by Jim Lobe and Eli Clifton
A familiar group of super-hawkish, anti-Iran U.S. billionaires has been spending millions of dollars on a rather eclectic and somewhat bizarre organization of mainly foreign leaders. This organization, the Friends of Israel Initiative (FOII), has hailed the advent of what it calls the “New Right” in Europe. It has even excused the “flirtations with anti-semitism” on the part of some of the adherents of this new European alt-Right, so long as they support Israel.
Rafael Baraji, the executive director of the organization and long-time top adviser to former Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar, collaborated with and remains an unabashed admirer of former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and “Bannonismo.” In one of FOII’s publications last year, he praised the European “New Right” as a “buoyant political movement [that] shares Israel [sic] goals and concerns” despite its anti-Semitic past and tendencies.
“In this regard, the New Right could see Israel not only as a reliable ally, but also as an example in many fields such as the fight against Islam Radical [sic], the defense of Western civilization or the struggle against the economic uncertainty,” he wrote in the report’s preface.
Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who spent $35 million via untraceable dark money groups to elect Donald Trump, more than any other donor, contributed at least $2 million to FOII between 2012 and 2016, according to tax filings. Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus, who placed second in the Trump campaign sweepstakes by spending $7 million to pro-Trump outside spending groups, contributed $215,000 to FOII between 2013 and 2014.
The group’s U.S. nonprofit arm received $1.8 million in contributions and grants in the 2015 tax year, the last year for which public disclosures have been released.
Nearly half a million more dollars was given to FOII by Middle East Forum, a prominent anti-Muslim organization headed by Daniel Pipes, who described Muslim immigrants as “more troublesome than most” and “resistant to assimilation.”
Sears Roebuck heiress Nina Rosenwald has long been a major donor to Middle East Forum and also contributed $140,000 to FOII between 2012 and 2014. Rosenwald is the president and primary funder of the Gatestone Institute. The Institute, whose board includes Rebekah Mercer and is chaired by John Bolton, is a reliable source of anti-Muslim immigration fear-mongering. The Intercept’s Lee Fang catalogued some of Gatestone’s more outlandish claims:
Gatestone Institute produces a regular drumbeat of articles and punditry. The Institute claimed that the Obama administration refugee policy “exposes Americans to the jihad.” Muslim refugees in Western countries are depicted in Gatestone Institute posts as rapists and hosts of “highly infectious diseases” that threaten the health of the German people.
They were joined by Oracle Founder and FOII charter member Larry Ellison, who gave at least $1.5 million between 2014 and 2015 to help sustain the group. Although Ellison is not nearly as widely known for his pro-Likud, anti-Iran philanthropy as Adelson and Marcus, he spent at least $5 million supporting neoconservative favorite Sen. Marco Rubio, a pro-Likud, anti-Iran leader in Congress, in his failed 2016 presidential bid.
FOII popped up most recently as its two most prominent leaders, Aznar and former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, published an op-ed entitled “The World Must Unite to Stop Iran,” in the uber-hawkish Wall Street Journal’s opinion page on the eve of the annual policy convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The article consists of a familiar list of Likudnik talking points about Iran that could have been drafted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office and may well have been. “To prevent a full-scale crisis,” the two former leaders warn, “North America and Europe must join Israel in stopping Iran…If left unchecked, Iran’s aggression [in Syria and the Middle East] will ultimately threaten Europe and North America as well.”
Although a founding chairman of FOII who has retained that post since the group launched in Washington in 2010, Aznar would seem a curious choice as cheerleader for the latest campaign to “Stop Iran.” He is likely to be remembered—to the extent he is remembered at all in the U.S.—as the “third amigo,” along with President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in their joint appearance in the Azores less than 48 hours before the launch of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. With the invasion’s fifteenth anniversary now just two weeks off, Aznar’s public appeal for the U.S. to “roll back Iran’s aggression” could make for bad associations.
Aznar paid dearly for his endorsement of the Iraq war, as well as his commitment of Spanish soldiers to the occupation. His ruling right-wing Partido Popular was soundly defeated in the wake of the March 4, 2004 Madrid train bombings carried out by Islamic extremists. He subsequently retired from politics, devoting himself mainly to his Madrid-based think tank, the Foundation for Social Studies and Analysis (FAES), as well as FOII whose “key aim is to counter the growing efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and its right to live in peace within safe and defensible borders,” according to its website. Aznar was honored as a Champion of Jewish Values “for defending Israel in the world,” by the Adelson-funded World Values Network headed by self-described “America’s Rabbi,” Shmuley Boteach.
Working alongside Aznar since before the Iraq invasion has been Rafael Bardaji, who served as the former president’s national security adviser from 2002 to 2004, as FAES’s director of foreign policy, and as FOII’s executive director since its inception. Bardaji leans strongly to the right, as is clear from his paean to Bannon and Bannonism that was published even after most of the former Breitbart CEO’s admirers and supporters deserted him in the wake of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury.
As executive director, Bardaji presumably oversees FoII’s overall work. These activities range from organizing specialized trips to Israel and hosting seminars to the production and publication of mostly Islamophobic and Iranophobic op-eds and “Working Papers,” most of which appear dedicated to defending the policies of Netanyahu’s increasingly right-wing government. One year-old study, prepared by the Grupo de Estudios Estrategicos (GEES), a Spanish think tank founded and directed by Bardaji himself, addresses the implications for Israel of the rise of the new alt-Right in Europe. In his preface, whose English-challenged style suggests that either he was its chief writer or that the authors resorted to Google Translate in the 40-some pages, Bardaji states the challenge:
Despite not all New Right parties have the same concept of Israel, we must work responsibly for these parties to see that Israel is a necessary asset for the future of the West.
If the New Right is going to be a fundamental political actor in the coming years of the European future, it is our duty to promote among them the important role of Israel before the challenges that the Western civilization must overcome. There are reasons for mutual understanding, and above all, it is necessary for these parties to purge their anti-Israel past and motivations.
Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism
What follows is pretty standard Islamophobic stuff of the kind long promoted by Netanyahu and Likud and could have come from the pen of Vitezi Rend loyalist and former Bannon acolyte Sebastian Gorka for that matter.
What drives anti-semitism in Europe, and the West at large, is attributable more to the far left and Islamism than the right.
Irrespective of the details of the political programs of the movements of the new right in Europe, what these parties believe is that immigration and Islam are a risk to their societies’ stability and for Judeo-Christian values. Because of this they are more likely to understand the concerns of the State of Israel.
So one should try and make a distinction between the Nazi past of some of those parties and their intentions today.
…[M]any are the Jews saying that the movement’s willingness to stand up for Western civilization make it a better protector for Jews than the liberal movements. Some have even pointed out that the flirtations with anti-semitism that one can find in the blogosphere from what can loosely be called the alt-right is a function of its willingness to shatter taboos. In other words, admissible joking and vitality rather than anti-semitism. Antisemitism seems marginal while the urge to contest political-correctness is real. And the urge to contest political correctness is not dangerous.
The sheer insurgence [sic] that the movement represents against the establishment opens up a political space that was completely off limits until a short time ago. This means there is room for anti-semitism but it also means that any anti-semitism that may have arised [sic] in the past is being rejected offcially [sic] and that a pro-Israel stand has been publicly taken by most leaders in the movement.
FOII and its big-money U.S. donors apparently think that the anti-Semitism in the alt-right shouldn’t be taken very seriously.
It’s not clear whether FOII’s membership agree. In addition to the eminences mentioned above, the membership ranges from the former presidents of Colombia and Uruguay to a handful of former cabinet officials from Central Europe and Italy to a former British military commander in Afghanistan, the far-right former Florida Rep. Allen West, and the former chief of India’s foreign intelligence agency. Presumably, however, the members are united in their adherence to the group’s founding principles, which include the conviction that the “assault on Israel is itself an assault on Judeo-Christian values,” that “Israel stands on the front line, but we are next in line,” and that “Israel’s future is our fate.” In that respect, according to the charter,
There are two related threats which also imperil the region, and the wider world: the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and jihadism; and the prospect of a nuclear Iran. These threats are as existential for the state of Israel as for the rest of us: the jihad knows no boundaries and a nuclear Iran represents a strategic revolution of global dimensions. Israel cannot and should not face those threats alone. For the global jihad, Israel may be the first objective. But it will not be the last.
The group appears closely tied to the Gatestone Institute and Nina Rosenwald. Rosenwald also contributes to the neoconservative, Britain-based Henry Jackson Society, which hosted FOII’s launch in a meeting room of the House of Commons in 2010 and which has co-sponsored many of the group’s events since.
Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.