By FOIA Research
on March 25, 2023 - Last updated: May 31, 2023

Friends of Israel Initiative

The Friends of Israel Initiative (FOII) is a militaristic think tank and lobby group made up of Western supporters of Zionism and the Right in Israel.1 Founded in 2010, the FOII has branches in the United States, Spain and the United Kingdom.

The FOII is an international effort, to "seek to counter the attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel and its right to live in peace within safe and defensible borders," as mentioned on its website.2 The group also campaigns against Iran, in particular against the country's nuclear program.

The only person present on the board of all three FOII branches is the Spaniard Rafael Bardaji, who had served as an adviser to two consecutive defense ministers and as adviser to former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar - the figurehead of the FOII initiative. Both, Bardaji and Aznar were at the time attached to the right-wing Spanish Partido Popular, however, in 2018 Bardaji has moved on to be "the brain" of the far-right Vox party.3

Aznar stated that FOII is non-Jewish in nature and not linked to the Israeli government, and only non-Jews can become members of the board. Aznar has stated that if Israel was to disappear, Europe would be directly confronted with radical Islamist groups.4

On the British side, a large part of FOII's early members were connected to the London-based Henry Jackson Society (f. 2005), which also hosted a kick-off event at the British House of Commons in 2010. Among the early supporters from abroad were former Trump security adviser, John Bolton; Forza Italia's former President of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera; former President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel; Peru's former President, Alejandro Toledo; billionaire financier and founder of the Rhône Group, Robert Agostinelli; and British Conservative Party peer, former First Minister of Northern Ireland and Nobel Peace Prize winner, David Trimble.5 6

Since its inception in 2010, the US FOII branch has received donations totaling to over 13 million dollars.7 Investigations into the provenance of the money revealed that FOII received one million dollars in 2015 and 2016 each from the Adelson Family Foundation of the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (1933-2021).8 Adelson was reportedly a major donor to Donald Trump's election campaign.

In 2015, FOII created the High Level Military Group, including around 15 retired generals and colonels, many having served in leading positions at NATO.9

FOII and HLMG serve i.a. as vehicle for its members to acquire military contracts or lucrative advisory posts, particularly since both entities do not seem to pay any salaries to its employees. For example, the Italian-American billionaire Robert Agostinelli has been supporting FOII while at the same time employing FOII supporters in his enterprises.10 A senior adviser of Agostinelli's Rhône Group is notably the FOII supporter John Bolton, who joined the company on October 1, 2019, after having served as Assistant to U.S. President Donald Trump for National Security Affairs from April 2018 until September 2019.11 In autumn of 2019, Rafael Bardaji joined the board of directors of Explosivos Alaveses, SA (Expal Systems), a weapons and ammunition company.12 Expal Systems was at the time owned by Maxam explosives, of which the Agostinelli's Rhône Group had bought 45% in August 2018.13

Background

FOII was created by an alliance of "hawks" from various Western countries in support of Zionism and the Right in Israel. Among them were several key supporters of the Iraq war, and in line with the course of George W. Bush's White House.

Henry Jackson Society

On the British side, some of them had already hooked up in the context of the UK-based Henry Jackson Society (HJS). HJS is a London think tank in sympathy with the arch militarist, though Democrat, US Senator Henry Jackson from Seattle, Washington, the home of Boeing aircraft.

HJS was founded in London March 11, 2005, and was first based at Cambridge University until it moved to downtown London. The organization included notably Richard Dearlove, who had joined MI6 in 1966 and became the latter's head in 1999. Dearlove collaborated with the CIA to launch the "weapons of mass destruction" lie that led to the Iraq war. He was blamed by the Iraq Inquiry for providing unverified intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He left MI6 and moved to Cambridge University where he was elected Master of Pembroke College in August 2004, shortly before the inception of the HJS.

At least four early HJS supporters were involved in the foundation of the Friends of Israel Initiative: David Trimble, Alan Mendoza, Robert Halfon, and Andrew Roberts.14 Mendoza has been HJS's Executive Director since 2006.15

Partido Popular

The figurehead of the FOII initiative, José María Aznar, was Prime Minister of Spain from 1996 to 2004, and led the Partido Popular (People's Party, PP), the dominant right-wing party in Spain in those years. After that, Aznar worked in the private sector, but remained honorary president of the party until 2016, when he renounced that title.

The PP was a re-foundation of the People's Alliance, a party led by former minister of the dictatorship Manuel Fraga (1922-2012) and founded back in 1976 as an alliance of post-Francoist proto-parties. During the Franco regime, Fraga was Minister of Information and Tourism (1962-1969) as well as Ambassador to the United Kingdom (1973-1975). After Franco's death, he served as Minister of the Interior in 1975, as Second Deputy Prime Minister (1975-1976), and as intermittent President of the People's Alliance (1979-1989). In 1989, with the addition of several lesser Christian democratic parties and the remnants of the Democratic Center Union, he refounded the People's Alliance as the People's Party (PP). Later in the same year, Fraga encouraged the election of José María Aznar as the party's new president. Fraga was then appointed as PP's honorary president.

PP has made headlines not only for its Francoist roots, but also for its vast corruption. In May 2018, the Spanish National Court found that the party profited from the illegal kickbacks-for-contracts scheme known as the Gürtel case. The case confirmed the existence of an illegal accounting and financing structure that ran in parallel with the party's official accounts since the party's foundation in 1989, and it was ruled that the PP helped establish "a genuine and effective system of institutional corruption through the manipulation of central, autonomous and local public procurement."16

From left to right: US president George W. Bush, Israeli Minister Natan Sharanksy, former Prime Minister of Spain, José María Aznar, and Vaclav Havel on June 5, 2007, at a "Conference of Dissidents" in Prague.

Rafael Bardaji

Besides Aznar, FOII also included other key PP members from the start. The only person present on the board of all three FOII branches is Rafael Bardaji, a far-right Spanish political strategist and former national security advisor to the Spanish government. Affiliated to a plethora of right-wing and transatlantic think tanks and endowed with ample business contacts, Bardaji can be considered an éminence grise of Spanish right-wing politics. For decades attached to PP, in 2018, he changed his affiliation to the far-right Vox party.

Bardaji was the founder of the PP-affiliated Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos (GEES) think tank in 1986, which kicked off his career as adviser on defense and security issues. From 1996 to 2002, Bardaji worked as a policy advisor to PP's defense ministers Eduardo Serra Rexach (1996-2000) and Federico Trillo (2000-2004).12 After that, he remained an adviser of Aznar. During the Iraq war, he worked hand in glove with Republicans in Washington. From 2004 to 2016, he was International Policy Director at the Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales (FAES), another think tank strongly tied to PP and presided over by Aznar.

At the time of FOII's foundation, Bardaji held various influential positions. Bardaji was a member of the Strategic Advisory Board of NATO Special Operations Forces Command from 2008 to 2015, and, since 2006, is a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the US Atlantic Council.17 From 2010 to 2011, Bardaji was also a columnist for La Gaceta of the Intereconomia group.17 On his LinkedIn profile, Bardaji states that he was an "assistant" at Georgetown University from 2004 to 2011.17 From 2004 to 2016, he was International Policy Director at the Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales (FAES), a think tank strongly tied to PP and presided over by Aznar. According to Diagonal, "The networking of these institutions [GEES, FAES etc.] allows them to be connected with the main neoconservative think tanks in the world, both in the United States (Project for the New American Century and Middle East Forum) and in Israel itself (Middle East Media Research Institute and Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies). 18

Timeline

2010

On its website, FOII mentions that "Under the leadership of former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar a high level group met in Paris in the middle of 2010 to launch a new project in defense of Israel’s right to exist."2 However, details of such a Paris meeting are unavailable. The earliest mention of the Friends of Israel Initiative is a press release on the FOII website from June 21, 2010:10

Under the leadership of Spain’s former Prime Minister José María Aznar – sponsor of this idea – a group of important personalities has promoted a new project in defense of Israel’s right to exist. Under the name Friends of Israel Initiative, notable people such as Mr. Aznar himself, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate David Trimble, Peru’s former president Alejandro Toledo, Italian philosopher Marcello Pera, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, British historian Andrew Roberts, and others, seek to counter the attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel and its right to live in peace within safe and defensible borders. ... Also participating in the Friends of Israel initiative are ... American theologian George Weigel and American entrepreneur Robert Agostinelli; former Spanish minister Carlos Bustelo ... and Member of the Italian Parliament Fiamma Nirenstein.

On July 19, 2010, a launch event was held at the British House of Commons, hosted by the Henry Jackson Society and Robert Halfon MP. “Speaking in a packed Committee Room 14, scene of some of the most dramatic moments in British parliamentary history, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was joined at the launch by former president of the Italian Senate Marcello Pera, the acclaimed British historian Andrew Roberts and by British author, academic and one time lawyer for Princess Diana, Anthony Julius.”19

US branch

The first instance of the FOII was created in Miami, Florida. There, on September 8, 2010, Rafael Bardají, at that time a PP member, created the non-profit organization Friends of Israel Initiative Inc., providing the address: "Diego de León, 47, Madrid, Spain.”8 ProPublica has a collection of FOII Miami's 990 forms which specify the following board members over the years: Rafael Bardaji (President), Enrique Navarro Gil (Vice President until 2015), Carmen Calero Villalba (Treasurer) and Juan T. O'Naghten (Secretary).7 The latter is the "Special Delegate for Latin America" of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.20

According to the 990 forms, none of the board members have received any salary over the years, although Bardaji specified in 2014 and the following years that he invested up to 30 hours per week in the organization.21 This leaves room to speculate who actually pays for their work.

In 2010, the US FOII branch recorded around $320,000 in donations, with the biggest expense being consultants.22

Board members of the Friends if Israel Initiative Inc. (Miami).

Spanish branch

According to La Marea:8

Sixteen days after the foundation's registration in Florida, on September 24, 2010, this same Madrid address appears as the address of the Spanish foundation Friends of Israel Initiative. According to the BOE, it was made up of four people: Bardají himself, Enrique Navarro Gil (also present at the US foundation, who defines himself on Twitter as "Liberal, writer and Citizen"), Carlos Bustelo (number two on the list of Vox to the Senate for Madrid on 28-A) and Pablo Casado.

All four founding members of the Spanish foundation were at the time PP members. Like Bardaji, Enrique Navarro Gil was "defense adviser and comptroller of the Ministry of Defense," during the Aznar governments.23 Pablo Casado had been PP's vice secretary general of communication from 2015 to 2018, and from July 2018 until April 2022, he was the president of PP. Carlos Bustelo y García del Real was Minister of Industry and Energy between 1977 and 1980 in the Adolfo Suárez government. He was also president of the National Institute of Industry between 1981 and 1982. Formerly affiliated to PP, today he is part of Vox.

UK branch

Finally, on December 7, 2010, a UK branch of FOII was incorporated with Rafael Bardaji, Adam Levin and Alan Mendoza as directors.24 Adam Levin had been a director of the Henry Jackson Society from 2014 to 2019.25

The only person present on the board of all three FOII branches is Bardaji. Besides, Enrique Navarro Gil appeared as Vice President of the American branch from 2010 until 2014; then as Vice President of the Spanish Foundation, and as Guarantor of the UK branch at its foundation. Otherwise there are no overlaps regarding personnel.

Three branches of the Friends of Israel Initiative, located in the United States, Spain and the United Kingdom.

2011

Prominent members of the Friends of Israel Initiative met with President Shimon Peres in July 2011 at the official presidential residency in Jerusalem. The delegation included Aznar, Bolton, Agostinelli, and Trimble. The President held a working meeting with FOII and presented an overview of the on situation in Israel and the region at large.26

Meeting of the Friends of Israel Initiative in Israel in July 2011. From left to right: Lord David Trimble, Former PM Jose Aznar, President Shimon Peres, Former Amb. John Bolton, Robert Agostinelli.

2012

While in the first years of its existence, donations to the US FOII branch amounted to several hundred thousand per year, the situation notably changed in 2012, when the US FOII branch received around 1.5 million dollars.27

2013

In 2013, even more money flew into FOII, when the initiative received almost 3.5 million dollars.21

2014

In 2014, the US FOII branch received almost 2.9 million dollars in 2014. According to La Marea, in 2014 donations to the American FOII branch ended up in Spain, presumably with the Spanish FOII branch:8

That year, the US tax authorities were informed of a single bank transfer as a grant to an entity outside the United States. It amounted to roughly 200,000 dollars and, although the name of the recipient was not specified, it said that "the purpose of the grant (200,000 dollars) was for general support of a Spanish foundation, specifically for payment of stationery, rent, utilities, salaries and collaboration on projects."

In the subsequent years, hundreds of thousands of dollars were wired as "general support of a Spanish foundation" from the US FOII branch.8

2015

In 2015, and outgrowth of FOII emerged, called the High Level Military Group.9 The group was "born in 2015 to assess the conduct of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza," according to a 2017 HLMG report.28 The group includes around 15 high-ranking military men, with the exception of India and Colombia, all from Western countries, in addition to Bardaji and Davis Lewin. Lewin, identified as HLMG's rapporteur, is also Deputy Director and Head of Policy and Research at the Henry Jackson Society.

Members of the High Level Military Group from 2015 through 2022.

Investigations into the provenance of the money revealed that in 2015 and 2016 FOII received one million dollars from the Adelson Family Foundation of the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (1933-2021).8 Adelson was reportedly a major donor to Donald Trump's election campaign.29

2016

According to La Marea:8

Main expenses of the US foundation Friends of Israel Initiative Inc. are intended for 'trips' and 'consultants.' For example, in 2016, $589,815 were spent on travel, while they paid $601,915 to consultants.

It is not specified which companies or people were paid for the trips, consultancies or contracted services, but it can be documented that hundreds of thousands of those millions of dollars collected in donations ended up in Spain.

2017

A 2017 HLMG report made its way to Boris Johnson, as a picture on Twitter of the latter holding it in its hand shows, incidentally standing alongside Bardaji.30

2018

In 2018, Bardaji announced he had ended his longstanding affiliation with the People's Party and had joined the far-right party Vox. Although he was not on any electoral lists and did not hold any public office, as soon as he joined Vox, he was appointed to the National Executive Committee, which directs the party.31 Bardaji has been described as the "brain of Vox" by journalist Miguel Mora,3 and the Italian journalist Steven Forti stated that Bardaji is "the main channel that has put Vox leaders in contact with the American neocon world," including Steve Bannon.32

In April 2018, "Rafael Bardají, a member of Vox’s National Executive Committee, traveled to Washington ... to meet Bannon, as well as other members of the U.S. government, so he claimed," Slate reported.33 In an interview published by La Gaceta De La Iberosfera, the mouthpiece of Vox's think tank Fundación Disenso, he affirmed that he met Steve Bannon "through a mutual friend from the financial world," that he had "the opportunity to visit him on various occasions" and that they even "worked together, hand in hand, in his small and crowded office in the West Wing.”31 Among his interlocutors at the White House, he cites two: Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner and John Bolton, a former senior George W. Bush official and former National Security Adviser under Trump.34

Vox posted a picture of Bannon and Bardaji on social media with the following caption:35

Stephen Bannon, the architect of Trump's victory, fully enters the Vox campaign: work meetings will be held to establish strategies against separatist propaganda outside of Spain and reduce its international support as much as possible.

2019

In 2019, the entanglement of FOII with the arms industry became apparent. In autumn of 2019, Rafael Bardaji joined the board of directors of Explosivos Alaveses, SA (Expal Systems), a weapons and ammunition company.12 Expal Systems was at the time owned by Maxam, a explosives company founded in the 19th century by Albert Nobel. The Rhône Group, founded by FOII supporter Robert Agostinelli, had bought 45% of Maxam explosives in August 2018.13 According to El Confidencial, Expal appointed "Bardají as a director at the proposal of Rhône Capital, a fund led in Spain by José Manuel Vargas, former president of Aena."12 A senior adviser of the Rhône Group is notably FOII supporter John Bolton, who joined the company on October 1, 2019, after having served as Assistant to U.S. President Donald Trump for National Security Affairs from April 2018 until September 2019.11 As of July 2022, Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked Spanish companies to "stop doing business" with Russia and Vladimir Putin, singling out three companies, including the Spanish explosives giant Maxam.36 In November 2022, Expal was bought by the German Rheinmetall.37

2023

As of 2023, both, FOII and HLMG still exist, while, judging from the lack of recent events, the former seems to have slightly toned down its activities.


All recorded members of the High Level Military Group:

  • José María Aznar. He formerly served in the Government of Spain as the National Security Adviser and in leadership positions in the Ministry of Defense.
  • Colonel Vincent Alcazar (United States) served as a fighter pilot in Operations Desert Storm and Southern Watch as well as various other post 9/11 theatres. He subsequently served in strategic roles at the Pentagon, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and at the U.S. embassy, Baghdad, Iraq.
  • Lieutenant General Michael D. Barbero (United States) has served as Director of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) from March 2011 until May 2013. He previously served in Iraq as the Commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command, and the Commander of the NATO Training Mission. Barbero has been awarded with the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, among others honors.
  • Rafael L. Bardají is the Executive Director of the Friends of Israel Initiative and National Security Advisor to Former President, José María Aznar. He formerly served in the Government of Spain as the National Security Adviser and in leadership positions in the Ministry of Defence.
  • General Vincenzo Camporini (Italy) is the former Chief of Defence Staff of Italy. He served as Deputy Chief of Defence General Staff and President of the Italian Centre for High Defence Studies before being appointed Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force and subsequently Chief of Defence General Staff.
  • General Lord Richard Dannatt (United Kingdom) is the former Chief of the General Staff of the British Army. Dannatt has previously served as the Military Assistant to the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and Assistant Chief of the General Staff. He has been honored with the Military Cross, the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service and was appointed as Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Dannatt is member of the House of Lords of the British Parliament.
  • Lieutenant General Kamal Davar (India) served as the first Director General of the Defense Intelligence Agency of India. A former Director-General, Mechanized Forces at Army Headquarters in 2001 he has held a large number of high ranking command posts in the Indian army and served on the Indian Military Training Team in Iraq.
  • Lieutenant General David A. Deptula (United States) was the principal attack planner for the Desert Storm coalition air campaign in 1991, served as Director of the Combined Air Operations Center in Afghanistan and served as the first Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Headquarters Air Force.
  • Colonel Richard Kemp (United Kingdom) was Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan and has served in Iraq, the Balkans, South Asia and Northern Ireland. He has led the international terrorism team at the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee and served as chairman of the strategic intelligence group for COBRA, the UK national crisis management committee.
  • Brigadier General Alain Lamballe (France) served in the General Secretariat for National Defence as head of the Southeast Asia and Europe sections as well as heading the Central Liaison Mission for Assistance to Foreign Forces. He is the former Director of the Department of Security Cooperation of the OSCE Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • General Thomas James Lawson (Canada) is a retired Royal Canadian Air Force general. Lawson wasChief of the Defence Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces from October 2012 to July 2015. He previously served as Deputy Commander of the North American Aerospace Defence Command.
  • Davis Lewin is the Rapporteur of the High Level Military Group. He is the Deputy Director and Head of Policy and Research at The Henry Jackson Society, a London based Foreign and Defence Policy think tank.
  • Major General Andrew James Molan (Australia) served as the Chief of Operations for the Headquarters Multinational Force in Iraq. He is a former Commander of the Australian Defence College and has served as Adviser to the Vice Chief of the Australian Defence Force on Joint Warfighting Lessons and Concepts.
  • General Klaus Dieter Naumann (Germany) is the former Chief of Staff of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces and served as Chairman of the NATO Military Committee from 1996 to 1999.
  • Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper (United States) was Ambassador-at-large in charge of the US Secretary of State’s Office of War Crimes Issues. A former Presidential envoy and adviser to the National Security Council he was previously a war crimes prosecutor for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
  • Colonel Eduardo Ramirez (Colombia) is an Advisor to the Congress of Colombia who served with the Colombian National Police from 1987 until 2013. He was formerly the Chief of Security Staff for President Uribe of Colombia, as well as Chief of Section at the Judicial and Criminal Directory of the National Police.
  • Joseph Raskas is a Research Assistant for The Friends of Israel Initiative and a Fellow at The Public Interest Fellowship.
  • Admiral José María Terán (Spain) serves in the Office of Strategic Assessment of the Minister of Defence of Spain. A former Chief of the Joint Staff and Chief of the Strategic Analysis Group, he has also served as Director for Reorganisation of the Spanish Intelligence Service.
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