Interview: Daniel Taub

Israel's new ambassador to the UK is not a career diplomat, not even Israeli-born, but he's well suited to the job.

By Jenni Frazer, September 22, 2011
A London-born lawyer who’s a father of six and writes soaps: Taub is a different kind of envoy

A London-born lawyer who’s a father of six and writes soaps: Taub is a different kind of envoy

Israel's last ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, was very fond of singing. His successor, Daniel Taub, has an equally creative side, albeit even more unexpected for a diplomat - he has written a soap opera.

HaHatzer (The Rebbe's Court), for which Ambassador Taub wrote an impressive 26 episodes (although he jokes that the writing luckily coincided with a Foreign Ministry strike), was the story of the court of a Chasidic rebbe. He wrote it after a throwaway remark to friends that it would be good if a newly-opening TV station could reflect different aspects of Israeli society, particularly the Charedi and the secular. Certainly there was an appetite for learning about each other on both sides of the religious divide - the programme became hugely popular and there were apparently samizdat versions floating around on DVD in the strictly Orthodox community.

It is perhaps not too much of a jump to wonder if any Israeli official might feel they were characters in a giant Middle East soap opera, with a sprawling plot, outbreaks of violence, and no apparent end in sight.

But Ambassador Taub is better placed than most to unravel the complexities of the region. A cool, Oxford-educated lawyer, the 49-year-old, Finchley-born diplomat has spent much of the past 25 years on the inside track of Israel's negotiations with its neighbours. He returns to the UK fresh from having been the Foreign Ministry's deputy legal counsel, which has meant that at every stage - and, most importantly, during the end game of negotiations - he was in the room.

"I was involved in the preparations for the 1991 Madrid Conference, and then I was involved in the very early rounds of negotiations with the Palestinians in '93 and '94. We signed a series of agreements with the Palestinians in the 1990s and I was involved in almost all of those. I was the head of the negotiating team in a couple of tracks of negotiations - most recently in the culture of peace negotiation in the Annapolis process. I've been involved in other tracks - I was very involved in negotiations with Syria in January 2000. I had very little to do with our negotiations with Jordan or Egypt, which probably makes me the world expert in failed negotiations… but we must still keep going."

None of the Syrians would shake the Israelis' hands - 'obviously under instructions'

The Syrian talks were not the happiest of experiences - none of the Syrians would shake the hands of the Israelis, "obviously under instructions".

Even the most experienced negotiator has to start somewhere, and Ambassador Taub is open about the impact on Israelis and Palestinians alike when the talks first began. "The shock of the new wasn't just on the outside, it was on the inside as well. And one of the things that you had to learn fairly early on was that the other side of the table wasn't monolithic. There were different groups represented there. Even today, I think the challenge for those involved in Israeli and Palestinian talks is to identify, on the other side of the table, who are the potential deal-makers, and to work out how we strengthen them, to increase the chances that we are going to reach an agreement."

Some of the factions in the first talks could be broken down as follows: local Palestinians; the exiled leadership who had flown back from Tunis; and "invariably, a couple of diaspora Palestinian academics from Ivy League universities, who came in to advise the Palestinian delegations. One of the things that was striking was that quite often the hardest people to reach a deal with were the diaspora academics. Even though they sounded the most Western, they were the ones most invested in ideals and not so focused on the practicalities."

Intriguingly, the ambassador is not ready to say that he himself brought a diaspora perspective to negotiations - although he reveals that at the highest level, when everything is close to being signed, all the agreements are in English. "I think the main reason is that if you reach agreement you want to be able to crystallise it in drafting language as soon as possible, and not leave problems for further down the road. One of the earliest decisions was that there would be lawyers present in the negotiating room, because the fear was that otherwise we would end up negotiating everything three times - the politicians would negotiate, or the diplomats, and then the lawyers would effectively have to re-negotiate, then it would come back and the diplomats would say, no, that's not really what we meant. "

What does the ambassador think makes for a particularly difficult negotiation? "The more a negotiation takes place in the public eye, the more difficult it becomes. You have a tension between the public and the private messages, and sometimes people on either side have the need to go out of the room and convince their constituencies for political or other reasons, that they are driving a hard bargain.

"Often there is a tremendous amount of scrutiny on the elements of an agreement before you even have one - and if you need to prove that you are improving your position all along the way, it creates a magnifying glass that makes it difficult to get to a final agreement."

But there are some better elements to negotiating, the ambassador notes. One of his most recent tasks was heading the Israeli delegation for the culture of peace talks with the Palestinians. Under discussions were items such as incitement in school textbooks, or what needed to be done "to enable the culture of peace to take root. My Palestinian counterpart and I decided to travel to Ireland to see whether there were lessons that we could learn from their experience. One of the most inspiring things was to see how tough it was, not just to make peace, but to keep peace alive. It made things seem real, in a way which we hadn't thought about before."

Regionally, Ambassador Taub notes, the events of the Arab Spring herald a "complicated period. On the one hand, as Israelis, we of course are instinctively supportive of the cause of the peoples of the region. They are claiming basic rights that every Israeli takes for granted. On the other hand, we can't help but be aware, when we see incidents like in Egypt [the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo], how quickly new freedoms can descend into old hatreds."

The ambassador, who, usefully, was involved in the Oxford Union when William Hague, now Foreign Secretary, was president, made aliyah in 1989. He is an almost copperplate ideal Anglo-Jew - he attended Menorah Primary School and then Haberdashers', followed by a glittering Oxford and then Harvard career. He wears a kippah at work and would describe himself as modern Orthodox. While at Oxford, incidentally, he wrote and directed a musical for the J-Soc called The Fall and Rise of Christopher Everyman, the sad story of a Jewish boy who abandons his faith after his barmitzvah - surely a cautionary tale.

Once he got to Israel, he became a specialist on two fronts - intellectual property and international law. "I was working in those fields when the possibility of the Madrid Conference came along. I thought it was an unbelievable opportunity." So he jumped and the Foreign Ministry was happy to have him on board, not least because his later specialisms included counter-terrorism and the laws of war. It was in this capacity that he was Israel's representative on the Palmer Commission, which last month issued its report on the Gaza flotilla affair, leading to the near total breakdown of Israel's relations with Turkey. Broadly speaking, he is satisfied with the conclusions of the report, but, he says, it is indicative of a common theme.

"Because of the kind of adversaries we face, Israel is repeatedly presented with new and complex challenges which usually involve a combination of civilians and hostile forces, and these are deliberately developed in order to create dilemmas for a democracy. It takes a while to figure out the most effective and humane way to deal with them. But since the flotilla attack, subsequent attempts [to break Israel's naval blockade] have been effectively dealt with. Generally, we are in a learning process here. It's not one we would like to be a part of."

Are Israel-Turkey relations broken irretrievably? "The Turkish-Israel relationship is important to us, and we want to repair it. But it seems that it's not regarded as quite so important on the Turkish side. And it's worth remembering that the friction in that relationship started long before the flotilla incident. We had the Turkish leader walking out on our president in Davos, inviting Hamas leaders to visit, increasing the rhetoric against Israel extremely dramatically, cancelling long-fixed joint exercises with Israel... we do watch with concern a Turkish leader who seems to think that expressing hostility to Israel is a way of bolstering his standing in the region."

As only the second native-born Briton to serve as Israel's ambassador to the UK - the first was Yehuda Avner - he brings a different set of sensibilities to the table in putting Israel's case to the British government. He has his own upbringing to give him a perspective on the Jewish community, and he hopes to encourage even greater numbers of Britons to visit Israel, believing passionately that there is no substitute for seeing for oneself.

Like his British opposite number, Matthew Gould in Tel Aviv, Ambassador Taub is a firm supporter of all manner of bilateral exchange. And he is healthily disparaging about the escalation of anti-Israel rhetoric, particularly when applied to cultural events, such as the disruption of the Israel Philharmonic at the Proms.

"I think that the impression created by these campaigns is disproportionate to the core of people that are involved. I don't think it's helpful to define people who are anti-Israel as antisemites. That places the bar too low. I don't want to create a situation where the only thing a person has to do is to prove that they are not an antisemite, and then everything else they do is okay. If somebody has double standards for Israel, we should hold them to account because of that."

To his own quiet amusement, the ambassador reveals that three of his own children (he and his wife Zahava have six) have already been to the UK and Australia as youth envoys. "So they were ambassadors before me." He may be comparing notes this Rosh Hashanah.

Last updated: 1:28pm, November 28 2011