 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'It's pure sensationalism' 'Do I look like a recluse?" asks David Abrahams, pooh-poohing the reference to one of the many things that has been written about him in the British press since his business and political dealings became the talk of London town a few months ago. Shrugging and smiling mischievously, he points to our surroundings: the bustling lobby of Jerusalem's King David Hotel, far away from the quiet confines of his residence - or rather residences - in England. "As you can see, I'm sitting here in public, where I often am. I would hardly call that reclusive." Still, says the so-called eccentric land developer - whose £650,000 donation to the Labor Party caused a quake at 10 Downing Street - there is no slur from which he's been spared. "Ironically, the way I've been able to maintain my privacy is that the stuff they've written about me has been mainly inaccurate." To an outsider, particularly one jaded by the proliferation of political and financial scandals that have become almost par for the course in this country, the details of what has come to be known as "donorgate" seem so standard as to be dull. Even the nasty personal gossip makes for mediocre "yellow journalism." That there's what we in the business call a "Jewish angle" to the story does dress it up considerably, as does a libel suit, giving the tale of Abrahams's woes an added dimension. But what it basically boils down to is the alleged connection between money and power. When Abrahams was given permission to build a large business park in Durham, critics claimed this was a case of one Labor hand washing another. This charge was never substantiated, however, mainly because, as Abrahams explains, "What the press didn't realize was that it wasn't a Labor authority that granted the planning permission." The bulk of the brouhaha that has kept the Brits gossiping, though, has focused on the fact that the British press has been calling him the "dodgy donor‚" who made all his contributions to the party he's been loyal to since childhood through intermediaries. In other words, he never wanted his name associated with the transactions. And though he says that this policy is his way of keeping his affairs private - and of keeping his business interests separate from his political life - the law is not on his side. In fact, in 2000, a new ruling came along forbidding donations to parties through, well, third parties. Which is why Prime Minister Gordon Brown took action in the form of firing Labor's general secretary (a.k.a. treasurer), and by making a public statement to the effect that the money donated in this fashion would be returned. So much for the material that the courts are now sorting out - which Abrahams seems to consider much ado about nothing. Except, that is, when it comes to the media, which he calls "sensationalist." One vehicle he singles out for special accusation is The Jewish Chronicle (which he refers to as "the JC"), the newspaper he is in the process of suing for libel. A proud Jew - who belongs to two synagogues, which he attends on holidays and memorials for his parents - Abrahams has a passion for promoting peace in the Middle East, as well as interfaith dialogue at home. In a two-hour interview, which he stresses is "exclusive to The Jerusalem Post, because I am now refusing to talk to the British press," Abrahams alternates between asserting that all the "vilification" he has been subjected to is going right over his head and sadly admitting: "For the first time in my life, I feel I'm not in the driver's seat." What is the root of the scandal that has erupted in Britain over your donations to the Labor Party? I make regular donations to causes and organizations in which I believe and in which I'm involved. I've been involved in the Labor Party all my life. I was brought up in politics. My parents were politicians. My father was lord mayor of Newcastle; my mother was council chairperson. It's just been a way of life for me. I used to raise money through minor efforts, such as coffee mornings; and, when I've been successful and able to donate money, I've done so on one condition - that it would private and anonymous. That was the deal. Why anonymous? I didn't want to start receiving begging letters. Nor did I want to make others feel that I had any financial stability above my station in life. But isn't your wealth common knowledge? No. I keep my business very private. Even [former British prime minister] Tony Blair's agent, John Burton, went on television saying, "I didn't realize David had any money. He always dresses down and doesn't have a flash car." This is why the press started to speculate that I'd gotten my money from other sources - from Israel, for instance, and that I was trying to be some sort of conduit. This is why they showed a picture of me with former Israeli ambassador to Britain Zvi Heifetz, with a caption about his having been cleared of money-laundering, "and here he is with David Abrahams." It was an implication of my using money that wasn't my own - which is nonsense. It was all my own money. And it was anonymity, not secrecy, that spurred me to use intermediaries to donate it to Labor. Is it not illegal in Britain to donate money to political parties through intermediaries? It is up to the recipients of the donation to declare it properly to the Electoral Commission. You attended a seminar on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act of 2000, so did you not know in 2003 that you were breaking the law by donating money through intermediaries? No, because I hadn't read the act in fine detail. I mean, I give money to Warwick University, but I don't read the university statutes. I give to other organizations, as well, without reading their Charities Act. You give with a good heart - not in order to have to study a 250-page document governing the act of giving. On whom does the legal burden in this case rest? In the case at hand, the burden is on the so-called treasurer of the Labor Party, which is why Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked the general secretary, [Peter Watt], to resign instantly. He hadn't been aware that there was any problem with my donations, because his predecessors had been processing them. So he thought it was all right. We discussed it quite openly. It wasn't done under the counter or anything. The party knew it was my money, even though I gave it by exchanging checks with associates of mine. Brown said that he was going to return the money, didn't he? Yes, but he isn't in any position to do so. This depends on the electoral commissioner, who could confiscate it and put it in the government's coffers. But this might have to be brought before the courts, because the money wasn't donated to the government. It was donated to the Labor Party. Indeed, why wasn't the legal route taken in the first place? I believed that what I did was legal and that the reporting of the donation was the responsibility of the Labor Party. Is privacy the only reason you didn't want your name involved? Does it not have something to do with your political ambitions, and not wanting it to appear as though you were "purchasing" a position in Labor? Of course not; we don't do that in Britain. It's the same regarding the universities. One donates, but not in order to buy positions. Really? Actually, there have been cases of people donating to universities in order to be awarded honorary doctorates, for example. Well, the British press was expecting to find a scandal of this nature, and there hasn't been one. They've been digging around in all aspects of my life - even interviewing people who knew me 30-40 years ago - and haven't come up with anything. So, for example, the tabloids claimed I had paraded around a fictitious wife and child. But I never said she was my wife. I said she was my partner - and that was the truth. Why did she come forth and say otherwise? It is for her to explain that. Do you think the tabloids offered her money? I understand they came to Newcastle with an open check book and offered all my friends at least £25,000. Ironically, the way I've been able to maintain my privacy is that the stuff they've written about me has been mainly inaccurate. Including the probe into the granting of the planning permission to build a business park in Durham? After you donated a large sum to Labor, the Highways Authority suddenly lifted its previous objections to the project... There was a Liberal Democrat leadership contest, and one of the two main contenders, [Chris Huhne], was trying to open an inquiry into my planning commission for the park, which I received on its merits. It's quite a big business park; ultimately, it will employ up to 10,000 people. And it's been done on my own innovation and perseverance. There was no external political assistance whatsoever. What the press didn't realize was that it wasn't the Labor authority that granted it. The press, being in London, thought that all local authorities in the northeast of England were Labor, and this is why they jumped on the bandwagon. But I have always kept my business and my politics separate. I've always been above board. The Liberal leadership and the press were calling into question the propriety and honesty of civil servants at both the local and the national level, who in the UK would certainly not be open to such enticements or would even know about any donation to Labor. Being in politics, especially, I've always felt that everything had to be done in an exemplary way. This is why I have consultants who don't know of my political candidacies or anything. They did their job in a righteous and transparent manner. If so, why have you been a target? And why go after your private life? I have conducted myself with humility and privacy, never been boastful about affluence and people misinterpret, thinking I have something to hide. Is this because you're a Jew? That's a very good question but I don't think it comes into it. Does it have nothing to do with your use of a different name - what some might consider an alias - in your business dealings? It's a lot less complicated, and certainly less devious, than that. My full name is David Martin Abrahams. But because I think of Abrahams as my parents' name, I call myself David Martin. It's not an alias. In business, I'm David Martin. In politics, I'm David Abrahams. In fact, the day before I started school when I was four and a half, I was asked whether I wanted to be called Abrahams, or whether I wanted to drop Abrahams and keep Martin. Being too young to understand the implications, I said it didn't make any difference. So I was called David Martin Abrahams. Was that because your parents were worried that your name sounded too Jewish? Yes. My mother said it might be more comfortable for me with the name David Martin, because my first school was in a small town with very few Jews. Look, my father used to be written about in the press quite a lot, and I often wondered why they called him the son of poor Russian immigrants. Our family had been in England since 1890. It was absurd. They don't say that so and so is the son of poor Irish immigrants, so why do they single out Jews for this kind of treatment? I was always furious about that. You know, in Britain, Jewish people are viewed slightly differently from everybody else. We've always been a minority and singled out for special treatment. Is this case going to affect the way donations to political parties are made? Yes. It's just been announced that for leadership and deputy leadership candidates of the Labor Party, there's going to be a ceiling of £20,000 that one can spend on elections. And there definitely will be a review of the 2000 legislation. Is the Labor Party upset with you over this whole thing? My relationships have not changed at all. I mean, I've given money to the Labor Party. I haven't taken money away from it. And what about the opposition? Are they trying to use this case for political gain? No. The three main parties are all in the same boat. Personally, I think all parties' campaigns should be state-funded. Then none of this kind of controversy would arise. Wouldn't it cause a different controversy - such as the taxpayers' outrage at having to fund the process of courting them at the polls? The taxpayers are lucky we've got a democracy, and I think democracy's got to be paid for. What is the purpose of your Israel trip? Just to be with friends. I come to Israel quite regularly. I feel at home here. Is British Jewry affected by what goes on in Israel? Not all British Jews are aligned with Israel. Some are; some make aliya; many feel it's their duty to donate money to causes in Israel - the majority, in fact. And they want to see a stable, effective Jewish homeland. Israel has got a great burden on its shoulders. Jews just want peace and security for the Jewish state. In Britain, Jews and Palestinians live quite comfortably alongside one another. Why can't they live comfortably, side-by-side, in their own land? Surely you will not deny - especially not given the recent statements by the archbishop of Canterbury about Shari'a law and its compatibility with British law - that there has been a serious influence of Islamic culture and religion in Britain that affects relations with Jews. Well, I do a lot of interfaith work, so I'm friendly with many Muslims and Christians, and I feel there are good relations between Muslims and Jews, as well as many good people cultivating harmony. Of course, you do get fundamentalist minorities who want to wreck the system. But I think the laws in Britain are strong enough to ensure that the majority live in harmony. I don't think the press - or the archbishop of Canterbury - are acting responsibly, by stirring up racial hatred. You accuse them of stirring up racial hatred. But isn't it really Shari'a law that stirs it up, by being inconsistent with democratic values? Don't get me wrong about Shari'a law. I totally disagreed with the archbishop's comments, because I don't think [allowing Shari'a law to operate alongside British] would be good for the country. We've got good laws in Britain, which many countries copy - including Israel. This speaks for itself. Why do you support Labor? I believe in the Bible, and I feel that the Labor Party most represents the Torah values of prosperity and social justice. How do you view Israel's Labor Party? That's in a category all its own. I don't think I'd be as comfortable in the Israeli Labor Party as I am in the British Labor Party. Why? How are they different? The Israeli Labor Party is full of infighting and it has no sense of direction. No more credibility. But I'm not here to tell the Israeli Labor Party what to do. Do you donate money to Israeli projects? Yes. I give donations to organizations I'm involved with. Would you call yourself a philanthropist? I think that's too strong a word. But I'm involved in all sorts of things concerning the Palestinians. You met with Yasser Arafat, didn't you? Yes. I told him he had a yiddisher kop [Jewish smarts], and I wasn't sure which way it was going to go - whether he was going to befriend me or despise me when he found out that I was Jewish. I just smiled sweetly at him, then he embraced me and said: "Some of my best friends are Jewish. I used to play with the Cohen boys in Jerusalem when I was young." After that, he said, "Help me make peace. Help me make peace." I said, "I will, but you have to have the will to do it." And he agreed. He said, "If only [assassinated prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin were alive." And I said, "Well, it's easy to say that when he's not. But you know, there are a lot of Israelis who want to make peace and they're still alive." But I believe he wasn't able to deliver. Ron Prosor, Israel's new ambassador to Britain, just gave his credentials to the queen. What is your impression of him? I was very honored to have been invited to the celebration, but I couldn't attend because of my trip here. He's an excellent ambassador, and I know he's going to make a lot of progress in Britain. How do you know? Because he's started off on the right footing. He's been on the job since November, and he's very impressive. Israel's made an excellent choice. He's like our own Dan Gillerman [Israel's ambassador to the UN]. He will make Israel's case to the media. He will bridge gaps. Which is what I try to do - bring non-Jewish people together for Israel's cause. You see, I'm pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. We're not getting the best of both nations. We need a strong Israel for a strong Palestinian Authority, and we need a strong Palestine to help a strong Israel. If we can achieve that - with the help of Jordan - we can get a good strong West Bank and then Gaza will want to follow. But there's a lot of hard work to do. Aren't you forgetting global jihad when you speak about solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? No. Strengthening the moderates is precisely the point. That's why we've got to have a strong civil society and economic prosperity for the Palestinians. These views are also reflected by my colleagues at the Henry Jackson Society, and my friend Barak Seener has recently published a paper about this. It is why we've got to have state-building before the peace process. This is why I am funding Warwick University to achieve this goal which contrasts dramatically with some other institutions of public education that are funded by Jihadi sources. As well as having donated a chair, what I've suggested we do is hold an international conference once a year on conflict management in relation to Israel-Palestine. I personally don't feel that the peace process at this moment in time is viable. First we've got to revive the economy in the Palestinian areas - make sure there's a free market and competition and a free press. If we push too quickly, the wheels will come off the wagon. In my view, the [Annapolis] process is going to take a lot longer than till the end of the year. You see, it's easy to push a button for war, but you can't push a button for peace.