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MEMO Comment: Is Britain's new ambassador to Israel really going to be objective?

Can a Jewish ambassador to Israel ever be truly objective when advising his home government on relations with the Jewish state? That is going to be the big question for Britain’s new ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, who has just taken up residence in Tel Aviv. Under normal circumstances, the faith or ethnic background of Britain’s ambassadors should be totally irrelevant to their ability to represent HM Government in capitals across the world. But Israel is not a normal state in that it ignores international laws and conventions on a routine basis, and does so with apparent impunity. David Cameron’s description of Gaza under Israel’s siege as “a prison camp” was welcome but it did not disguise the fact that the British Prime Minister, like his predecessors, is a declared supporter of the state established on Palestinian land in 1948. Despite Matthew Gould’s claim to be “a career diplomat”, his previous service as the principal private secretary to Labour’s David Miliband (also a member of North London’s increasingly influential Jewish community) when he was Foreign Secretary suggests that Conservative Cameron is indeed playing the Jewish card with this appointment. But for whose benefit: Britain’s or Israel’s?


In an interview with Haaretz newspaper before leaving London for Tel Aviv, Matthew Gould described his time spent at the British Embassy in Iran as “the most important part of my background” which qualifies him for his new role, because he was “trying to figure out what we do to deal with the threat from that regime”. It is, in the present circumstances of Israeli belligerence towards Iran (backed by the US and Britain), pertinent to ask which “we” he is talking about: Britons or Israelis, or both? It is safe to assume that our man in Tel Aviv is referring to Iran’s nuclear programme when he mentions “the threat from that regime” in Tehran, so it would be interesting to know his feelings about Israel’s nuclear arsenal which threatens every regime in the Middle East and many beyond.

Although he doesn’t “want to make too much of it”, Gould also cites his “visceral understanding of why Israel is so fixated on its own security and why security and peace mean so much to Israel and why it’s a country which feels so keenly that it lives on the knife edge” as a possible reason for his appointment. Such understanding comes from growing up in a family wherein he was made aware from “a very early age about the threats to Israel, the wars it has had to fight and the problems it has faced”. Eight of the new ambassador’s paternal great uncles were murdered by the Nazis, providing him with “a sort of common understanding about the threats that face the Jewish people”. Without wishing in any way to diminish the significance of the Holocaust on the psyche of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora – and the need to ensure that “never again” will a powerful militarised state be able to commit genocidal acts without being called to account for its actions – it is this “visceral” link which surely calls into doubt Matthew Gould’s ability to be a critical friend of Israel. If Britain is going to fulfil its obligations towards international law and condemn Israel’s human rights abuses against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as inside Israel itself, our ambassador has no option but to be critical, but will Gould be up to the task?

Diplomats are supposed to act in the best interests of their own state, not those of the country in which they are based. As a Jew, however, under Israel’s ethnically biased – some would say racist – 1950 Law of Return, Gould is entitled to migrate to Israel, settle there and obtain “automatic citizenship” of the Jewish state. He is, in all but name, a person with dual citizenship rights, albeit with one set of rights pending until his retirement from British government service. Nevertheless, how can he serve what are to all intents and purposes two masters at the same time? And where, in times of crisis (which these certainly are), do his “visceral” loyalties lie? The ambassador acknowledges that “it would be natural if there was a certain amount of suspicion or scepticism that, given my background, I am going to be entirely objective” in his role. Let us hope, for the good of everyone in the Holy Land, Israeli and Palestinian alike, that he will indeed “give objective and honest advice back to the prime minister and the foreign secretary so they can make policy as effective as possible for the region”. Given Britain’s recent woeful record of bringing Israelis to account for what the UN’s Goldstone Report last year called their “war crimes and possible crimes against humanity” in Gaza, the bar for such effective policies for the region is set very low. Gould’s task, therefore, should be relatively easy; only time will tell if his professed desire for objectivity and honesty will overcome his natural empathy with the Jewish state.

 

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