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The Israeli ambassador affair should concern us all, not just Tel Aviv

Daniel Taub, the former Israeli ambassador in London, has been named as the subject of an investigation into possible sexual abuse of minors and homosexual affairs that threatened Israel’s national security. The news was broken by the tenacious blogger Richard Silverstein – after Israeli newspapers only reported that a “European ambassador” was under suspicion. Silverstein has been mauled online by defenders of Taub but, as usual, is holding up well and standing by his allegation.

Following Silverstein’s scoop, the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem picked up on the story, although he declined to report on the exact nature of the allegations. Haaretz and Ynet have also reported on the case, with Haaretz correspondent Amir Oren claiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew about the scandal last summer.

The Metropolitan Police are said to be investigating the involvement of at least one minor, after a complaint by a police officer who says he witnessed a trail of male adults and possible minors entering the embassy late at night. Taub claims that the accusation is vindictive and denies the presence of any children; the visits, he maintains, were “therapeutic”.

Coming to the end of his four year term in London, the married ambassador reportedly bragged to colleagues that he expected to remain in Britain on a special one -year extension. It appears, though, that he was recalled to Tel Aviv as a direct result of these allegations.

The Israeli foreign ministry has investigated and closed the case, but it now seems to have been re-opened. The primary concern of the Israeli government is that the visitors to the embassy were not registered, and that MI5 appears to have been aware of the arrangements. Ambassadors engaging in extramarital relationships are prime targets for blackmail, which would be of great concern to the Israeli security services. Taub was also inexperienced; his appointment in 2011 was resented by the Israeli diplomatic service, which noted that someone who had never held an ambassadorial role before was getting a very important posting.

This is a controversial situation and it is important not to presume guilt ahead of innocence, but the facts raise concerns and speak to a far wider problem. It is not the first time that an Israeli ambassador has been linked to accusations of child abuse, nor is Israel unique in hosting sexual controversies at its embassies. London’s Arab embassies, particularly those from the Gulf, are hives of abuse, particularly affecting domestic workers often trafficked from their home countries. In early 2012 I learned of a particularly abhorrent episode of sexual abuse at a Gulf embassy, which cannot be named for legal reasons. The victim was terrified to speak out for fear of deportation. The Foreign Office was also embarrassed when allegations of abuse at both the Libyan and Sudanese embassies surfaced last February, generating two court cases. The Court of Appeal in London ruled that diplomatic immunity should not apply after two Moroccan nationals, cook Fatima Benkharbouche and domestic worker Minah Janah, were sacked and claimed unfair dismissal, failure to be paid the minimum wage and that they were forced to work impossibly long hours. Ms Janah also claimed arrears of pay, racial discrimination and harassment.

Diplomatic immunity, tacit collusion with the host government and a tendency to withdraw the ambassador as soon as allegations are made has created an environment in which embassy staff operate in a parallel legal dimension, not only with respect to British law, but also that of their home country. The ruling on the Libyan and Sudanese embassies is the exception and by no means the rule.

The British parliament first guaranteed diplomatic immunity to foreign ambassadors in 1709, after Count Andrey Matveyev, a Russian resident in London, claimed to have been subjected to abuse by British bailiffs. The Congress of Vienna, held in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and designed to quieten centuries of European violence, established the first instance of international law which allowed diplomats to get away with whatever they so pleased. These rules were designed to stop ambassadors being attacked in times of war, and today operate on a quid pro quo basis; don’t touch our ambassadors, and we won’t touch yours.

Scandal after scandal in both London and Washington have seen reported instances of drug smuggling, kidnapping, abuse of staff and alleged sexual assaults, all of which is quietly hushed up. This has nothing to do with espionage, which would be a half-decent excuse for a foreign power. This is about people of power abusing their privilege to conduct activities that any ordinary person can clearly see are wrong. If Arab and Israeli ambassadors are getting away with it in London, I wonder what our ambassadors are getting up to abroad? Ambassador Taub’s current difficulties should concern us all, not just his bosses in Tel Aviv.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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