By Jenni Frazer for Jewish News April 2016
In almost his first response to a Jewish News question, the relaxed and friendly British ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, mentions his partner, Aldo Henriquez.
It is a sign of how comfortable he is that the ambassador, who this week marked exactly nine months since presenting his diplomatic credentials to President Reuven Rivlin, has no hesitation in referring to his relationship.
Israel has provided him with a unique opportunity to serve his country abroad with no concerns about his personal life — and he talks enthusiastically about how much he and his partner are enjoying living and working in the country.
Our meeting takes place “nine months to the day” since the 50-year-old ambassador took up his post in Tel Aviv and it has, he says, been a hectic time. He was back briefly in the UK to spearhead the BIRAX conference on regenerative medicine, the first time the event has been held in Britain.
As a diplomat – he joined the foreign service in 1994 – the ambassador had already visited Israel more than 20 times. “But I’d pretty much always only seen the inside of government offices. Anyone visiting Israel is struck by the energy, the creativity, the diversity.
“It’s a fantastically high-energy place: for both my partner and myself, we’re enjoying getting to know Tel Aviv, getting to know the country better. We like the liveliness of the cultural scene, how much is happening. We live very well in Tel Aviv. We enjoy the food, we enjoy getting out. It’s a beautiful country. The nine months have flown by. One of the great things about this job is that it gives you access to amazing people and incredible places.”
A former private secretary to Tony Blair, Quarrey radiates confidence in the relationship between Britain and Israel. He believes the “understandable” concern about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has overshadowed many of the really positive links between the two countries, and says that sometimes that message is “clouded” by boycott anxieties.
“The reality is that there has never been a better time for co-operation between Britain and Israel, whether in technology, science or trade. The people who are involved in it know what great stuff is going on, and, particularly in the science field, it’s not just a benefit between our two countries, but there is a global benefit, too. There is genuine, world-class research going on in areas such as diabetes, Parkinson’s – and that’s of benefit to the whole world.”
The ambassador offers reassurance for those concerned about the impact of boycotts on relations between Britain and Israel.
“Practically speaking, trade is at a record level; we recently signed the biggest ever UK export deal, investment is also at a record level between the two countries, with more Israeli companies either setting up or expanding their operation in the UK.
In the tech area, that has been a huge success in the last five years. A recent survey showed that Israeli executives saw the UK as one of the top three international destinations for tech co-operation. So that’s the reality I see – co-operation between the two countries has never been better.”
Acknowledging that not everything in the British-Israel garden is rosy, Quarrey indicates subtly that there have been many backdoor conversations about the Iran nuclear deal, signed just 48 hours after he arrived in Tel Aviv. He has, plainly, spent many hours trying to persuade Israeli politicians of the benefits of the deal with Iran – so it is an opportunity to ask about Prince Charles’ forthcoming visit, and whether a possible Israel visit from a senior royal might be on the cards.
Unsurprisingly, the ambassador refuses to discuss the plans of the royal household and will not be drawn on the prince’s travel itinerary. But, perhaps more surprisingly, he steps delicately over what plans might be in place to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in 2017, other than to say that Prime Minister David Cameron had made it clear in a meeting with the Jewish Leadership Council that Britain would “want to mark that centenary – but it’s early days”.
We are on less rocky ground – almost literally – when discussing what a busy British ambassador might do on his day off. Quarrey and Henriquez spend a lot of time getting to know the country, and he tells me of a recent visit to the Mitzpe Ramon crater, although admits cheerfully that their activity is limited to “the strolling end of walking rather than hiking”.
But what really sets this ambassador alight is Israel’s lively cultural scene and the opportunity both to bring British artists, actors and musicians to Israel, and to see Israeli events, particularly theatre and music.
“We were very lucky to have the Globe Theatre company perform its Hamlet at the Cameri in Tel Aviv, there was an amazing reaction in Israel to that. We were at the Cameri later that week to see West Side Story, and we’re doing an event in May at the Residence with the Cameri – they’ve got a fantastic new project to take Shakespeare around the country.”
Henriquez is heavily involved in the arts and culture side of life in Israel. Formerly with the UN, he now works with the British Council in Israel and with an Israeli theatre company, as well as devoting two days a week to studying Hebrew at an ulpan.
His own Hebrew, the ambassador confesses, is not as good as it might be – “particularly in Tel Aviv, where if you stumble, the person you’re talking to immediately goes into English. But we are both taking lessons and I do try to say a few words at the beginning of meetings.”
Despite working in the Middle East department of the Foreign Office, Quarrey does not speak Arabic, although he knows Shona from his posting in Zimbabwe. And it is with a huge grin that the ambassador confides that he had bonded with his hosts on a recent visit to Bnei Brak, after he revealed that his mother had been brought up in north London and had attended a school where a third of the pupils were Jewish. “My grandparents are buried in Stoke Newington. Yes, we were talking N16!”
If there is one legacy that David Quarrey hopes to leave from his time in Israel, it will be an upgrading of the cultural links between the two countries, while building on the existing tech and science links. He admitted that he was “pretty excited” about the forthcoming visit of Dame Helen Mirren – she is due to present the Genesis Prize – and that he has a long list in his head of other artists he would like to invite.
The ambassador is clearly having a wonderful time in Israel. If he could, however, bring one area of British improvement to his new surroundings it would be to “driving”, he says. ”That’s when it feels most like the Middle East!”