As the Israeli Prime Minister’s official spokesman, Mark Regev spends a lot of time being interviewed on television and radio. However, while he has no problem with his highly visible role, he likes it best when no one is interested in talking to him.
It is not that Regev is shy or reticent to promote Israel’s position. It is simply that when the news networks are clamouring to talk to him, it invariably means that something has gone badly wrong.
Regev, whose deep, Australian-accented voice will be instantly familiar to Israel watchers, recalls a conversation with his brother in Australia: “He commented that he hadn’t seen me on television for a while. I said that was actually a positive sign. Usually when I’m out there talking on TV, something has happened which is bad. For example, during the Lebanon War in 2006 I was on TV the whole time. That’s not always the case of course — sometimes people are interested in a developments in the peace process or something that’s going on, but usually when you see me, it’s bad news.”
It is a measure of the Middle East climate that, despite missiles from the Gaza Strip raining down on the southern town of Sderot, a new President about to enter the White House and uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Regev classes this as a relatively quiet time for Israel.
However, serenity is not usually on his schedule. “Even on a normal day we have more than 400 foreign journalists stationed in Israel. When something extraordinary happens this total can double or triple overnight. I want all of them to know that Regev is available. Most, if not all, of them have my cell phone number. They can ring me whenever they want. My job is to make sure they always have a contact with the Israeli government.”
But Regev has not always been a serious, hard-nosed advocate with a smoking mobile. For several years after he arrived in Israel as a 22-year-old in 1982, he was an idealistic kibbutznik, known as Cyril to his friends, who enjoyed a quiet life as a teacher. “I was a Habonim boy. I wanted to live on a kibbutz. I wanted to drain the swamps. As the son of a Holocaust survivor I was always a very strong Zionist. I chose to come and live here. When you look back at and analyse what has happened to me since then, much of it is accidental. I spent a year unsuccessfully doing a doctorate at Tel Aviv University. I never finished it. Had I been a better academic I might never have joined the foreign service. Had my wife been in love with the kibbutz we might never have left and I might still been teaching at high school.”
However, once Regev made the decision to join the diplomatic corps, he rose quickly — serving at the embassies in Beijing, Hong Kong and Washington before being appointed the Foreign Ministry spokesman and now the Prime Minister’s spokesman. Presenting Israel’s position abroad is a vital function, he says. “There has been a feeling over the years that Israel has to be more successful in projecting its image and in having its case stated publicly. For most Israelis, English is a second tongue, so the idea is to have a professional who can present the positions of the government in an effective way to the foreign media.”
The word “professional” is one that Regev is very fond of. “Being a professional spokesman is like being a professional lawyer, or a doctor or a teacher. You have a code. You can always start a sentence by saying, ‘the Prime Minister believes that…’ and you can distance yourself slightly that way. For me, though, this is not a problem. If I didn’t have faith in my client — and ultimately my client is the state of Israel — then I couldn’t do my job. I’ve worked under governments of different colours, from Ehud Barak to Ariel Sharon. I see my job as trying to give the best professional advice inside government meetings and then trying to articulate decisions to an international audience.”
Although Regev, on a flying visit to London, is not a policy maker, his comments carry the authority of coming from the very top. He is happy to be expansive on the problems and the opportunities available to Israel.
The peace process, he feels is in a somewhat schizophrenic phase. A year on from the Annapolis peace conference, he is excited about the possibilities for co-operation with the Palestinian authority under the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas. Indeed he hints that an historic agreement could be just around the corner.
“Some people have been critical of the Annapolis process. But the outsiders are more critical of what went on there than are the insiders who were part of it. Ask the Israelis, the Palestinians and the international actors who took part — people like Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair — and they will all tell you that in the past year there has been significant progress.
“For example on security — for years, Palestinian society was plagued by lawlessness. It was part of the Arafat legacy. He built a dysfunctional society deliberately to suit his own purposes. However, in the past year we have seen Palestinian forces enter Jenin to create more order. The same has happened in towns like Kalkilya, Tulkarm and most recently in Hebron. Now we have a situation where the Israeli army can play a much less intrusive role.
“That’s not to say that we have solved all of the problems but there has been progress on all the objective benchmarks. Economically, the markets in Ramallah are full, salaries are being paid, unemployment is down. There will be more tourists in Bethlehem over Christmas than for many years. The nation-building which is happening on the Palestinian side is ultimately in Israel’s interest as well.
“We have made remarkable progress in negotiations to the point that Prime Minister Olmert believes that an agreement might be there for the taking.”
However, when the subject turns to Gaza, Regev’s upbeat tone disappears. “Gaza — it’s not looking good there. I was in Sederot with the Prime Minister last week. There is a whole generation of kids there who have known nothing except sirens and bomb shelters.
“No government could tolerate this. The people of Southern Israel and the innocent civilian population of Gaza are suffering due to the extremism and nihilistic agenda of Hamas.”
Although Regev remains resolutely on-message, one gets the impression that he is speaking from the heart. “You know, I’m completely sympathetic with the Palestinians. There’s this movement which sends boats into Gaza — the Free Gaza movement. I was asked recently what I thought about it. I said that most people in the world are supportive of the concept of freeing Gaza. Surely the people deserve more than this extremist Taliban-type regime that’s running the country. People point the finger at Israel but the question is why are people suffering in Gaza? It’s not because Israel wanted it that way — far from it. When we pulled out it was to achieve better relations. But until Hamas reforms it cannot be a legitimate partner for dialogue.”
Regev is painfully aware, however, that while Israel boasts representative government, a pluralistic society and affords foreign correspondents full access to every branch of government, it is Israel which is being accused of being the rogue state in the area. “Different journalists will always come to different decisions over whether we are doing the right or the wrong things. What is beyond argument is the fact that foreign correspondents in Israel have a much harder time in other countries — this is a state which respects the freedom of the press.”
He is sometimes frustrated by the Arabic media. Although he feels that networks such as Al Jazeera have been “revolutionary” in an Arab world where, until relatively recently, the media was still in the Soviet Pravda era, it does have an agenda. “I’ll give you an example. I got a phone call from the Al Jazeera office in Jerusalem about an allegation by the Hamas Minister of Health in Gaza accusing Israel of using illegal poison gases. My response was that no one took the claim seriously — not even the United Nations, and if the UN says it’s not true it’s probably not true. Al Jazeera broadcast what I had to say but they put my face in the corner of the screen superimposed over children lying in hospital beds. It was clear what their message was.”
There is something in the cogency of Regev’s arguments and the power of his delivery that has reminded some commentators of one Israel’s greatest ever advocates, Abba Eban — a diplomat and politician who, like Regev, was a native English speaker born in the New World.
While flattered, Regev dismisses the comparison. “Unfortunately I can speak only two languages; he could speak 12. He was a scholar of classical literature and philosophy. Outside of my world of political science, I’m not sure I am much of an expert on anything.”
However there is one other thing he definitely has in common with Eban. Both chose to Hebraicise their names — Eban’s first name was originally Aubrey, while Regev’s family surname was Freiberg. “I had a German name which bothered me at the time. It didn’t seem right. In retrospect I don’t know whether I made the right decision in changing my name, but you have to live with the decisions you make.”
So did the change cause family difficulties?
Regev displays a half smile for the first time in the interview. “Yes,” he says, choosing his words with the skill of the professional diplomat: “I guess you could say that.”
Born: 1960, Melbourne, Australia
Early life: Brought up by parents Martin and Freda Freiberg, he studied Political Science and History at Melbourne University before making aliyah in 1982. He spent seven years on Kibbutz Tel Katzir.
Career: Joined the civil service in 1990. Served at the embassies in Hong Kong and Beijing before becoming spokesman at the US embassy. Was at the Foreign Ministry before being appointed the Prime Minister’s spokesman.