Interview: Matthew Gould, ambassador to Israel

Britain’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel explains how he will approach his new role

By Jenni Frazer, September 7, 2010
Looking for a broad rapport with Israel: Ambassador Gould

Looking for a broad rapport with Israel: Ambassador Gould

Tucked away in an achingly fashionable area of east London, overlooking the river, there is a boldly painted front door. Though neighbours include TV presenter Graham Norton and actress Helen Mirren, this front door sports a discreet mezuzah, and behind it there is a great deal of packing going on.

Matthew Gould, Britain's new ambassador to Israel, is off to Tel Aviv with his wife Celia just after Rosh Hashanah. And he is the first Jewish diplomat to take up such a post.

If his actions in the UK since the news of his posting last December are anything to go by, then Israel is in for a shock - of the best kind.

As a Foreign Office high-flyer, Gould hits the ground running: he has made a point of meeting the Jewish community, visiting something like 40 different synagogues in London, Manchester, and Leeds, right across the religious spectrum, setting out his stall with a quiet and self-deprecating humour.

"I wanted to do the meetings because the Jewish community in the UK is a large group of patriotic Brits who care deeply about Israel, its future, security and wellbeing. So it was entirely appropriate that as the person who is going out to be the guardian of that relationship, I should go and explain my plans and approach to them.

"But because I come from the Jewish community, I felt that it was even more important that I showed myself, that they got a sense of where I was coming from. I said in every synagogue that I went to that they needed to know that I am and always will be a friend of Israel. But I am going out there as the British ambassador, and going to promote British policies."

Generally speaking, he says, he was welcomed - with more or less the same anxieties being voiced about Israel's security in every synagogue he went to. Gould also recognised "a measure of pride that one of our own is going to do this job".

He has had similar public meetings in the Muslim community. "I thought it was important to recognise that there are other people in the UK who have a deep-rooted interest in the region. I have to say I was received very warmly. I was absolutely explicit about being Jewish. I gave the same message about what I was going out to Israel to do."

Just 38 and already clutching an MBE - awarded after he had helped Tony Blair's first foreign secretary, Robin Cook, stage the Nazi gold conference in London in 1997 - Gould joined the Foreign Office in 1993. He has had three foreign postings: Manila, where he was the
British Embassy's second secretary; Islamabad; and Tehran, where he served as deputy head of mission.

In Iran, he made a point of attending synagogue; for him, it was both a means of expressing support for Jews there and putting down a marker to the Iranian government that there was a watching brief on how it treated its minorities.

Gould also spent a critical two years as foreign and security policy counsellor in Washington. After a brief stint as private secretary for foreign affairs to departing Prime Minister, Tony Blair, he began working with David Miliband in July 2007. So he is well placed to take up his post in Tel Aviv as the long-awaited direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians get under way.

"For me," says Gould, "the most important thing is to go and listen, to find out what the Israeli public is thinking, and to come to my own view as to how I should best advise the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary how they should calibrate British policy towards Israel.

"I talked this over with William Hague when I paid my farewell call to him. He was very clear that the single most important thing I can do is to get under the skin of the country. That means emphatically talking to everyone, not just those who agree with British policy; left and right, secular and Charedi, settlers and Israeli Arabs."

But Gould is also clear that he does not want to spend his entire time in Israel focused only on the peace process. "One of the people I have spoken to about being Jewish and working in the Middle East is [the New York Times writer] Tom Friedman. He told me, when I was thinking of applying for the job: 'If you get it, always remember you are covering a country, not a conflict.'

I think that's really good advice; I think the UK's relationship with Israel will be much the stronger for it being wider, and not simply being a dialogue about what we do in the peace process."

So Gould has identified two areas that he wants to promote: scientific collaboration between Britain and Israel, and economic links in the high-tech field. "Israel has the most high-tech-advanced economy in the world and it is massively in Britain's interests to be a partner in that.

Any British ambassador being posted to a country with a scientific and high-tech base like Israel's would be crazy not to focus on promotion of these areas." And any improvement, thinks Gould, "will send out a very positive message about how the two countries see each other."

He is well aware of the somewhat rocky relationship that has existed between the two countries in the months since his appointment was announced. But Gould honestly believes that much of the shouting on the sidelines - the escalating calls for cultural and academic boycotts of Israel, for example - will fall away if the peace process does get fully under way. It is an optimistic view but one that he regards as a challenge, "to talk to people and help put things in perspective".

More packing calls, and the new ambassador tells me in Hebrew that he and his wife are really looking forward to their posting.

I am drinking the tea he has made for me in a mug bearing the emblem, "Camp David Retreat." Is it genuine? "Oh, yes. I got it when Gordon Brown first called on [George W] Bush." Gould, plainly, is a man who is connected and knows how to network. We must wish him luck.

Last updated: 12:20pm, September 17 2010