Hotovely: I’m here to represent all Israel, not just a stream or sector

Israel’s ambassador to the UK, who has just taken up her post, speaks to the JC about the move from politics to diplomacy


By her own description, Tzipi Hotovely has received one of the most senior diplomatic postings as Israel’s ambassador to the UK.

Despite having never served as a diplomat before, she is looking forward to developing UK-Israel ties.

A career politician who joined the Knesset in 2009 before becoming one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s most senior allies, the former Diaspora and Settlements Minister describes diplomacy as “very natural”, having served in Israel’s Foreign Ministry for five years.

“The prime minister offered me this important position and I thought that because of my record as a deputy foreign minister, because I love diplomatic work, and because I know how important UK-Israel relations are, that this would be an opportunity for me to represent a whole country, not just a stream or sector in Israel.”

She added: “I think it’s a great compliment from Israel to send a minister.

“It’s not like I was a retiring politician, I was a thriving politician and I was just starting to climb the ministerial ladder.

“I think it is very important to show that Israel cares about the UK and thinks that people coming from strong positions should serve as ambassadors.”

As ambassador, she intends to strengthen ties with other nations including the “trilateral bonds” between Israel, the UK and the US; describing incoming US President Joe Biden as a “friend” and Washington DC and London as “the frontline embassies of Israel”. But she also intends to develop a “trilateral relationship” between Israel, the UK and the Gulf states after the historic Abraham Accords normalised relations between the nations this year.

“Britain has been close to the Gulf countries for many years and for us they are our new friends,” she says. “I see London as a very important arena to strengthen this cooperation.”

And she believes that as an Orthodox woman, her faith helps her build relations with these countries, explaining: “I find it opens doors to the Muslim community. When you’re a woman of faith, it’s something people appreciate. It comes with added value because I’m very sensitive to all religious sensitivities.”

Sitting on the right of the political spectrum, the ambassador’s political views have proven controversial, from her comments on the settlements to intermarriage.

After anti-assimilation group Lehava spoke at the Knesset in 2011 Ambassador Hotovely – who was then chair of the women’s rights committee - was reported as saying she would support systems that prevented “mixed marriages”. Whilst she doesn’t deny making the comments, she says: “I am an Orthodox woman, so for me, Jews marrying Jewish people is part of my tradition. I do not think anyone in the Jewish world would have a different perspective on how Orthodox people think about that, but I respect everyone.”

Still, she was not perturbed by calls for the UK government to reject her appointment, including those from within the community.

“The Israeli government decides who they want to serve as a diplomat,” she says, adding: “Since I came here, I got the warmest welcome. I was sure that once I came here and people got to know me, there would not be a barrier.”

The new ambassador called on the British government to move its embassy to Jerusalem.

She said: “I think all embassies should be located in Jerusalem.

“I really hope we will have an opportunity to discuss that with this government and to say that historically I believe this is the right thing to do because it reflects the reality of Jerusalem being our capital since Israel was established.”

Ms Hotovely – the former Settlements Minister in Israel – questioned the UK Foreign’s Office use of the term, “the Occupied Palestinian Territories”.

She said: “We think statements that don’t reflect reality are being stated by the Foreign Office here. We keep on saying: ‘Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel and just denying it won’t help.’”

She dismissed the idea of the settlements being in breach of international law, saying: “Settlements are legal according to international law; this is the Israeli policy about it, this is the Foreign Ministry’s interpretation of international law.”

She said they were not an obstruction to the peace process, adding: “The majority of people in Israel say settlements are not the issue. The Palestinians were offered time after time to have their own state in different formulas; they always refused and it wasn’t about settlements.”

A mother of three daughters aged two, four and six, Ambassador Hotovely, who is married to media company executive Or Alon, celebrated her 42nd birthday in London this month.

As the Rehovot-born daughter of Georgian immigrants, this is the first time she has lived outside Israel since was 18, when she served in Sherut Leumi, Israel’s national service, in Georgia, America. From a young age, the former lawyer and media commentator says she was encouraged to pursue a career in which she could give back to the community. She says she was born into “a very feminist family” and was not pressured into marriage at a young age.

After she had her first child, she says work became “challenging”.

“Before, it came easily to me because I loved what I did,” she says. “But when I became a mother, it became a balance between that and my political role.”

Whilst serving in the Knesset, she recalls a conversation with the then-Speaker Yuli Edelstein, in which he gave her permission to turn her office into a nursery crèche complete with a cot, bouncer and children’s mat. As a result, she would hold official meetings in the Knesset’s canteen.

But now, with restrictions in place as a result of the pandemic, Ms Hotovely has been able to spend more time with her family: online meetings mean there is time left over for a bedtime story with her daughters.

Reflecting on her position as Israel’s first female ambassador to the UK, she says: “I am very proud to be the first woman to serve here as an ambassador. I also came here as a mother to three daughters; so that’s also a statement. Coming here with my family is something for the next generation to say: ‘The years we are mothers are not the years we stop our careers; it’s actually the years we can move on with our careers’.”

Still, she has not ruled out a return to Israeli politics after her three-year term as ambassador ends.

“I do not know what the position will be, but I will serve my country and my people for as long as I can.”


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