An Israeli embassy official has been caught on camera in an undercover sting plotting to “take down” members of the British parliament regarded as hostile, including the Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan – an outspoken supporter of Palestinian statehood.
In an clear breach of diplomatic protocol, Shai Masot, who describes himself as an officer in the Israel Defence Forces and is serving as a senior political officer at the embassy in London, was recorded in conversation about a hit list of British MPs.
Masot had been speaking to Maria Strizzolo, a civil servant who was formerly an aide to another Conservative minister. Also present was a man they knew as Robin, whom they believed to be working for Labour Friends of Israel, a pressure group. In fact, Robin was an undercover reporter.
Strizzolo, discussing with Masot how to discredit MPs, said: “Well, you know, if you look hard enough, I’m sure that there is something that they’re trying to hide.” Later she added: “A little scandal, maybe.”
During the conversation, in October, Strizzolo boasted that she had helped to secure a promotion for her boss, the Conservative MP Robert Halfon. She had been his chief of staff when he was deputy chair of the Conservative party. Last year Halfon was appointed as an education minister and Strizzolo was appointed as a senior manager at the Skills Funding Agency.
She continues to work part-time for Halfon.
In the footage, Masot agreed that Strizzolo had assisted Halfon and then asked whether she could also achieve the opposite effect. “Can I give you some MPs that I would suggest you would take down?” he asked. He went on to say that she knew which MPs he was referring to.
She asked him to remind her. “The deputy foreign minister,” he said. Strizzolo said: “You still want to go for it?” Masot’s reply is ambiguous but he said Duncan was still causing problems. Strizzolo asked: “I thought we had, you know, neutralised him just a little bit, no?” Masot answered: “No.”
Masot did not elaborate on what he meant by “take down”, but it is normally used as meaning to engineer a downfall, possibly through discrediting them in some way.
The conversation then turned to the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. Strizzolo said he was solid on Israel. Masot agreed, adding that Johnson just did not care.
“You know he is an idiot,” Masot said. Strizzolo returned to the subject of Duncan later in the conversation, suggesting he had had a run-in with Halfon in the past and that Halfon had reported Duncan to the whips. So never say never, she added. Masot replied: “Never say never, yeah, but …” Strizzolo said: “A little scandal, maybe.”
Masot was filmed by an undercover reporter from al-Jazeera’s investigative unit at the Aubaine restaurant near the embassy in Kensington.
Other prominent Conservatives named during the conversation include Crispin Blunt, chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, who is also a vocal supporter of the Palestinians.
In another conversation, Masot agreed that Blunt was among MPs that were “strongly pro-Arab rather than pro-Israel”. Strizzolo referred to him being on a “hitlist”.
UK ministers are understood to regard such plot talks as a matter of serious concern, crossing the line beyond normal diplomatic activity. Duncan declined to comment.
Although the Israeli embassy insists Masot was a junior embassy official and not a diplomat, his business card describes him as “a senior political officer” and his Linkedin page lists him as having worked for the embassy since November 2014. He describes his work as being the chief point of contact between the embassy and MPs and liaising with ministers and officials at the Foreign Office.
He also describes himself as having been a major in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) between 2004 and 2011 – serving part of that time on a patrol boat off Gaza – and still employed by the IDF as deputy head of the international organisations sector.
The disclosures comes at a sensitive moment, just over a week after Theresa May put herself at odds with the Obama administration by expressing strong support for Israel in a row over the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank. The sting operation, which began in June and ran through to November last year, recorded conversations on a number occasions that include a wide range of pro-Israeli activists as well as British politicians and Israeli embassy staff.
The recordings form the basis of four half-hour documentaries that al-Jazeera is to broadcast from 15 January.
Strizzolo sought to play down what had been discussed. Asked a series of questions by The Guardian, she issued a statement that said: “The implications The Guardian is seeking to draw from a few out-of-context snippets of a conversation, obtained by subterfuge, over a social dinner are absurd. “The context of the conversation was light, tongue-in-cheek and gossipy. Any suggestion that I, as a civil servant working in education, could ever exert the type of influence you are suggesting is risible. Shai Masot is someone I know purely socially and as a friend. He is not someone with whom I have ever worked or had any political dealings beyond chatting about politics, as millions of people do, in a social context.”
The Israeli ambassador to Britain, Mark Regev, apologised to Duncan on Friday. An Israeli press spokesman said Regev had made clear that “the embassy considered the remarks to be completely unacceptable”.
Although the Israeli embassy declined to comment on internal disciplinary matters, it is understood Masot has been reprimanded. Masot declined to comment or to elaborate on what he meant when he said he wanted to “take down” a number of MPs.