Life & Culture

High-flying ambassador who was our man in Israel... and Saudi Arabia

Meet Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles - the veteran British diplomat who successfully bridged the Middle East divide


It may go down in diplomatic history as one of the swiftest love affairs on record. Sherard Cowper-Coles was Britain’s ambassador to Israel for just 22 months before he was whipped off to the most improbable successor appointment — as the UK’s man in Saudi Arabia.

On September 4 2001 the then Mr Cowper-Coles arrived in Tel Aviv. This was his first ambassadorship and his feet were barely under his desk before he was obliged to host his former boss, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who visited Israel at the end of that month.

And that breathless start is lovingly, and, occasionally, hilariously, chronicled in Sir Sherard’s new memoir, Ever the Diplomat.

Though technically a Foreign Office Arabist, Sir Sherard had plenty of reasons to love Israel. A Tel Aviv posting had been regarded as an elephants’ graveyard, but he was one of the first “flyers” — highly-regarded Foreign Office fast-track diplomats — actively to seek to go there.

“I very much wanted to go,” he says. “Twenty years before I had travelled to Israel by bus across the Sinai Peninsula from Cairo. It was a very emotional thing: my family were a quarter Dutch and had helped to save Jews during the war. My dear godmother was an unqualified Zionist and had donated blood in the 1967 war. I really wanted to go.”

'So I would say to the Saudis, we’ve got to have something that reassures the Jewish people that they are not going to be pushed into the sea. And that means United Nations cover, it means American guarantees, it means close supervision of a Palestinian state. It’s a price worth paying'

What perhaps endeared Sir Sherard to Israelis and the Jewish community in the UK alike was his determination to learn Hebrew — not necessarily something undertaken by his predecessors. And he went about it in a very pragmatic fashion.

“I moved into lodgings in Hendon with a kindly Israeli kosmetikait (beautician). It turned out to be the best language course I have ever had. The kosmetikait spoke to me only in Hebrew, and spoiled me rotten in the way that only Jewish mothers can.”

And at the end of his thorough immersion course, the ambassador found one more reason to embrace the Jewish people. He received a letter from Sir Brian Young, a former headmaster of Charterhouse. The letter reduced him to tears.

In it, Sir Brian recorded his childhood friendship with Sir Sherard’s late father, who had died when the future diplomat was just 13. “In the winter of 1938 they had gone with other schoolfriends to a former holiday camp at Dovercourt in Essex to help look after the Jewish children coming over as refugees from Nazi Germany. So there was tremendous emotional engagement for me.”

Once he got to Israel, he says he found “all my hopes fulfilled. I love that country, and I love the Jewish people.”

This was despite, as he makes clear, his “shock “ at what he saw in the Gaza Strip. “And seeing the moderate majority in Israel gradually being put on the defensive. And also, seeing the transformation in [the then Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon: I was very upset when the IDF went back into the territories in Operation Hamat Magen in 2002.

"But then the following year we had Sharon saying that the occupation could not go on, and that painful compromises had to be made. And then, as happened with Rabin, as happened so many times in Israel’s history, the man who could have led Israel out of this wilderness of neither peace nor war being struck down — in this case by a stroke rather than an assassin’s bullet.”

Sir Sherard makes a point of his deep empathy for the existential crisis of Israel and the Jewish people. Writing about getting to know Anglo-Jewry before he left for Tel Aviv, he says: “For all their success in modern Britain, the sense of insecurity, of actual or potential exclusion, runs deep… ”

It was an understanding of which he was able to make good use when he took up his post in Saudi Arabia. The appointment came as much of a surprise to him as it did to his friends in Israeli society. It was less a conspiracy — “some friends thought I was being moved because I had gone native” — than a cock-up; his name was on the list of potential ambassadors to Riyadh because of his track record as an Arabist, but those concerned in the Foreign Office had simply neglected to inform him that his name had been put forward.

“I did feel frustrated at having to leave Tel Aviv. With hindsight, I should probably have refused Saudi Arabia,” he says.

Once in Riyadh, he found that many senior Saudis in government were keen to pick his brains on what made the Israelis tick. “The Saudi king was actually very sensible; many Saudis have no time for the Palestinians, but they wanted a fair deal. I realised that when Abdullah got the whole of the Arab world behind him at the March 2002 summit, he really meant it. I also found that many of the senior Arab leaders in Saudi were actually very moderate.”

When Saudi leaders asked Sir Sherard about Israel, he told them: “Israel, for better or worse, is a democracy. It’s a rambunctious, disorderly democracy, and you can’t make peace in the Middle East unless you have a majority in the Knesset. Tony Blair understood that.

"You’ve got to take the Jewish people with you. You’ve got to reassure them. They are often desperately worried and frightened. And they are often made more worried, I think, by irresponsible leaders who sometimes deliberately play on these deep existential fears buried in the heart of most Jewish people.

“So I would say to the Saudis, we’ve got to have something that reassures the Jewish people that they are not going to be pushed into the sea. And that means United Nations cover, it means American guarantees, it means close supervision of a Palestinian state. It’s a price worth paying.”

He found, he says, a receptive audience for his advice. “Essentially, in the territories, in a benign multinational way, you’ve got to reimpose the Mandate. Help a Palestinian state come to full sovereignty, but under international supervision. That will be an important part of reassuring the Israeli people that this thing isn’t going to turn into a monster which will then annihilate its neighbour.”

Taking the long view, Sir Sherard believes that the problem lies “in Washington, with the nature of American politics, and the way in which utter unqualified support for Israel, with no ifs or buts, has become a kind of lodestone of political correctness.

In the end, I think this is a betrayal of Israel. Because if you truly love Israel, it’s as when you love your child, you don’t give unconditional support. You need to say that some things are not in its interests, and continuing occupation is not in Israel’s interests.

“I think the American politicians who should know better are making a political pawn of Israel in a most unhelpful way. As are some of the Christian Zionists who don’t seem to have absorbed the Christian lessons of tolerance and doing as you would be done by. Something has gone very wrong in American politics in relation to Israel.”

He mourns the fact that peace “came so near” in 2000 at Camp David and in 2001 at Taba. “Only America can give Israel the security it needs. Otherwise, it will be the end of the Zionist dream. And that is a prospect which fills me with dread.”

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