Am I tolerated? No, I'm embraced, says UK's Israel envoy

The British Ambassador to Israel reveals how he and his partner have been received since their arrival just over a year ago

November 24, 2016 23:11

We recently completed our first year in Israel. It went by in a flash.

It was a big year. We signed the UK's biggest-ever export deal to Israel - Rolls Royce engines for El Al's new Dreamliner fleet. We celebrated record levels of bilateral trade. More than 1,200 people joined us in Ra'anana Park to celebrate the Queen's 90th birthday. We had probably the biggest star ever to stay in the residence, when Helen Mirren helped us mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. We had our largest UK/Israel science conference at Oxford in April. The first major Royal Navy warship to visit Israel for seven years was a hit when it came to Eilat, and we hope to have another soon in Haifa.

Tel Aviv Pride was very special for my partner Aldo and me. People sometimes ask me if we feel tolerated in Israel. Not at all, I say - we feel welcomed and embraced, not tolerated.

But there have been difficult times too. The upsurge in violence last autumn led to months of attacks, with a terrible human toll. After a relative lull, it seems to be getting worse again as we approach the High Holy Days.

I've learned a huge amount in this first year. I had been to Israel more than 20 times, but until you live here you cannot fully grasp what an extraordinarily diverse and creative country this is. Everywhere you look, layers of ancient history combine with the reinvention of modern life through technology and innovation. It's an intoxicating combination.

I've learned other things, too - the importance of getting out of Tel Aviv, of seeing what's going on around the country, of trying to get under the skin of the place and understand how Israelis feel out in the periphery as well as on Rothschild Boulevard. Israeli society is changing fast, and in ways that I did not appreciate when I was just a visitor.

And I hope I have a better understanding of how Israelis see the UK. It can be a complex relationship, with its own multiple layers of history. I am always struck by the respect for British institutions and values, and the depth of familiarity with the UK. But I feel Israelis' anxiety too about the growth in reported antisemitism and the sense (exaggerated in my view, but genuinely felt by many here) that the UK is somehow a centre of the BDS movement.

My biggest regret is that peace seems an even more remote prospect now than when I arrived. The Quartet report this summer was a depressingly realistic assessment of negative developments on the ground. There is clearly a moment of opportunity for Israel to forge a new relationship with much of the Arab world, which would be greatly in Israel's - and the UK's - interest. But it requires bold decisions for peace.

It has been fascinating to see how Israel has responded to the EU referendum outcome. It was a surprise that confounded several national stereotypes about those reassuringly predictable Brits. But Israelis are very receptive to our message that we must now turn this into an opportunity to develop even stronger ties in trade, investment, science and technology. Pursuing that opportunity, and reassuring Israelis that the UK is still the best place in the world for them to do business, will be one of my top priorities for the next 12 months.

I am really grateful to the Jewish community in the UK for all the great support you have given Aldo and me in our first year. Shana tova to you all.

November 24, 2016 23:11

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