A packed audience at a United Synagogue breakfast this week heard both the Israeli and the Jordanian ambassadors to the UK speak warmly and optimistically of the opportunities for wider peace in the region.
But although mutual compliments were shared by both Mark Regev and his Jordanian counterpart, Mazen Hamoud, the Arab diplomat — who is returning to Amman shortly after five years in London — left no-one in any doubt where he stood on the matter of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Responding to a question from the audience, Mr Hamoud declared: “You can’t forget that east Jerusalem and the West Bank are occupied territories under every sort of international law. There is nothing which cannot be administered and the subject of Jerusalem is still left for negotiation, but we have to remember that under international law it is occupied territory. You cannot pretend that something which is not yours is yours”.
But that was the only gloomy note in a cheerful breakfast meeting which marked the first public appearance by the newly-elected United Synagogue president, Michael Goldstein.
Mr Goldstein recalled his time as a governor of the King Solomon High School and its new science and technology block. It was suggested, he said, that he should invite King Hussein of Jordan to open the block, so he had written a letter to the king — “and I forgot about it”. Ten weeks later, however, the royal secretary had replied to say that the king would be “delighted” to open the school’s new department. “It was totally magnificent,” Mr Goldstein remembered. “He flew over in his own helicopter and radiated happiness and warmth.” It had been a day no-one at the school would forget.
Ambassador Regev also had fond memories of the late Jordanian monarch. Noting that 2017 marked 23 years of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, Mr Regev said there had been “ups and downs, but the peace treaty has stood the test of time”.
One of the most difficult times for the two countries, he said, had been in March 1997, when seven Israeli schoolgirls had been murdered on the border by a terrorist wearing Jordanian army uniform. “King Hussein came personally to Beit Shemesh [the home of the schoolgirls] and visited the family of each of the girls to pay his respects, what we in our tradition would call a shiva visit. For us Israelis, he earned a place in history, as a leader who is leading and not merely following”.
Both ambassadors spoke with confidence about the opportunities for peace and expanding on the two existing treaties Israel has with Arab countries, Jordan and Israel.
But asked to name which Arab country might be next to sign a peace treaty with Israel, Mr Regev refused, saying only that Israel was “speaking to more countries in the Arab world than ever before. “I won’t answer that because where there is trust, there is also discretion”, he said. Nevertheless he said that Israel was speaking to “governments in North Africa and the Gulf, and we are seeing a convergence of national security interests, where people are understanding that Israel is not the enemy and that it is an important ally against extremism.”