The Real Scandal Surrounding Al Jazeera’s Exposé of 'Senior Israeli Diplomat'

Not an insidious plot or an anti-Semitic smear. The Al Jazeera expose is just a story of breathtaking incompetence.

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Snapshot of video showing Shai Masot, as seen on The Guardian website.
Snapshot of video showing Shai Masot, as seen on The Guardian website.Credit: Screenshot
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Reactions to the teaser from Al Jazeera’s upcoming investigation into the activities of the “pro-Israel” lobby in Britain, which appeared Sunday morning in the British media, were drearily predictable. Depending on where you stand on Israel, the short clip of an employee of the Israeli embassy in London talking over a glass of wine of how he’d like to “take down” a junior Foreign Office minister was either proof of Israel’s insidious reach into the highest echelons of the British establishment, or evidence that Al Jazeera is a lying outlet of anti-Semitic incitement. Of course, neither contention is true.

Some facts first. Shai Masot, the loud-mouthed Israeli in the clip, isn’t a “senior diplomat” as described by Al Jazeera. He wasn’t even a junior diplomat. Masot had a short and unexceptional career as a naval officer before trying his hand at politics – as the parliamentary assistant of right-wing Likud firebrand Miri Regev, then a backbencher MK and today minister of culture and sports. He wanted to get into the Foreign Ministry’s elite diplomatic cadets course but apparently was unsuccessful. A couple of years ago he moved abroad and used his political connections and short experience as a liaison officer with foreign armies to wangle a position as an AMI – a local Israeli employee of the embassy in London.

A persuasive young man who could wear a suit and hold a glass of wine at receptions, he was appointed a “senior political adviser” to Eitan Naeh, then deputy ambassador and, as of two months ago, Israel’s new ambassador to Turkey. A grand title for an embassy dogsbody.

If it wasn’t for the chronic understaffing at the embassy and Naeh’s bad judgment in this case, Masot would have never been allowed to be in contact with parliamentarians. As one truly senior diplomat in Jerusalem said this week, “He did some good work at the beginning and then got ideas above his pay grade.”

The idea that he was part of some shadowy network seeking to “take down” British politicians, though, is laughable. Israel has had over the last few years its best period ever of relations with the Cameron and now May governments. Whatever cloak and dagger operations might exist against anti-Israel activists in Britain do not target junior Tory ministers and do not operate from official embassies. They certainly do not use the kind of operative who boasts about it over drinks.

But to be fair, why should any of this matter to Al Jazeera? They’ve got a guy who works for the Israeli embassy, has a grand-sounding title on his business card and is saying all this on camera. You surely weren’t expecting Al-Jaz, of all news channels, to be more pious than the Pope when reporting on Israel. They merely did what British news organizations have done a thousand times over – deploy an undercover journalist for a few months and allow unsuspecting people to make fools of themselves.

Next week the network will be airing a four-hour series on the “pro-Israeli” lobby and you can expect Masot to be just the tip of the iceberg. From what has leaked so far, there are all manner of junior politicians and aides and “pro-Israel” activists boasting of how powerful they are. This is what these people do when they are drinking and want to impress members of the opposite sex. Don’t we all?

You would expect a professional Israeli diplomat not to be so easily caught out, but then Masot wasn’t a professional Israeli diplomat, which is why he was caught out.

The stupidity of clever people

But why should Al Jazeera care? Whether it’s shoddy journalism, inherent hostility to Israel or the type of anti-Semitism that propagates the myth that Jews can never act stupidly, is immaterial. News consumers in Britain are the last people to complain about “gotcha” sting exposes. The real scandal isn’t the non-existent plot to “take down” a junior minister, it’s the stupidity of clever people – in this case the true professionals who work in the elegant house built for William Makepeace Thackeray at 2 Palace Green in Knightsbridge, and who allowed Masot to roam Westminster unchecked.

The scandal is that the Israeli diplomatic corps have been de-funded, demoralized and derided for so long that they’ve begun to forget their own high standards. And an even greater scandal is that Israel’s most celebrated diplomat, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has allowed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem to remain without a full-time minister for so long because of local political considerations. You don’t have to be an anti-Semite to find it so hard to believe that the supposed best and brightest of the Jewish state could be so incompetent. But that’s what it is – sheer incompetence, bred of overwork and politicization of a once excellent foreign service.

There’s a lesson here as well for the so-called leaders of Britain’s Jewish community. Instead of rallying around the embassy and attacking Al Jazeera for being Al Jazeera, they should be demanding of Ambassador Mark Regev, who certainly should know better, and through him the Israeli government, to adhere to those higher standards of professionalism. Both Israelis and British Jews deserve much better than this shower. Regev is a pro. He knows it.

The Al Jazeera series will cause some short-term damage to the community but it could also do British Jewry an important service. Along with Masot, there will be a gallery of self-appointed “pro-Israel” lobbyists and activists and perhaps finally it will become clear how little these braggarts actually help Israel. Ties between Jerusalem and London are strong thanks mainly to the two countries’ joint interests and to a small group of pros who won’t get caught out by Al Jazeera. This would be a good opportunity to see the “pro-Israel” activists for what they really are: a group of unprofessional political hacks working mainly for their own narrow agendas and self-gratification.

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