Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, has an upbeat message for the Jewish new year. He says: “There is something very interesting happening in the region. Because of common threats coming from Iran and groups like Isis, we are seeing a strategic realignment, where today Israel is talking to more Arab states than ever before in the history of the Jewish state. We have peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, but I am talking about other countries who were traditionally hostile to Israel or very stand-offish to Israel but today we are having conversations, we are in communication with them.”
Regev, formerly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman and in post in the UK since March, has hit the ground running since his arrival, making a point of speaking at challenging venues and engaging with the unexpected. His most recent encounter was a first for an Israeli envoy — a head-to-head debate on LBC with the PLO representative in Britain, Manuel Hassassian.
Regev says the broadcast was “respectful and a substantive discussion of many issues.” But he is keen to point out that not only has he frequently engaged with Palestinians before now, but the very fact of the encounter is a red flag to the “haters”, as he terms the boycotters of Israel. “The people who would blacklist me, boycott me, shut me down and not let me speak — but the representative of the Palestinians in London is engaging with me. So what are they all about?”
The ambassador also points to the healthy bilateral trade figures between Britain and Israel – “a doubling in the last decade” – as another sign that the boycott campaign has “completely failed”. He says: “Britain is our second largest export market after the United States.” Both countries, he says, are keen to see that relationship continue and grow, and he revealed that Israel has been in preliminary talks with Britain about “codifying” a trade deal in the wake of the Brexit vote.
“My clear impression from speaking to British officials is that they understand the importance of the Israeli relationship and they want to pursue it”.
Israel has been holding informal talks with International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Greg Hands — “so that when it becomes relevant, Israel will be ready to get started immediately”.
If the ambassador is enthusiastic about bilateral trade between Israel and the UK, he is even more so about a forthcoming series of events in 2017 leading up to the commemoration of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. Foremost among these will be a festival, Tel Aviv In London, which Regev hopes will launch this month, showcasing the best of Israeli culture. “It’s a particularly exciting event, to bring the creativity, the vibrancy of Tel Aviv, and expose it to people, whether it’s cuisine, culture, music, art, and to show a side of Israel people aren’t familiar with.”
He is upbeat about the way in which the festival will be received. “We have done a whole series of events this year, even before I became ambassador, and though there are people of hate out there, they have not managed to disrupt or interfere.
“In the real world, the boycotters are a complete failure. We have to show what Israel is really about, and not let people filled with hate set the agenda.”
Regev’s reputation for combativeness when he was Netanyahu’s spokesman has followed him to the UK. He has no fear about engaging with criticism of Israel, he says – “from my point of view there’s not a place in Britain that’s out of bounds. I intend to bring Israel’s positive message to groups across this country, that’s my goal”.
Those who “refuse to meet me out of hate,” he says, “are exposing themselves for exactly who they are.
If someone so demonises Israel that they refuse to engage, what does that say about them? Those haters say: ‘We’re not against Jews, it’s just the Israelis and the Zionists that that we hate.’ It’s such a lie. They have taken traditional hatred of the Jewish people and have transposed that to the Jewish state. They demonise the Jewish state the way they demonised the individual Jew. We are not talking about criticism of Israel; but you see in some quarters this irrational hate… there’s only one word for them.”
Nevertheless, the ambassador is optimistic about the possibilities for regional peace. He says: “Today we are having conversations, we are in communication with other states in the Middle East. For many years, the assumption was that Israel makes peace with the Palestinians and that opens up the Arab world for Israel. Maybe we are seeing the beginning of the opposite, in other words, by changing the atmosphere in the region, by greater dialogue between Israelis and Arabs, between the state of Israel and Arab governments; there is a new climate which will have a positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian track. That offers a certain amount of optimism as we enter the new year.
“Jewish people face challenges. We see hatred in Europe, we see turmoil in the Middle East, we see Islamic extremism – but there aren’t only challenges, there are also opportunities. And this realignment between us and the pragmatic Sunni states — this is a small revolution, and it’s something we have to nurture.”