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Farewell, Mr Ambassador: Interview with Daniel Taub

Farewell, Mr Ambassador

    Loyal: Daniel Taub meets the Queen in 2011
    Loyal: Daniel Taub meets the Queen in 2011

    It was when meeting the Queen for the first time that Daniel Taub presented his credentials. Not just the piece of paper he offered Her Majesty from the Government in Jerusalem, declaring that, as he bowed his head, he was the new Ambassador of the State of Israel to the Court of St James's. But there was another statement. It came with the outfit he wore. The morning tail coat, the striped trousers and the mirror-shined black shoes were only to be expected. But on his newly–cut greying hair was what might be considered another badge of office - his kippah.

    It stated firmly one important fact about his life: born in Britain in 1962, he may be one of his country's leading diplomats, but nothing was going to change his beliefs and practices as an Orthodox Jew. Now, as he returns to Israel, that has been plain to everyone who has met him during his period in office.

    The Queen knew he'd had to give up his British citizenship and asked him how it was going to feel representing the country to which he immigrated less than 30 years earlier.

    "I said," he recalled for me as we sat in his private office at the Kensington embassy a few days ago, "'I feel very privileged that I am raising my children in their historic homeland after an exile of 2,000 years. But if I look at my family's history, I'm also aware of the greatest opportunity and hope they found here in this country and I hope to be able to express my appreciation of that fact by bringing the two countries closer together'."

    "Four years later," he says: "I actually feel that happened." And a great many other people also believe that has happened. The Jewish community in Britain is certainly aware of it. At a farewell reception at his home this week, his guests said the same thing - they are more than just sorry to see him go. For most, the records will show he has proved to be probably the most successful and popular Israeli envoy since Shlomo Argov, who was almost fatally shot in London in 1982.

    I do believe that having faith in your life can build bridges

    Daniel Taub has been there in the midst of crises, putting Israel's case to the government and, as well as talking to the media on programmes like Today and Newsnight, and in sessions with businessmen and women and academics. "If you see the range of academic and joint research co-operation, if you look at the more quiet strategic co-operation that we have, it's not a tug of war; what you are doing is seriously helping both Israel and the United Kingdom. It's a good feeling."

    And it has been a good feeling to know that relations between the two nations are probably as good and as strong as they have ever been.

    " For Israel, Britain is, not just in an historic way, a very important country. It plays a very critical role in Europe but beyond that, British media is effectively the world media, Britain is the financial centre of the world - all these things make it very important. Especially to be here when the Middle East is going through such dramatic changes and to try to be part of the dialogue, asking how do we make these changes together, how do we manage to stay on the same page?"

    I once made a tour of London embassies and asked the same question of the ambassadors of the day: "How do you manage to put aside your own views from those of the government you represent?" The answers were not all the same. To Ambassador Taub, it presented no problem. "It is easier than you might imagine. I have considered my main job here is to make people understand - where the Israeli people are and where the Israeli leadership is - as thoughtfully as I can. It is not usually a question of different opinions.

    "Usually we have very thoughtful discussions about it. I don't find an enormous problem there."

    The co-operation of which he speaks has been achieved in the midst of the whole series of Middle East crises: Gaza last year. ISIS this and Iran always - but particularly now.

    The Middle East is, as he recognises, in turmoil. But is everything as black as it seems? Or is there a silver lining? "The answer is both. We are worried, yes, but there is, perhaps not a silver lining, but in a very complicated situation, another side - the challenge is to think long and hard about how we can take advantage of [the other side of the situation]. We have to treat the region with a certain amount of humility in that we can't dictate what is going on there. We have to focus on what are the particular aspects of what are important to Israel and how we can influence them. The agreement with Iran takes us into a new phase - a phase that is of extraordinary concern for us.

    "If Iran sticks to the agreement, in which case, [the idea that] in more than a decade the nuclear capabilities of Iran will be achieved, causes us concern. We are worried if it doesn't stick to its agreement and we are worried about the implications beyond the nuclear issue. We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars starting to flow into Iranian coffers, and going to its proxies Hizbollah and Hamas.

    "At the same time, there are a number of points of opportunity… If we look on the brighter side, there are two things that stick out - the surprising resilience of our peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, which have weathered the turbulence in the region in a remarkable way.''

    And then there is the issue that, hitherto, Israel has not officially stressed all that much. "We are seeing a quiet alignment of interests with a lot of countries -Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan.

    "When they think about concerns in the region, they are as concerned about many of same the things as we are. It's an opportunity for Israel, but also a challenge for the other countries in the region to start to build and move together. There are a number of governments that are admiring and appreciative of Israel and co-operate with Israel on the quiet. It's a challenge for us to build on those opportunities."

    Also, surprisingly to some, there are still opportunities being realised with America, despite the Obama initiatives. He says these things have to be "nurtured". "All initiatives have to be nurtured. The depth of the relations with the US is incomparable with anything else. The United States is still supplying Israel with all the latest technology."

    In Britain, he says that relations with the Labour Party need to be closely looked at: "I think the Labour Party in Israel and the British Labour Party are going to have to work to re-establish its [previous] good relations. They have so much in common - the belief in freedom of speech, the position of women and of minorities, attitudes to homosexuals. Progressive support for Israel should not be that complicated. If you think of the progressive values that are most important to Israel, they are the same progressive values."

    Which brought us to talk about Israel and Palestine. "There is a growing awareness that with all these upheavals we have to be more realistic about an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation - as people realise that the same terrorist groups across our borders threaten them as they threaten us." He thinks that more now understand that, " Israel's needs for a genuine, robust security have to be met before you can think of withdrawal. "Now, people don't have to see things just in the Israeli context. They can look back in other contexts, too, to see what happened when a vacuum is created."

    If there is a vacuum anywhere, it is in the not too active fight against antisemitism. Nevertheless, there are positive developments - if not in much of Europe, but surprisingly it appears to be happening in Egypt. During Ramadan, Egyptian TV, normally highly antisemitic, adopted a changed tone. "This time, there was a story about a young Egyptian Jewess who had a Zionist brother. She goes to live in France and in the story, people wished she had stayed in Israel. A very significant statement."

    He would like such significant statements on the Continent, although he stresses that "Britain is not like other Europeans, not like other countries, such as France. The Government has been very helpful. But when I meet young Jews, I'd say that most have had some antisemitic experiences - with very often Israel becoming a pretext for them."

    Taub dismisses the idea of being officially assigned in any way to Anglo-Jewry. "I am not ambassador to the Jewish community but to the Court of St James's, but even within that role the Jewish community is extremely important. It is very involved, very passionate, very concerned with Israel. It's a very important bridge-building tool.

    "Further down the line, in the long run, the position of Jewish communities within the diaspora and Israel is a strategic asset for Israel and we have to nourish that.

    "The community here is characterised by a number of things, but one of them is chesed, generosity. It's a relatively small community that is giving of itself to an astonishing degree with social, academic, medical projects, very impressive undertakings. People invite me into their home and when I hear about the incredible work they are doing, I [try to think ]I am making a contribution to these efforts."

    And yet he and his wife Zehava have earned their place in the affections of the Jewish community by appearing to be part of it. "I can't accept every invitation I get, but I try to do what I can. I'm going to miss that enormously. Most of my career so far had dealt with matters of international law, particular problems in Israeli diplomacy. You didn't come out into the daylight, dealing with such a fascinating range of issues.

    ''I don't think there has been a day go by when I didn't have conversations with an enormous range of interesting people. I didn't always agree with them, but one of the things about the British people is that they are generally willing to listen, to take what you say on board,"

    I wondered just how unhappy he was at ceasing to be an ambassador. "One of the things about being an ambassador is to know you are only doing it for a limited period. It's been fascinating but it has been very demanding. It's been demanding in the number of hours you put in."

    Being Orthodox in London hasn't presented any serious problems. "You sometimes have to make a bit of an effort if you want to make sure you are eating kosher and keeping Shabbat. It's never been a problem. I'd say the opposite. I would actually say that having a dimension of faith in your life actually opens up opportunities for building bridges to other communities."

    Nobody - in government circles, meeting other ambassadors - has commented on his kippah. "I don't think I have been asked about it once. I have hardly noticed it myself."

    But then he set the tone when he presented those credentials to the Queen.

    Before going into the room where the Queen was sitting, he asked the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps if he could begin by reciting the blessing on meeting a monarch.

    "'How long would that take,' he asked. I said about four seconds. So that was all right."

    Maybe that is the epitaph for Daniel Taub's ambassadorship. It has been all right. Very all right.

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