Matthew Gould, the outgoing British ambassador to Israel – and the first Jew in the post – speaks to Jenni Frazer about life in the country, his achievements and prospects for peace.
It’s rare for an ambassador to extend his or her term of office. Rare, but not unknown. But it’s particularly rare for a British ambassador to Israel to extend their time in Tel Aviv.
Such, however, was the affection for Israel of both Matthew Gould – and his wife Celia – that the couple are now leaving, after an unprecedented five years of service, with real sadness and regret.
On the other hand, says Gould, the first Jewish diplomat to serve Britain in Israel, “I am very glad I signed on for a fifth year. It made a big difference.” We spoke in Gould’s last full week in Tel Aviv, amid a flurry of farewells.
He takes away with him the satisfaction of having created “a web of friendships” in Israel. It will be, he hopes, a network he can use in his next job.
He is to become director of cyber-security at the Cabinet Office in London, a field which, he says, “gives me a very nice excuse to continue the collaboration I have worked on during my time in Israel.”
If there has been a hallmark of the Gould years, it has been the building up of ever closer relationships between Britain and Israel in science and technology, security, medicine and trade.
Almost every week, a delegation from the UK arrives in Israel or vice versa, and while Gould, in typical diplomatic style, won’t claim all the credit, even he concedes that UK-Israel relations are in “very good shape”. But he is worried about the political atmosphere. “Leaving aside the small group of people who will oppose Israel whatever it does, I think that most people in Britain do view Israel through the prism of the Palestinian conflict. And the Palestinian problem will continue to sit like a question mark against the relationship with Israel.”
“Though I am wary of announcing that there is a last moment for the peace process, I don’t think things become easier over time. It becomes harder, not easier, in terms of trust, or a willingness to take the steps needed. And because the process is not moving forward, as time goes on, in fact it is moving backward, the truth is one would have to be hugely optimistic to look at the scene now and say that peace was on the cards, or imminent.”
The tech-aware ambassador continues to believe that there is a role for one-on-one diplomacy, even in the era of electronic and instant communication. “My core duty is to explain the country in which I serve to the British capital, and to explain the UK to Israel. Both these jobs are necessary even in our media age. And there are practical things that an ambassador can do. Making peace may be far off the scale, but we can do things in areas such as science and technology, and even with emails there is a role for personal approaches and human contact.”
With his counterparts Ron Prosor and Daniel Taub in Britain, Gould launched a chain of Holocaust survivor clubs in Israel. It remains one of the things of which he is most proud. “We have 21 clubs where people meet once or twice a week, serving 1,600 survivors. Soon we will expand to 25 clubs. It’s been a very powerful demonstration of the bond between the UK Jewish community and Israel and it has meant a lot to Celia and me.”
When he arrived in Israel, the conventional wisdom was that Israeli tech start-ups which wanted to expand globally looked principally to America. That has changed, says Gould; Israel knows the UK is its partner and that there is a growing roster of big UK companies eager to do business in Israel. He laughs: “And they know it’s not just a wild idea in my head.”
For Gould, the positives embodied in the science, medical, technology and cultural co-operations outweigh the negatives of the boycott campaigners. “I also think that co-operation is the reality. There is a constant stream of stuff going on between the two countries. I have been blessed with a fantastic team. There are a lot of people doing really positive things and for me that is a real source of happiness”.
Gould is being succeeded in Tel Aviv by a senior Foreign Office diplomat, David Quarrey. Gould’s own appointment, five years ago, was met with some unpleasant criticism, which he now says was “painful” because of the suggestion that as a Jew he would not be objective. “My skin is thicker now I am leaving Israel,” he says. But he always made it clear that as a “proud Jew” he was in Israel – which he loves – as the British ambassador, no more, no less.
He is hopeful that a future Jewish diplomat from the UK might have an easier passage. Now he is on his way back to the UK and he and Celia are having to explain to their two Israeli-born daughters that there will be fewer visits to the beach or the alpaca farm from their home in Hertfordshire. But one senses that in the Gould household, Israel will never be far from their hearts.