Hon­ours even

He stared ruin in the face over cash-for-peer­ages. Now, Tony Blair’s chief fundraiser is speak­ing out — about the Jews who failed him, and how close he came to a Mid­dle East peace deal

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES - BY JENNI FRAZER

MICHAEL LEVY IS tired. He has spent the en­tire day an­swer­ing ques­tions in 16 back-to-back in­ter­views, in­spired by the pub­li­ca­tion of his book, A Ques­tion of Hon­our — Inside New Labour and the True Story of the Cash for Peer­ages Scan­dal. It is, he notes drily, hard work writ­ing a book, and even harder work pro­mot­ing it. Lord Levy’s much-an­tic­i­pated mem­oir is, how­ever, much more than a set-the-record-straight ac­count of the fate­ful year of 2006 to the sum­mer of 2007, when the Labour peer was ar­rested and re­peat­edly ques­tioned by the Metropoli­tan Po­lice over the sug­ges­tion that he il­le­gally of­fered po­ten­tial donors the pos­si­bil­ity of hon­ours. (The Crown Pros­e­cu­tion Ser­vice an­nounced last July that there was no case to an­swer). A once-chunkier Levy is now no­tice­ably thin­ner and his face has new lines, al­most cer­tainly a tes­ta­ment to the pain of the sit­u­a­tion. Al­most half the book, in fact, is de­voted to Levy’s per­sonal story — born in Hack­ney in 1944, an only and much-loved child, whose fa­ther was the sham­mas of Wal­ford Road Syn­a­gogue, and whose ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther was theRev­erendAbra­ham Michael Biren­baum, a deeply com­mit­ted Zion­ist, af­ter whom Levy is named.

It traces his near me­te­oric rise to wealth and com­fort af­ter he made the leap from ac­coun­tancy to record-com­pany owner, and then his sale of the com­pany, Mag­net Records, to Warner Brothers in 1988. The Warner Brothers sale — for £10 mil­lion — was, Levy writes: “far more than I had earned in my en­tire work­ing life. Yet the money it­self wasn’t the is­sue… Money, it seemed to me more than ever, was only im­por­tant or use­ful as a means to an end — a way of se­cur­ing not just the ne­ces­si­ties of life but gen­uine qual­ity of life.”

The sale of Mag­net en­abled Levy to change fo­cus. Though he had pre­vi­ously been in­volved with the Joint Is­rael Ap­peal, the pre­de­ces­sor of to­day’s UJIA, as its na­tional fundrais­ing chair, he had rarely been close to do­mes­tic Jewish char­i­ties. Of his in­volve­ment in the JIA, he writes: “I was very much a new kid on the block… the ini­tial and ob­vi­ous re­luc­tance to give up space at the top ta­ble was an early les­son in pol­i­tics and power, that made the bat­tles I wit­nessed within New Labour a decade later at least slightly less dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate and un­der­stand.”

Given his “Hack­ney kid made good” sta­tus, he was a slight out­sider in the more rar­efied at­mos­phere of those who tra­di­tion­ally ran the Jewish com­mu­nity. Levy’s de­ci­sion to con­cen­trate on the more un­sexy Jewish Wel­fare Board, and over­see­ing its merger with the Jewish Blind So­ci­ety so that it be­came Jewish Care, was ini­tially looked down upon by com­mu­nal lead­ers.

But Levy writes that “it was the sim­ple fact that I was ex­traor­di­nar­ily good at rais­ing badly needed funds that made the dif­fer­ence. And a re­lated fact: most other peo­ple in most char­i­ta­ble or vol­un­tary or­gan­i­sa­tions pos­i­tively de­test rais­ing funds. Some are dis­mis­sive and cyn­i­cal about it… Yet I soon found that I was good at it, that I liked do­ing it, and was — and very much still am — proud of do­ing it well.”

Levy be­came Jewish Care’s first chair­man in 1992 and then its pres­i­dent in 1988. He says that from be­ing a “brash out­sider” on the com­mu­nity stage, his work with Jewish Care led to his be­ing “very much part of the com­mu­nity’s lead­er­ship es­tab­lish­ment”. And it was in this guise that he met Tony Blair at a din­ner party thrown in March 1994 by Gideon Meir, then num­ber two at the Is­raeli Em­bassy in Lon­don. Blair was then the shadow home af­fairs spokesman and John Smith was the Labour leader.

“The at­mos­phere was pleas­antly re­laxed and in­for­mal,” writes Levy, “and Blair was very laid back. I wish I could say he im­me­di­ately struck me as a fu­ture party leader and prime min­is­ter. In fact, as the lamb and red wine were served, my first im­pres­sion of Blair — and of his wife, Cherie — was that they were bright, ar­tic­u­late, per­son­able. They also struck me as ex­traor­di­nar­ily young and un­worldly.”

There is a cameo in the book of the Satur­day af­ter­noon af­ter the wa­ter­shed elec­tion of May 1997, when Blair’s New Labour fi­nally swept into power. The Blairs, three years af­ter meet­ing Michael and Gilda Levy, were ac­cus­tomed to spend­ing many week­ends at the Levy home, swim­ming and play­ing ten­nis. Levy urged the Blairs to “come over as usual”. “When Tony and I fi­nally made our way down to the ten­nis court, he sud­denly stopped dead. He looked around, check­ing to make sure his se­cu­rity guards were not close enough to over­hear him. And then he did some­thing truly as­ton­ish­ing. He lit­er­ally jumped up and down, like a small kid who had been let out of school for the day, and shouted, laugh­ing out loud: ‘I re­ally did it!! Can you be­lieve it? I’m prime min­is­ter! I’m prime min­is­ter! I’m prime min­is­ter!’”

In the sum­mer of 1997, Blair put Levy on his first peer­ages list, nom­i­nat­ing him, as his chief fundraiser, as Baron Levy of Mill Hill. Two years later, work­ing out of the For­eign Of­fice build­ing, he for­mally be­came “The Prime Min­is­ter’s Per­sonal En­voy to the Mid­dle East”.

Blair’s in­ter­est in the Mid­dle East, says Levy, re­ally be­gan in 1995 when the Con­ser­va­tive Prime Min­is­ter, John Ma­jor, in­vited him and Lib Dem leader Paddy Ash­down to be part of Bri­tain’s of­fi­cial del­e­ga­tion to Yitzchak Rabin’s funeral. The event in Jerusalem had a gal­vanis­ing ef­fect on Blair.

“He kept ask­ing me ques­tions, when­ever I’d go to Is­rael, when I came back from Is­rael, what I thought of lead­ers, and that con­tin­ued when he be­came Prime Min­is­ter,” Levy says. “Then he would ask me to sit with Robin Cook [Blair’s first for­eign sec­re­tary] and I got to know se­nior of­fi­cials in the For­eign Of­fice and also in Down­ing Street. And I was priv­i­leged to be able to in­tro­duce him to some of the key play­ers [in the re­gion], peo­ple whom I’d known for some time.”

It seems as­ton­ish­ing, and per­haps a lit­tle naive, but Levy in­sists that the fact of his Jewish­ness, and thus, per­haps, the ques­tion of bias, never came up as a fac­tor when Blair asked him to be­come his Mid­dle East en­voy. “It was never men­tioned, by ei­ther of us. Not at all,” he says. “He knew that I knew some of the Pales­tinian lead­er­ship, that I knew the key ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Mubarak… I re­ally be­lieved that Blair be­lieved I had in­tegrity, un­der­stand­ing of the is­sues,

and frankly, all the years I was do­ing my work, some­times there were dif­fi­cult times for the Is­raelis, some­times dif­fi­cult times for the Pales­tini­ans. I went around the Arab world, North Africa, peo­ple recog­nised that I had a depth of knowl­edge of the sub­ject and that I lis­tened, and that I made my points. It was not a mat­ter of tak­ing sides.”

The Is­raelis and the Pales­tini­ans, says Levy, “recog­nised that I was the en­voy of the Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter. Now, were there peo­ple in the Jewish com­mu­nity who would say I was not pos­i­tive enough for Is­rael, or those within the Arab world who would say I was too pos­i­tive for Is­rael? There are al­ways peo­ple who will crit­i­cise, and it doesn’t mat­ter what your faith is. It goes with the ter­ri­tory.”

It is, how­ever, strik­ing to read Levy’s ac­count of some re­mark­able ne­go­ti­a­tions with the late Pres­i­dent As­sad of Syria, in Novem­ber 1999. Nowhere is there any men­tion of the Syr­i­ans’ re­sponse to Prime Min­is­ter Blair’s Jewish en­voy, who had a sum­mer home in Is­rael and was an in­ti­mate friend of much of the Is­raeli po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship. Levy laughs when asked about this.

“Let me tell you, the Syr­i­ans knew me back­wards, for­wards and side­ways,” he says. “They ab­so­lutely knew ev­ery­thing about me. When I went, my tefillin were with me, and I dav­ened in the morn­ing. The em­bassy [in Lon­don]knew my kashrut r e q u i r e - ments. I met the very small Jewish com­mu­nity and I went to the syn­a­gogue in Da­m­as­cus. When the Syr­i­ans gave a din­ner in my hon­our they again knew pre­cisely what I could and could not eat. In a strange way, per­haps the Pres­i­dent was fas­ci­nated by the fact that the Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter was us­ing some­one Jewish, who had an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of Is­rael and what went on there po­lit­i­cally. Pres­i­dent As­sad, with whom I spent many hours, seemed to like and re­spect me. I’m not say­ing that some­one of an­other faith couldn’t have done what I did — all I’m say­ing is that I was able to do it, I was priv­i­leged to have that po­si­tion, and one didn’t need to wear a badge say­ing ‘Mr Pres­i­dent, I’m Jewish’. It was ab­so­lutely known, I made no se­cret of the fact.”

Levy’s cir­cum­spec­tion, and that of his wife Gilda and his chil­dren Daniel and Juliet, un­doubt­edly played a huge part in his abil­ity to carry out his role as en­voy. He spent many hours talk­ing to se­nior Egyp­tian, Jor­da­nian and, most of all, Pales­tinian lead­ers, es­tab­lish­ing the kind of per­sonal re­la­tion­ships with them which had proved so suc­cess­ful in his pre­vi­ous life as a fundraiser.

“Fundrais­ing,” he writes, “was like so much else in life — it was about hu­man re­la­tion­ships, build­ing them, nur­tur­ing them, valu­ing them.” Levy’s abil­ity to home in on the per­sonal pro­duced many unimag­in­able sce­nar­ios — go­ing duty-free shop­ping in Vi­enna air­port, for ex­am­ple, with Pres­i­dent As­sad’s son, Bashar, an en­counter which led the Bri­tish a m b a s - sador in Da mas­cus, Basil E a s t - wood, to ob­serve: “By this time, Michael, who’s a very en­gag­ing per­son­al­ity, is a friend of the fam­ily!”

Many of the talks took place in Levy’s own home in Lon­don, with the present Pales­tinian Prime Min­is­ter, Salam Fayyad, join­ing him for din­ner. “I got to know th­ese peo­ple very well over many years,” he says. “Life and diplo­macy is about re­la­tion­ships… at the end of the day it’s the abil­ity to re­late to a per­son, and for them to re­late to you.”

A nat­u­ral op­ti­mist, Levy be­lieves that things were very close to se­cur­ing a peace deal be­tween Is­rael and Syria in the wake of his ground­break­ing talks with Pres­i­dent As­sad be­fore his death in June 2000. So what went wrong?

“I’ve asked my­self that over and over again,” he says. “I gen­uinely be­lieve that As­sad wanted to tie up that deal be­fore he died and passed over the reins of power. He said to me that Syria was pre­pared to talk to the Is­raelis with­out pre­con­di­tions, but the Amer­i­cans didn’t think that there was that op­por­tu­nity. The doors opened: Pres­i­dent As­sad made it very clear that mat­ters had to be passed on to Wash­ing­ton. We [the Bri­tish] could have acted as a cat­a­lyst, which we did, but this could only have been han­dled by Wash­ing­ton, and ob­vi­ously the par­ties di­rectly.”

A con­fer­ence was con­vened in West Vir­ginia, but Levy says that the then Is­raeli pre­mier, Ehud Barak, “was not re­ally sure what he wanted to do. I don’t be­lieve that the Amer­i­cans suc­ceeded in per­suad­ing both sides that they had to put aside the points of con­tention… As­sad was then be­com­ing more se­ri­ously ill, and there wasn’t enough time; Barak was fac­ing crit­i­cism at home, and it just slipped away. I will al­ways ar­gue that this deal was al­ways on the ta­ble to be done. It doesn’t have the com­plex­i­ties of the Pales­tinian sit­u­a­tion. It doesn’t have the refugee is­sue high on the agenda, it doesn’t have the Jerusalem is­sue high on the agenda, the border is­sues are far less com­pli­cated, it doesn’t have the is­sue of set­tle­ments. I be­lieve that all the is­sues were re­solv­able: at the end of the day this was for the po­lit­i­cal lead­ers to push it through with po­lit­i­cal will.”

Could such a deal be re­vived? “Cer­tainly there’s been a lot of me­dia spec­u­la­tion, par­tic­u­larly with the re­cent in­volve­ment of the Turk­ish prime min­is­ter. Even when there are deep seeds of pes­simism you have to keep some air of op­ti­mism, oth­er­wise it would have been im­pos­si­ble. But any deal can be re­vived if the sides want that to hap­pen. Is this the mo­ment? Is there the will, the

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

The cash-for-hon­ours scan­dal has left its mark on Lord Levy — he was “hurt” by the re­ac­tion of some mem­bers of the Jewish com­mu­nity

Levy is greeted by Yitzhak Rabin

PHOTO: JOHN RIFKIN

Lord Levy in­sists he has not fallen out with Tony Blair. “We had din­ner a num­ber of weeks ago,” he says

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