by Rob Halfon MP
Often in politics you meet clever people, well-connected people or great political campaigners. Sometimes you also meet individuals with great wisdom and a calm head. Stuart Polak is one of those rare breed. Not only does he have an abundance of the former, but he is also a good and wise man. His introduction into the House of Lords this week is a testament to all he has accomplished.
Stuart’s remarkable 25 year career has so far spanned four Conservative Governments in the UK and a remarkable nine Governments in Israel. In this time he has coordinated and led more than 150 political delegations to Israel. He has helped set up several Jewish faith schools. He has even received a CBE award from Her Majesty the Queen. There isn’t a great deal Stuart hasn’t achieved.
I first met Stuart when I was at University over twenty years ago. He was running Conservative Friends of Israel even then, transforming the organisation from a relatively small base, into the incredible campaigning group that has emerged today.
Later, when I was working as a Special Adviser in the dark years of Conservative Opposition, I was always aware of how important Stuart was to political discourse, especially when senior Conservatives were discussing or speaking publicly on the Middle East.
After the 2005 election, Stuart invited me to join CFI to advise on politics and help CFI build its political links. As someone who had been in and out of politics for many years, I thought I knew a lot – the reality was that I watched and learned much from Stuart, seeing him in operation working long hours, always for Israel and the Conservative cause.
It is because of Stuart Polak that CFI has done more to advance the cause of Israel in Parliament and Whitehall, than almost any other organisation I can think of. For years, Stuart has quietly worked in coordination with the Government and parliamentarians to ensure the strongest possible bilateral relationship between the two countries, without taking credit or needing validation.
This hasn’t happened overnight but through years of hard work, patience and fighting for the Conservative cause. This has built trust with MPs – they know that CFI is not just for Israel but the Conservative Party too.
Stuart has pioneered and perfected the political fact-finding visits to Israel which have proven such an effective educational experience for so many Conservative parliamentarians. Almost all of the current cabinet has visited Israel with Stuart and CFI at some point, including the Prime Minister who first visited Israel back in 2007. From parliamentary cricket tours to bird watching with Ken Clarke, Stuart has experienced almost everything Israel has to offer with Conservative MPs.
Good times and bad, Stuart has been a constant. Back in 2004, Stuart made a moving visit to Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market in the immediate aftermath of a suicide bomb with now Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Boris Johnson.
Stuart’s face is so well known that he can’t board an EL AL plane to Israel without half the passengers saying hello. A short walk along the beachfront in Tel Aviv invariably becomes an hour long game of ‘Guess Who?’ Stuart has visited Israel so many times that it’s about time that Ben Gurion Airport gave him his very own personal passport control desk!
For all of Stuart’s political skills, he has always understood that CFI was more than one man. He assembled around him a brilliant team of individuals such as Nathalie Tamam (now in the Cabinet Office) and James Gurd (who leads the CFI Professional Team), Chairman Andrew Heller, Sir Eric Pickles as the Parliamentary Chairmen, and formerly Richard Harrington (now Minister for Refugees) and James Arbuthnot (who is entering the Lords alongside Stuart).
Some people ask what will happen to CFI now Stuart has gone to the Lords. Well, first the Lords will benefit from a premier league political campaigner, and Israel’s voice will be heard loud and clear. Second, CFI has now such strong foundations that its future as the foremost Israel political advocacy body is now assured for many years.