For the JC June 2020
Israel’s outgoing ambassador to Britain, Mark Regev, departed for home this weekend with a valedictory message for his controversial successor, Tzipi Hotovely — that as much as he was a diplomat and ambassador to the Court of St James, he was “also the ambassador to the British Jewish community.”
And that, the Australian-born diplomat declared, was “one of the most enjoyable parts of my job”. British Jewry, he said, “punches above its weight”. Nevertheless there was a certain quiet relief that during lockdown he had been spared the relentless dinner circuit that has been a hallmark of charitable fundraising efforts — although Mr Regev made it clear that he felt it was important to attend whenever he could.
Mr Regev, just 60, was already a familiar face in Britain before he took up his post as ambassador at London’s Israel embassy in April 2016. That was due to his previous role as government spokesman and there were times — during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict — when he seemed never to be off British TV screens.
So he was well-known before he arrived, with a slightly fierce “take-no-prisoners” reputation when called on to make Israel’s case. But his has been a lower profile during his four-year tenure — mainly, the spare and elegant envoy was at pains to point out, because there has been far less conflict. He did appear on TV, but had made a decision on his arrival that he would not do anything to undermine the embassy’s official press counsellor.
One of his early challenges came during his first year in London when Britain voted against Israel at the UN Security Council. Using looser than usual diplomatic language, Mr Regev admitted that Israel had been “very disappointed — we had very difficult conversations at that time with the British”.
It was not the only point of difference between the two countries. “When the Americans moved their embassy to Jerusalem, Britain made a statement that they would not be moving theirs — and it’s clear that they are not planning to do so.” Mr Regev, sounding slightly fractious, declared that this stance by the British was “almost discrimination. I believe that the British embassy, like all embassies, should be in our nation’s capital. There is a norm in international behaviour that every nation has the right to choose its capital city, and the international community respects that. We see it most often in countries which have changed their capital — Turkey changed from Istanbul to Ankara, China from Nanjing to Beijing… when Germany reunited and moved the capital to Berlin, no-one left their embassy in Bonn. Only with Israel is this sovereign right denied us.”
But these were clouds compared with the high points of his service, which the ambassador was keen to highlight. As with every Israeli envoy, Mr Regev has enjoyed strong and ever increasing economic ties between the two countries, to the point where Britain and China vie to be Israel’s second biggest trading partner after the US.
Britain had a real interest in Israeli hi-tech and start-ups, the ambassador said. But he put the comparatively recent close co-operation between Israeli and British armed services in his top three of high points during his four years as ambassador.
At the end of 2019 a squad of Israeli Air Force pilots and their crews came to Britain for the “Cobra Warrior” training exercise with the RAF. Based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, the Israelis established a mini-base complete with a kosher kitchen — a caterer from Manchester — for the duration of the event.
Mr Regev had visited and had asked both sets of pilots what they thought about their opposite numbers. With some glee, he reported that each group had said: “We’re good — but when we train with them, we’re better”. He added that excellent behind-the-scenes defence and security co-operation continued to protect and benefit both countries.
His second highlight was the 2018 visit of Prince William to Israel, the first such visit by a senior British royal, followed by Prince Charles’s arrival in Israel in January this year to help mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
The Prince William visit “broke new ground”, the ambassador said, and he spoke warmly of the royal visitor as “the perfect guest” who had been treated by Israelis, and responded to them, “like a rock star”. Mr Regev believed the visit, while symbolic, had given new strength to the bilateral partnership between Britain and Israel.
And top of the diplomatic hit parade? the celebration of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in November 2017. “We have to remember what we were going through the month before it happened,” Mr Regev said. “There was a Palestinian campaign to call on Her Majesty’s government to apologise for Balfour, and their friends in Parliament were expressing a similar message. There was even a public declaration from a government representative saying Britain would not apologise for Balfour, but would not celebrate it either”.
In the end — and Mr Regev expressed appreciation to former Prime Minister Theresa May and then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson — “we had a wonderful celebration in London.” Their contribution was especially appreciated, he said, because there were those in Whitehall who said nothing should be done to mark the anniversary.
Briskly sweeping aside the issue of annexation — “ we don’t use that word when we are talking about land to which we have a legal right — Mr Regev also dismissed the subject of Jeremy Corbyn, saying merely that he hoped that the incoming Labour leadership would return to the traditional support of Israel in the footsteps of previous premiers Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown.
He reserved his strongest praise for the British Jewish community, which he described as “an example to the rest of the diaspora”, punching above its weight and setting an example to other communities with innovative work and organisations such as Jewish Care, the CST, its cross-denominational schools and synagogues.
Mr Regev was not ready to reveal his new post in Israel but he made it clear that he will retain the fondest of memories of his four years in the UK.