Mark Regev spent his final nights as Israel’s ambassador to the Court of St James hanging out with Akiva, Elisheva, Shulem and other members of the cast of Shtisel.
Not literally, of course, in these socially-distanced days.
But the clearing of the envoy’s usually packed evening schedule in mid-March gave him a chance to catch up on some of hit Israeli dramas others had spent so much of the last four months enthusiastically telling him about. “
When I met other ambassadors in London they’d say ‘I’ve been watching this or that show’,” he told the Jewish News last Friday on his final day in the job.
“There’d be almost an expectation you are an expert but I hadn’t watched them as so many evenings were spent at dinners or talks or fundraisers. During Covid-19, I thought I wasn’t doing my job now that I had free time if I wasn’t becoming that expert.”
Not that the final days of his four-year term have exactly been ripe for the Australian-born diplomat to put his feet up with controversy surrounding his successor, settlements minister Tzipi Hotovely, and frenetic debate about the planned annexation of parts of the West Bank which, according to critics, would end hopes for the two-state solution.
He is clear that it’s an issue of “Israeli sovereignty. We don’t use the word annexation – annexation is taking something that’s not yours. We believe we have a legitimate claim to territories in the West Bank from a legal, historical and security point of view. We don’t deny that other people have a claim but rival claims have to be sorted out”.
In words that offer some room for Jerusalem’s position to soften at the eleventh hour, he stressed that ministers were still consulting allies like the US and Britain and remained cogniscent of existing peace treaties and growing contacts with the Arab world. The EU’s foreign policy chief has suggested going ahead would have “significant consequences” for the bloc’s relations with Israel but Regev declined to say whether he feared Boris Johnson’s strong condemnation of the plans meant it could also undermine UK-Israel ties. “The goal of any policy would be strengthen stability and security,” he said. “But let’s say we and the British end up having a difference of opinion. Do you have the shock absorbers on the vehicle that can help you handle the bumps in the road? That’ll be the test – when everything’s going fine you don’t need skilled diplomats.”
We don’t use the word annexation – annexation is taking something that’s not yours. We believe we have a legitimate claim to territories in the West Bank from a legal, historical and security point of view. We don’t deny that other people have a claim but rival claims have to be sorted out
But it’s not just on the bilateral front that his diplomatic skills were required in recent weeks following a unprecedented letter from 42 high-profile British Jews suggesting the move risked further polarising opinion on Israel in the community and moving Diaspora Jews away from engaging with the Jewish state. Asked if he recognised the right of the group – including Sir Mick Davis, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Anthony Julius to speak out, he said: “I recognise that just as Jewish Israelis will have a variety of views you’ll get a variety of views in the UK Jewish community. I’m just asking for anyone who has alternative policy suggestions that they should respect the outcome of what was ultimately a democratic election.”
Far from being an approach pursued by the right alone, he insisted, former PM Yitzchak Rabin spoke in the Knesset about the “necessity that the Jordan Valley stayed under Israeli control in any long-term reality”. He urged critics everywhere to see the “upside. If you paint this as a train wreck leading to the end of peace with our neighbours of course you’re against it. It’s more complicated. You’re presuming the Israeli government is going to act in an irresponsible way and there’s no basis for that. Give us more credit. We will pursue this in a way that looks at the opportunities and at the same time we’ll need to minimise the challenges and potential negative blowback.”
Regev has never been afraid of stepping into the lion’s den whether as international media spokesman for Benjamin Netanyahu before arriving in London or in making a visit to SOAS one of his first engagements here.
Another potential battle he faced was over the centenary of the Balfour Declaration – and he has no hesitation in describing that historic moment in 2017 as the highlight of his tenure.
Amid a campaign for an apology for the 1917 document and voices within Whitehall suggesting it should neither be lamented nor celebrated, a dinner was held in London in the presence of both Bibi and then PM Theresa May.
“If that not a celebration I don’t know what is,” said. “It was a wonderful event. The fact it happened amid opposition to the idea of an event made it especially important.”
If you paint this as a train wreck leading to the end of peace with our neighbours of course you’re against it. It’s more complicated. You’re presuming the Israeli government is going to act in an irresponsible way and there’s no basis for that. Give us more credit.
Another historic moment came with the first – and then second – official Royal visit to Israel when Prince William and Prince Charles touched down in Tel Aviv 20 months apart. Regev said some in Israel had long wondered whether there was an “unofficial boycott” of Israel, but added: “The fact it happened demonstrated the strength of the relationship between the two countries: defence, economic, the political relationship. The visit itself was wonderful but it symbolises other things that are more important.”
Asked if the heir to the throne’s trip to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz would have gone ahead if Jeremy Corbyn had won the keys to Downing Street a month earlier, he said he “could only speculate and I don’t want to speculate to the media”.
But with Sir Keir Starmer at the helm, he said, Israel hoped for a return to the “traditional relationship we had with leaders of the British Labour Party that was typified by the last four Labour prime ministers”.
While international trade has slowed amid the pandemic, Regev was confident that the upward trend that has seen year-on–year growth in bilateral trade would continue once we come through it. Comparing last year’s record 9bn of bilateral trade to the India-UK figure of around 20bn “We are boxing well above our weight. In the past people thought about Israel purely as a place where there are security challenges and maybe they thought of a kibbutz or a Jaffa orange. Today they think about innovation and hi-tech and start-ups. I can’t tell you how many times I was at the stock exchange to see the listing of Israel companies. The city is interested in Israel, British business is interested in Israel. It’s very exciting.”
We are boxing well above our weight. In the past people thought about Israel purely as a place where there are security challenges and maybe they thought of a kibbutz or a Jaffa orange. Today they think about innovation and hi-tech and start-ups. I can’t tell you how many times I was at the stock exchange to see the listing of Israel companies
Now back in Israel, Regev is using his 14 days in quarantine to finish calling many of those he hadn’t had a chance to say farewell to and preparing for what he “hopes” will be his next challenge.
“The Embassy will let you know as soon as possible,” he says teasingly.
“Nothing’s finalised until it’s finalised.”
As for when Brits might be able to join him in the country once again, he insisted it would be “irresponsible” to try to put a timescale on it. “It depends on what happens in Israel, what happens in the UK, how quickly we get this virus behind us.”