As “passionate believers in the two-state solution”, Bicom – the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre – is “always looking for how we can bring something new to the debate”.
So says Bicom’s chief executive, James Sorene, two years into the job and still fizzing with enthusiasm about Bicom’s unique Janus-like position – created by the Jewish community, but directing its central message not to Jews but to the wider British community. On the eve of a new trip to Israel, Sorene, former head of communications to Nick Clegg, spoke to Jewish News about his plans for the organisation.
“I bring extensive experience in how government works and my diplomatic and foreign policy background,” Sorene says. It means that much of the groundbreaking research that Bicom produces is aimed at being read in government departments, particularly the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development.
Sorene is at pains to delineate Bicom’s role, completely separate from mainstream Jewish community organisations. “Our relationship with government is as part of the policymaking process. We don’t lobby at all. What we do is to produce reports, such as our Co-Existence Report, which is of such a high standard that it is palpably part of government decision-making.”
He is proud of a 2016 initiative in which Bicom “convened an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. We brought a team of Israelis and a team of Palestinians to London to discuss ideas beyond the traditional Oslo track. We did it in conjunction with Chatham House and produced a report, which was read far and wide, in government, because it was one of the first reports of its kind in English, which talked about ideas and different tactics. It was an amazing document.”
With a smile, Sorene confides that “London has a really interesting role” in Middle East politics. “It’s a kind of known unknown. It’s an open secret that in the lobbies of many London hotels, if you know who you are looking for, you might find some very interesting people meeting. London is a very useful place for that. It’s not too far away [from the Middle East] and it crosses over as a hub. Washington is too far.
“We can call it hiding in plain sight, but what it shows is that the UK is a much more significant player [in the peace process] than it lets on.
“It gives a lot of money in aid, and it has very good relations with Israel and the Palestinians.”
If the narrative has changed as far as government goes – and Sorene says Bicom is
“an important part of that conversation” –
he acknowledges things are not so easy on the media side, the other key part of his work. Bicom is the only organisation taking groups of journalists to the region.“There is fatigue with Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and the media don’t see anything new occurring. Because this is a story in deep freeze, they are looking at other stories which are much more dramatic.”
Those who go to Israel are keen to find out about the situation on Israel’s northern border and the Golan, says Sorene. But Bicom also talks to journalists about terrorism. “We took a group in June, just after Manchester and London Bridge, and focused on combating terror.”
Sorene has to run to the airport, but he is sure of one thing: “If Bicom did not exist, it would have to be recreated the next morning. In an age of extremism, there has never been more need for an organisation like Bicom, an independent research hub and a platform for everyone.”