By Geoffrey Paul
June 29, 2009
For more than sixty years, Jewish and Gentile supporters of Israel organised in the Anglo-Israel Association have been working away quietly in the parliamentary, academic and educational fields to create a better understanding of Israel in the UK and vice versa. On a shoestring budget and relying on a headquarters' staff of one, director Ruth Saunders, backed up by volunteers, the AIA has created a reputation for preferring fact to propaganda and private discussion to public argument. This is what probably helped it to pull off a major coup last week when, in the palatial Locarno Suite in the Foreign Office, former ambassadors of Israel to the Court of St James's and British ambassadors to Israel sat down together for a day-long "Ambassadors' Roundtable" sponsored by the Association.
The more than 10 hours' of discussions were conducted under "Chatham House" rules which means participants are free to use information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed. Having said which, it is no secret that, the ambassadors apart, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Professors Martin Gilbert and Shlomo Avineri took a prominent part in the proceedings which were not without their heat - hardly surprising since the theme for the roundtable was "to address concerns about signs of mounting anti-Israeli sentiment in the UK."
Reports circulating later suggested that a leading Jewish Tory parliamentarian set a snarling cat among the pigeons with a blistering attack on Israeli policies and her foreign minister. But for the rest things seem to have been much more measured. The kind of diplomatic approach adopted by participants was reflected in a brochure produced for the occasion in which former envoys in either country spoke for publication to Katy Ostro. Here, the ambassadors looked back, mainly with warmth, on their time in Britain and Israel. Sir Patrick Moberly (1981-1984} is still in touch with Israeli friends. What he admired most about Israelis was "their constant liveliness, their energy and determination It is these warm-hearted people that make Israel the country it is."
Perhaps the warmest of all is Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles (2001-2003) who went on from Israel to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia and then Afghanistan and who is now the Foreign Secretary's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a hot seat if ever there was one. Cowper-Coles told Katy Ostro: "Israel is the most wonderful country on earth. If it could attain peace with the wider region this would be an invaluable asset in every sense. I believe that one of the tragedies for the region is that many Arabs have happy memories of Jewish populations in their midst, such as in Baghdad and Cairo, and that the separation of their communities has distanced the many good things that were held in common. For Israel to survive, this common destiny between Arabs and Jews must be embraced."