Life & Culture

Interview: Ron Prosor

The outgoing envoy says farewell with a Sinatra song, and a pledge that the battle for Israel's legitimacy can be won


It is probably safe to say that no Israeli diplomat has ever used a farewell interview to sing of his regrets at leaving the country where he has served.

But it is equally safe to say that Ron Prosor, Israel's outgoing ambassador to the UK, is no ordinary diplomat. A career high-flyer with Israel's Foreign Ministry, Prosor may well be the best-known foreign envoy in Britain.

Since his arrival in December 2007, he has been a regular on TV, radio, and a frequent contributor to the comment pages of the broadsheet press. He has been cheerfully relentless in putting Israel's case, whenever and wherever possible. "I intend to have a much higher media profile," he said, and duly launched a series of photo-friendly "stunts". These ranged from being new best friends with Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, to wandering round the Beatles Museum in Liverpool and "apologising" that Israel had prevented the Fab Four from playing there in the '60s. He even managed to get Israel a passing mention in actress Joanna Lumley's great victory for the Gurkhas.

And along with the stunts came serious work, outreach to the cities and communities outside London, high-profile visits to Belfast, Manchester, Liverpool, Oxford, Cardiff. He was harassed, booed, barracked, but was just as often treated with great courtesy by local civic leaders who started out opposed to Israel but ended their encounters with Prosor charmed and ready to offer him respect.

So it really should not have come as much of a surprise that the ambassador, who is genuinely emotional at leaving Britain, chose to put his feelings in song. Yes, he sang. It was Frank Sinatra's My Way, and never can an ambassador have put his personal stamp on a position thus: "I did what I had to do, and saw it through without exemption; I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway, and more, much more than this, I did it my way."


Born: October 11, 1958 in Kfar Sava, the son of a career diplomat.
Education: BA and MA in political science from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Diplomatic postings: 1988-1992, cultural attaché in Bonn; 1995-1998, spokesman at the London embassy; 1998-2002, head of the political department of Israel's embassy in Washington.
Family: Married to Hadas, three children

Now Prosor is going to step into some very big shoes indeed, those of Israel's ambassador to the United Nations. If he thought he had his plate full in Britain, which he has spoken of as "the hub of delegitimisation of Israel", he is all too aware of what awaits him in New York, not least with the Palestinian plan to declare unilateral independence in September.

Not since Abba Eban's stints at the UN General Assembly has Israel had a diplomat who can put his country's case with such fluency and flair. A long-time admirer of President Shimon Peres, whom he can imitate with uncanny accuracy, Prosor has also taken on the Peres mantle of verbal dexterity, frequently coining phrases to sum up Israel's situation which crop up in repeated speeches. (He also, it should be noted, has a weakness for terrible puns and football allusions.)

"I'm leaving with mixed feelings," he says. "I really feel privileged to have served in the UK during this time, and I also feel privileged because, with all the problems, it is quite a remarkable community. I'll miss it. I reached out to wherever I could. I visited 70 campuses… I'll miss the front-line. I know that I'm going to a front-line which is even more problematic. But here, I think we are in the middle of a huge battle for Israel's legitimacy, and the community is beginning to wake up to the challenge."

The ambassador remains convinced that the real fight is not to do with issues of settlements or policies of successive Israeli governments. "It is the issue of the mere essence of who we are, what we are and what we stand for. And it is important to stand up. I always use Frank Lampard's goal against Germany in the last World Cup, as an example of the ball crossing the line. Everyone saw it crossing the line. But the relevant people who had to call it, didn't call it. So our adversaries are crossing the line, are crossing the red lines, and we have to stand up and counter them."

His hope, he says, was that he has done as much as possible to galvanise the community and help them understand how to stand up for Israel, although he jokes that: "Most weeks I feel they should deliver the JC with a free Prozac, given the amount of pages we have to read about boycotts, demonstrations, and council motions."

But his legacy, the ambassador believes, "is to have created structures which will go beyond certain envoys at certain time periods. What do I mean by that? When we created a strategic dialogue between Israel and the United Kingdom, those are the structures which will continue in the future. When we signed a film production agreement between Israel and the UK that will allow filmmakers from both countries to work together, those are the people at the end of the day who will make documentaries for the BBC… that's a structure. When we spent four years working on universal jurisdiction, this will allow a real dialogue to take place between the political and military echelons which today are hampered.

"The other legacy is the universities. Go out to the universities, talk to the young people. Don't leave it. It's not easy. People should know that there's not one campus that I can enter today without demonstrations outside and heckling inside. But it's twofold. First, it's saying, I'm not afraid of anyone and I'm very proud of what I represent. Secondly, Jewish students and other British students should really understand what Israel is all about, and not this horrible rhetoric of lies which continues to go unchallenged."

It was, he insists, a winnable battle. "Our adversaries are well-funded, they are vicious and vile, but they are not huge numbers. We have to really work and target them and show them for what they are. It's clearly something we can turn around."

As a career diplomat the ambassador is used to taking the long view. When he arrived in Britain he made a point, despite working with a Labour government, of reaching out to leaders in the Conservative Party. It was a strategy that paid off, he believes, leading to many friends in David Cameron's government and the near certainty of legislation going through on universal jurisdiction. He notes sharply, incidentally, that Labour, despite numerous promises, did not manage to change the law, while the Conservatives appear to have delivered.

The ambassador is fond of analogies. He likens Israel's relationship with Britain to an apartment building. "In the penthouse - that is to say, on a government level - things are good. There is co-operation, understanding, on issues such as Iran and counter-terrorism. But unfortunately, lower down, there is serious damage and leaking in the basement." By which he means that Britain has become "a hotbed for Islamist extremism, and the intensity of that campaign has developed into physical threat." He reveals for the first time that he attended the Trafalgar Square rally for Israel in 2009 wearing a bullet-proof vest, and speaks with regret of the level of vitriol thrown up during Operation Cast Lead.

Despite that, his inherently sunny nature cannot help shining through. He is both optimistic and confident that his as yet unnamed successor will have a warm welcome and a carefully-crafted strategy to develop. "At the UN," he jokes, "it will be a huge challenge trying to keep everyone happy. I will be working with a rabble of different voices, each trying aggressively to pursue their own very different strategies. Working with the Jewish community in the UK has therefore been the perfect preparation."

And the ambassador begins to sing.

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