One of the highlights in the career of British Ambassador David Quarrey was the two years that he spent working as private secretary to Tony Blair during the latter’s term as prime minister. “It’s a real privilege to work at Number 10 Downing Street,” Quarrey said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last Tuesday.
In elaborating on the privilege, Quarrey had spoken of the people he met and the places he visited while working with Blair, and the excitement that this had generated.
He vividly remembered a meeting that Blair had in New York with Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon, when both were attending the United Nations General Assembly.
They told Blair that they had first met in the office of Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in the early 1950s. Each, from different perspectives, recounted his personal history in the context of Israel’s development, and they couldn’t agree on anything.
During that two-year period, Quarrey had the opportunity to meet with many world leaders, including a regular flow of senior Israeli officials who included Ehud Olmert, Silvan Shalom and Tzipi Livni. Of the non-Israeli leaders, Quarrey’s most memorable experience was meeting with Nelson Mandela, who after long years of incarceration became president of South Africa.
Quarrey, who joined the Foreign Office in 1994, had not set out to be a diplomat after graduating from Cambridge University. In fact, he didn’t really know what he wanted to do, so he took a summer job as a chauffeur driving someone to Royal Ascot. His client happened to be in advertising, and was sufficiently influential persuading the young Quarrey to give it a shot. He remained in advertising for seven years, but after that he realized that what he really wanted was to work in government and travel abroad.
That wanderlust was deeply ingrained. He had traveled extensively in his youth, because his father worked for British Airways. In fact, one of the things that British ambassadors do is promote British Airways among other British service and industrial enterprises.
“I have no problem in promoting British Airways,” he conceded.
Despite his long years of service, during which he served in UK missions in Harare, New Delhi and the United Nations in New York, Israel is Quarrey’s first ambassadorial posting. He’d already been to Israel some 22 to 23 times in his various capacities, and when given the chance to serve as an ambassador, he specifically asked for Israel.
“There is no question that this is the most challenging era in this part of the world,” he explained.
He spends a lot of time talking to people from every walk of life, to get their take on the possibility of peace.
“It’s important for any diplomat to understand the full range of opinions from across the spectrum and to get under the skin of the places to which they have been assigned. We should ask ourselves every week: ‘Are we talking to the right people?’” From his many and varied conversations, he’s gotten the sense that people are interested in peace but find it difficult to move forward.
“The gap in mistrust is a big problem. The two-state solution is the best for long-term security for Israel, and justice for the Palestinians.”
Quarrey believes that what is happening now, in geopolitical terms and in “the shared interest in combating extremism and terrorism, presents great opportunities for Israel to recast its relations with the Arab world.”
There is a huge collective interest in fighting against terrorism, because it threatens everyone, he said.
One of the things he loves about Israel is the quality and intensity of debate. “If you’re like me, interested in politics and history, you get a level of debate that you won’t get anywhere else. It’s the intensity of the debate that I find attractive.”
From a professional standpoint, he also knew, as a former director for foreign policy in Britain’s National Security Secretariat, and more recently, as director for the Near East and North Africa, that Israel was a very important posting for the UK. He believed it would be “fascinating and challenging,” and he’s found that to be the case.
Even while he was still ambassador designate, he immediately had to buckle down to work to prepare for the visit, which was scheduled to occur only a few days after his arrival in the country, of then-British foreign secretary Philip Hammond, who found it difficult to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the nuclear deal that had been struck with Iran would be more beneficial than harmful to the Middle East.
Quarrey is the first openly gay British ambassador to Israel. He arrived in July last year with his spouse, Aldo Oliver Henriquez, who accompanied him when he presented his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin in August 2015.
This caused somewhat of a flurry in the Israeli media.
Rivlin gave Henriquez a hearty welcome, wished both men the best of luck and told them that he hoped that they would feel at home in Israel.
Since then, they have encountered similar attitudes.
“We haven’t felt tolerated, we’ve been warmly welcomed,” said Quarrey in response to a question about how they have adjusted to Israel. “There’s been nothing negative. It’s all been mainly positive.”
They participated in this year’s gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, which they thought was “fantastic,” and following the murder of Shira Banki during the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade in 2015, they reached out to Israeli Gay Youth, which in turn reached out to them.
His predecessors at the British Embassy consistently engaged with all sectors of Israeli society, including the ultra-Orthodox, and Quarrey has continued this policy.
He has visited institutions in Bnei Brak, where he has been treated like any other foreign dignitary, even though his hosts were aware that he was gay because some of them had attended functions at the British Residence, where Henriquez was standing alongside Quarrey to greet them.
Henriquez had also previously been to Israel. He spent 12 years in the employ of the United Nations, and while stationed Cyprus, he took the short trip to Israel.
The two love Tel Aviv. “We like eating in Tel Aviv,” Quarrey admitted with a grin.
Asked whether he had ever sampled the food in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, Quarrey was most emphatic about that experience.
In November of last year, he took current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who was then the mayor of London, on a tour of Mahaneh Yehuda, where the exuberant Johnson had exchanged greetings with stall keepers.
When they got to Machneyuda Restaurant, whose owners Tomer Amedi, Assaf Granit, Uzi Navon and Yossi Elad have opened Palomar, another highly successful, prize-winning Israeli restaurant in London, Johnson insisted on doing some of the cooking.
Quarrey wouldn’t comment on Johnson’s culinary abilities.
“I ate the food cooked by the chef,” he said. “Some of our guests ate what Boris Johnson cooked.”
Israeli cuisine, and Mediterranean cuisine in general, is very popular in London, said Quarrey, citing Ottolenghi as another example, which is owned by Jerusalem-born Yotam Ottolenghi.
In his younger days, Quarrey played tennis, but hasn’t had time to pursue the game.
The residence has a swimming pool, which is about the extent of his exercise, but he and Henriquez also like to go walking through the parks of Israel, he said.
When he has time, which is infrequent, he likes to read history and fiction, but as he is hosting events morning, noon and night, and has reason to be in Jerusalem two or three times a week, reading for pleasure has become a rare luxury. On the coffee table in his office is a book titled Mitzvah Day 2016 Report.
Asked if he could pinpoint what he had achieved in his time as ambassador, Quarrey said that he had a good inheritance from his immediate predecessor, Matthew Gould, and that he was building on that. Cooperation in trade, investment, science, technology, security and defense is better than it has ever been before, and there is also a strong political relationship.
“Ours is a modern, dynamic partnership,” he said.
He downplays the importance of BDS, noting that trade figures speak for themselves.
Unlike some pessimists, Quarrey is convinced that Brexit should not be perceived with a gloom and doom attitude.
“We ought to look at Brexit as an opportunity to do more, so that “the UK will be a gateway for Israel.”
He’s certainly doing his bit to encourage two-way investment and joint ventures, pointing out that Israelis feel comfortable in the UK because the legal system is similar and because so many Israelis have been educated at British universities.
The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference will take place on November 23 in Jerusalem.