Lord Stuart Polak, a pro-Israel lobbyist who has spent decades trying to influence UK policy on Palestine, was viewed with suspicion by British diplomats working on the Middle East, Declassified has found.
Polak became director of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) in 1989, a role he held until 2015 when he became a member of the House of Lords. He remains CFI’s honorary president and is still listed as a director at Companies House.
Around 80% of Tory MPs are members of CFI, which is the largest funder of foreign trips for British politicians.
Early on in his career at CFI, Polak’s lobbying grated with some staff at the Foreign Office, according to formerly classified files released to the UK National Archives.
In 1991, diplomat Simon Fuller told Britain’s consul-general to Jerusalem David MacLennan: “I ran into Stuart Polak at an Israeli embassy function last weekend. Characteristically, he immediately started to spread a little poison, this time about you.”
The British consulate-general in Jerusalem, which is separate from the embassy in Tel Aviv, represents the UK in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It has traditionally been more outspoken about Israel’s illegal settlements than Britain’s ambassadors.
Fuller went on to say of Polak: “I think the Conservative Friends of Israel made a mistake in selecting him. This sort of snidery is typical. But he could just be dangerous and I thought you might want to be warned.”
Polak had criticised MacLennan for saying the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was not a terrorist organisation. The PLO is the official representative of the Palestinian people.
Then, as now, a key goal for the Israel lobby was to get Western governments to brand their critics (from the PLO to aid agency UNRWA) as terrorist groups, in order to delegitimise them.
By 1992, a campaign against MacLennan did emerge, with the Israel lobby resenting his role as consul general in Jerusalem.
The Foreign Office noted: “Conservative (and Labour) Friends of Israel are grumbling about Mr MacLennan and the views he has expressed about the PLO. (Mr Polak may be inciting the CFI). This has a whiff of an Israeli campaign (The Israelis have always made difficulties for our Consuls General).”
“Mr Polak may be inciting the CFI”
Ahead of a ministerial meeting with CFI chairman Robert Rhodes-James, a diplomat wrote: “I hope the minister will feel able to steer the CFI away from continuing this campaign. I cannot believe it is justified and it bears the hallmark of Israeli – or Jewish lobby – mischief making.”
In another memo, a Foreign Office staffer wrote: “Israelis over the years have consistently set traps for our Consul General in Jerusalem: they resent his existence.”
Despite these challenges, MacLennan welcomed British MPs from both major parties. He noted how in 1991, “at fairly short notice, we were asked to set up a meeting between Palestinians and a visiting group of Labour Friends of Israel [LFI]”.
The group included LFI’s international secretary, Mike Gapes, who would only become an MP the following year. MacLennan arranged for them to meet the academic Hannan Ashrawi and three other Palestinians at his home for coffee.
MacLennan said: “I think this was a useful encounter and should have done something to balance the intensive brainwashing which the group will have received from their Israeli hosts.”
One of the main backers of LFI has been Sir Trevor Chinn, a car industry mogul whose father was president of the Jewish National Fund in Britain. Chinn donated £50,000 to Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership campaign and is close to Tony Blair.
Curiously, Chinn has also had a long association with CFI. In June 1992, then prime minister John Major’s private secretary noted in a letter about the organisation: “Sir Trevor Chinn, Mr Cyril Stein and Mr Stuart Polak of the Conservative Friends of Israel are calling on me”.
Other papers from that period show Chinn wrote to foreign minister Douglas Hogg, seeking to arrange a meeting about Israel together with Polak, and that such joint meetings took place.
The Israel lobby back then was, however, a shadow of what it has become today. Now, Polak appears to have the power to veto the government’s choice of foreign ministers if they are deemed to be pro-Palestine.
When Boris Johnson was foreign secretary in 2016, he wanted Alan Duncan to be his deputy and serve as Middle East minister. As news of this plan leaked, Duncan said: “Conservative Friends of Israel are going ballistic.”
Polak, it emerged, had been calling Johnson “incessantly saying I must not be appointed”.
Duncan said CFI’s campaign was “for no other reason than that I believe in the rights of the Palestinians”.
“Whereas they [CFI] pretend to believe in two parallel states, it’s quite clear that they don’t, and so set out to destroy all genuine advocates for Palestine,” he added. “They just want to belittle and subjugate the Palestinians.”
Duncan complained that “in any other country” Polak’s conduct would “be seen as entrenched espionage that should prompt an inquiry into their conduct.”
He believed there was “exceptional pro-Israel infiltration into the very centre of our public life” and lamented: “The CFI and the Israelis think they control the Foreign Office. And they do!”
Giving another example of their influence, he said the decision in 2019 by then home secretary Sajid Javid to ban the political wing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah was “just sucking up to the CFI, who are out in force behind him reading out their scripted interventions”.
Polak was apparently “in the Peers’ Gallery gloating from above about having deployed their Commons troops in Israel’s cause.”
This January, CFI saw another of its key objectives achieved, when home secretary James Cleverly banned Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist group. Previous governments had taken the view it was a political organisation that did not engage in violence.
CFI paid £2,000 for Cleverly’s first trip abroad after he was elected to parliament. CFI and Lord Polak did not respond to a request for comment.