Tzipi Hotovely: 'Israel is on the front line against the world's challenges'

Israel’s ambassador to Britain is passionate about representing her country in its 75th year


David Rose speaks to the Ambassador of Israel to the United Kingdom Tzipi Hotovely. 25/04/2023

Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s ambassador to Britain, offers me coffee and cake in one of the airy reception rooms at her official London residence. She doesn’t shirk discussion of the political crisis that has roiled her country in recent months, but as the Jewish state approaches its 75th birthday, she projects optimism and pride.

"My parents didn’t come from a very advanced country. They came from Georgia in the Soviet Union, but when they made aliyah in the seventies, they discovered that many things in Georgia were better than they were in Israel. They’d had a colour TV and other electrical appliances, and life in Israel seemed behind.

“Imagine that when you consider how Israel is today. Everyone knows that Israel has extraordinary abilities in many fields, especially those that everyone is passionate to make progress in: health, computing, green tech, alternative solutions to energy. Israel is on the front line against all the challenges the world is facing — and that’s why we’re more relevant than ever.”

In the past 30 years, she tells the JC, Israel has become “a regional superpower”. To be sure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reform package is still bringing thousands of protestors out on to the streets, as it has done for months. But according to Hotovely, “Israeli society is very resilient and very strong.

Even though there is something polarising us at the moment, we still are one nation.” Hotovely accepts that the debate over curbing the power of the Supreme Court reflects real divisions in Israeli society: between religious and secular Jews, or liberal Tel Aviv and some of those who live in West Bank settlements. But deep as they are, Hotovely rejects any suggestion that they pose a fundamental threat to Israel’s future cohesion.

“We are very passionate when we have our arguments, and when we debate, we don’t tend to keep a low profile,” she tells me. “But the protests are a symbol of our vibrant democracy. They show that when people care about something, they want to express their thoughts and they understand they can make an impact. So I’m very optimistic that despite this polarisation, we’ll get back to having a mutual agenda.”

Asked whether Israel’s constitutional crisis might affect its relations with a future British government, especially one led by Labour, Hotovely expresses confidence that the ongoing talks between the government and opposition being brokered by President Isaac Herzog will soon bear fruit: “I really believe that a good solution will be reached, one that many people can agree on. I hope that by next year, and definitely by the time that you have your general election, this will be an issue that’s been solved.”

Hotovely, 44, has crammed a lot into her relatively short life. Born and brought up in Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv, she read law to masters level at Bar-Ilan university, edited its law journal, and became a practising lawyer in 2003. An unabashed Religious Zionist, she also studied at Bar-Ilan’s midrasha (the women’s equivalent of a yeshiva).

After making her mark as a political commentator on television and as a newspaper opinion writer, she joined the Likud in 2008 and was elected to the Knesset as its youngest member in 2009. There she stayed, serving successively as a minister for transport, science, foreign affairs and settlements, until she took up her post as Israel’s ambassador in London in the summer of 2020. Along the way, she found time to marry lawyer Or Alon in 2011 and to bear three daughters, now aged nine, seven and four.

I’ve witnessed Hotovely the diplomat in action several times, and it’s hard not to admire her focus and ability to connect. The first occasion was when she was invited to speak at the Cambridge Union in February 2022. More than a thousand pro-Palestinian protestors had gathered outside and were chanting the Hamas terror group slogan that anticipates Israel’s annihilation, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will free”. They kept it up throughout a meeting that lasted an hour and a half, over an hour, and added to the din with vuvuzela fanfares.

A few weeks earlier, Hotovely had been mobbed and rescued by her security team from a similar event at the London School of Economics, but she appeared to be unruffled: “Ah, the music of democracy,” she told her audience, cupping one hand to an ear, “the music of free speech!”

At both Jewish and national political events she has seemed equally effective, working rooms bulging with cabinet ministers with palpable confidence. Now, almost three years after she arrived in London, it can be hard to remember that when her appointment was announced, it was seen as controversial. But as a sometimes-outspoken right-wing politician, she had taken up positions that many found unpalatable, such as voicing opposition to mixed marriage, and asserting Jews’ ancestral right to Judea and Samaria, aka the occupied West Bank — thus leaving no room for a putative Palestinian state.
It wasn’t only advocates of the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict who expressed concern ahead of Hotovely’s arrival.

Even the JC’s Melanie Phillips, whom no one could accuse of reticence when it comes to making Israel’s case, wrote that she feared that Hotovely “didn’t have a clue about how the British mind works” — and that as a result, like other Israelis before her, she would be “blindsided by the unbridled and existential malice that confronts them in Britain”.

I remind Hotovely of this and she laughs: “Melanie? Really? She’s a friend.” But in general, both Britain’s government and its Jewish community have come to treat Hotovely with warmth and respect.

So far as the community goes, she tells the JC, “I feel integrated because I’m religious, my family and I go to synagogue, my children go to Jewish schools and I do everything I can to experience Jewish life here. I also feel like this community is Zionist, that it’s well connected to Israel, and its people travel there all the time.

“But right from the outset, I made it clear that I’d be an ambassador for all the UK community’s streams. I meet the leaders of all denominations. Whenever we have an Israeli official coming, we bring in the organisations, we don’t exclude anyone. We want everyone to feel that they have an opportunity to speak to the Israeli government, and that if they wish to deliver messages through the ambassador, they can. We’re a large embassy and we all understand just how important the Jewish community is. I feel that in Britain, I have many close friends.”

Hotovely admits her job has been made much easier by the fact that under all its recent leaders, the current British government has been exceptionally friendly towards Israel: “I’m very fortunate to be ambassador in times where the UK is being supportive in almost every aspect we can imagine that Israel needs support.” One of those aspects is an Anglo-Israeli trade deal, which she hopes will be concluded later this year. Another is a partnership in the critical sphere of security, which, she says, is now closer than ever.

The UK isn’t merely “condemning terrorism in very clear words”, Hotovely says, but “extending cooperation on intelligence with the Mossad, IDF, and our equivalent of MI5, Shin Bet. Everyone is cooperating on the highest level” — hence the announcement during Netanyahu’s visit to London in March to create what he called a “strategic dialogue”. In practice, Hotovely says, this means real-time sharing between the two countries’ defence ministries, foreign ministries and intelligence-gathering agencies.

Intelligence supplied by Israel, Hotovely adds, was partly responsible for the revelation by security minister Tom Tugendhat that the UK authorities have foiled 15 assassination plots, some against Jews, in the past year: “Sharing information will help save lives.”

Managing Israel’s relationship with Britain isn’t all plain sailing. When Liz Truss was briefly prime minister last year, she suggested Britain might soon be moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where the British government already owns a plot of suitable land. However, her successor Rishi Sunak has made it clear this is not on his agenda, which has come as a disappointment: “We will always say that, as a policy, we want all our embassies to be located in Jerusalem, and the UK is no different,” Hotovely says.

On the other hand, while Hotovely would like to see Britain proscribe Iran’s Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation, “our message about Iran is bigger than the IRGC. We are very close with Britain in reading the intelligence map when it comes to understanding where the Iranians are and where they want to get, and very close in understanding the danger.

“We both agree that Iran is making progress in the nuclear sphere and that they’re doing horrible things to destabilise the region, working through proxies in Yemen and Syria. We want to have a plan that enables us to pile on more pressure and tougher sanctions in order to stop the regime. Alongside diplomatic and economic pressure, there is a need for a credible military threat. We need our friends and allies to stand by us and understand that this is a mutual duty for all of us. The good news is that many people in this UK government are saying, ‘We’re not doing this for the sake of Israel, we’re doing it for the sake of the UK because we see Iran as a serious danger to this country as well’.”

Meanwhile, Hotovely is naturally aware that in a year or 18 months’ time, she or her successor — she is due to be in London until late 2024 — may find themselves dealing with a British Labour government. This, she says, is not a prospect she finds daunting: “It’s high on our agenda to make sure that we have a good relationship with both parties, and we work very seriously to talk to shadow cabinet ministers. When it comes to dealing with Iran, terrorism and fighting antisemitism, I don’t think that Labour will take a different stance to the current Conservative government. We also need to remember that although Labour was an issue both for us and the UK community during the Jeremy Corbyn era, when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were Labour prime ministers, they had a very close relationship with Israel.”

Sometimes, she avers, she does become concerned about UK antisemitism, and the fact that the Community Security Trust says that reported antisemitic incidents are still running at an historically high level, although their numbers have declined since the end of last major conflict between Israel and Hamas in May 2021. She singles out the Oxford Street attack on Haredi children at Chanukah that year, and the subsequent BBC coverage that falsely claimed the victims had been recorded making anti-Muslim remarks.

But she goes on to remind me that “your country was on the front line of fighting the Nazis,” and has for years been making strenuous efforts to ensure children are properly educated about antisemitism’s worst manifestation, the Holocaust. Meanwhile, in her view, the partnership between Britain’s official intelligence and law enforcement authorities with the CST — “a brilliant organisation doing a great job” — has given British Jews a truly formidable line of defence.

Refreshingly direct, Hotovely does not dissemble when I ask her what she plans to do next: “I will head back to politics.” But when she does, she says, she will look back on her time as a diplomat with intense fondness, convinced that it has made a more rounded politician: “Being posted here in London is the most incredible experience I could have had. It has given me perspective”, she says.

Does she see herself becoming prime minister? “Many people like asking that. Well, to begin with, it doesn’t look to me like a fun job to have. Then most of the things I’ve done in life were not planned! I wasn’t planning to be a diplomat, I wasn’t planning to be a politician. My initial thought when I was young was to be an academic: I wanted to be a law professor, but life chose different routes for me. The way I see it now, is that I want to use my skills to serve my country in every way I can, and I don’t exclude anything. I do want to see another female prime minister, but it’s not like I’m aiming for it, and I don’t know if it should be me.”
Meanwhile, there is a birthday to celebrate.

Once again, Hotovely’s pride and optimism bubble to the surface. “I believe in the values of Israel as a country,” she says, “this amazing spirit that has created such a successful country in just 75 years, after starting from nothing, from a bunch of refugees coming from the Holocaust, being expelled from Arab countries, to a place with no resources.

“We need to remember that as we celebrate, how far Israel has come in just a few decades. That’s why I’m so proud to represent Israel. I think it is the most amazing phenomenon. Yes, we have problems, we have issues, and I’m not saying Israel is perfect. But in this imperfection, there is so much vision and spirit, and that’s what makes me be very proud to represent all its parts.”

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