Interview: Mark Regev

Prime Minister Netanyahu's spokesman reveals his key tactic in dealing with a hostile British media - good old-fashioned courtesy

By Jeremy Josephs, May 5, 2011
Mark Regev says Israel “has nothing to fear” from democratic Arab neighbours

Mark Regev says Israel “has nothing to fear” from democratic Arab neighbours

For a man who has spent over two decades working within the world of diplomacy and mastering the art of providing carefully crafted, nuanced responses on behalf of the government of Israel, Mark Regev could hardly be more blunt.

Asked if he thought that the current upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa would mean Israel would be obliged to increase massively its defence expenditure during the years ahead, his reply is: "Yes - absolutely."

The Prime Minister's official spokesman (the 51-year-old Australian-born Israeli began working with Ehud Olmert in 2007 and was asked to stay on by Binyamin Netanyahu) is anxious to expand on why military spending will have to rise. His explanation is dominated by one word - Iran.

"Iran is no Tunisia or Egypt where the armies refused to butcher their own people. No, in Iran the leadership has had no qualms about butchering demonstrators. Of course, the ultimate hypocrisy is the Iranian leadership supporting uprisings abroad while simultaneously suppressing their own people at home.

"But the whole region is in turmoil. Ultimately it's very positive - Israel has nothing to fear and everything to gain from real democratic neighbours. But which way will it go? Will it be like Europe in 1989 with the collapse of communism or more like Iran 10 years earlier, when the Shah was thrown out and the extremists took over? Will it be 'one man, one vote and one election', as has happened elsewhere? No one can be sure. Prime Minister Netanyahu believes that if Iran remains immune from these regional tendencies then they will be in a position to try to exploit the currently instability. But if the winds of change reach Iran - well, then that clearly is a very different situation. Either way it is the duty of the Prime Minister to be prepared for any possible outcome. Which is why we shall be increasing our military expenditure. Please do excuse me if that was a rather long answer to your question."

It is Regev's politeness - he is full of "Sir" and "I beg to disagree" - and disarming Aussie accent that has helped the Israeli government's spin-doctor-in-chief emerge victorious from encounters with seasoned British interrogators such as John Humphrys and Jon Snow - even Newsnight's attack dog, Jeremy Paxman.

"This is not something I put on for the media," Regev insists. "It's how I am anyway. But from a utilitarian point of view you get much more bang for your buck, as it were, by being courteous, and people respect you more for it. To tell you the truth, though, I really enjoy those more combative interviews - they are far more stimulating. I am also keenly aware that the British media - be it Sky or the BBC - is seen all around the world. There are widespread criticisms about whether or not Israel gets a fair shout. Much of this is justified. But my job is to work with the media as it is, not how I wish it might be."

I really enjoy those combative interviews - they're far more stimulating

Regev was born to Freda and Martin Freiberg in Melbourne in 1960. He cut his political, and Zionist, teeth within the Habonim youth movement and became active in the Melbourne University Jewish Students Society before making aliyah in 1982 when he started work at Kibbutz Tel Katzir and taking on the name of his adoptive kibbutz parents in the process. "I was only 21 at the time and I didn't want to have a German-sounding name. Everyone changed their names then - but with hindsight it's something I probably wish I had not done," he says.

It might be over 25 years later but Regev's fervour for Israel has not diminished. Which is why, no doubt, he is so keen to tackle the twin issues of the demonisation and delegitimisation of the country.

"When you name public squares and football stadiums after terrorist killers - and I am talking here about the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, not Hamas in Gaza - you are clearly encouraging a culture of hatred and the glorification of violence. That here are people you should emulate, that here are your role-models. The Prime Minister has been very clear about this - you can't talk about peace on the one hand and then have your school textbooks demonising Jews on the other.

"Of course, Arafat was the master of such double-talk but believe me when I tell you it has not gone away. There was a piece on the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Information website a short while ago saying that Jews have no historic connection to the Western Wall, that it's all a Zionist myth. Of course, you can see where that argument is going. To which I say, stop this double-talk and put your energies instead in preparing your people for co-existence and reconciliation."

Regev might well be right in his assertion that we have to accept the media as it is, warts and all. But it should surely not preclude Israel from getting its own message across more effectively - to be less reactive and more proactive.

"We are looking at whether or not we might be able to broadcast our daily half-hour English news reports currently prepared by the IBA (Israel Broadcasting Authority). But there are funding and other issues. We are also anxious to get our message across in Arabic. Things are happening on these fronts - and the Prime Minister is keenly aware of these issues," he says.

You cannot help but feel that Regev is a little reluctant to reveal too much of his own background. But slowly more details begin to emerge. His father was born in Germany in 1931 and managed to survive by going into hiding for the entire duration of the war - only being liberated by Patten's army in 1945. But Regev's father steadfastly avoided speaking about his wartime experiences and the painful subject was virtually not mentioned at home.

"And yet there it was - in the background all the time. How could it be otherwise?"

Regev's father recently celebrated his 80th birthday in Melbourne. This encouraged him to delve into the past. He got out an old photograph of some 40 children from his local Jewish school in Germany. "You see these kids," he told his son, "only three of us survived."

"So when I came to Israel and went into the army," Regev concludes, "you can well imagine that the idea that Jews should be strong and defend themselves was immediately attractive to me."

Last updated: 3:37pm, May 5 2011