Diplomacy: Fostering a ‘win-win’ relationship

Speaking to the ‘Post,’ outgoing envoy Daniel Taub says he’s optimistic about the future of Israeli-British relations, but the ever-growing threat of BDS must be addressed.

By JERRY LEWIS
August 9, 2015 00:46
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Members of the Jewish community in north London . (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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LONDON – Daniel Taub completed his four year term as ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s last weekend, knowing that his brand of diplomacy sprinkled with humor and benefiting from his legal background has helped steer Israel through some quite testing times.

During his tenure, besides two wars in Gaza, he has had to contend with an increasingly vocal campaign against Israel’s legitimacy, originating mainly from those associated with the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and the problematic vote in the House of Commons last October calling for an early recognition of the “State of Palestine.”

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His harshest words and only direct criticism during a lengthy valedictory interview were aimed at some of UK universities’ top administrators, vice chancellors among others, who he said “ought to know better” and whom he accused of “caving in to intimidation from extremists.”

Taub told The Jerusalem Post that thanks to the long-standing excellent relations between the two governments, enhanced by the sterling work done by his counterpart in Tel Aviv, Matthew Gould, who likewise completed his term as ambassador last month, he remains optimistic for the future relationship, as Britain and Israel start preparations for the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Balfour Declaration, to be celebrated in 2017.

Israel, he conceded, does face a number of challenges.

However, he maintained, with the support of his “wonderful colleagues” at the Israel Embassy, he had set his strategy concentrating on tackling these challenges by building “new bridges,” and he is leaving with the feeling that they had achieved their goal establishing new links across the whole of the UK.

“We see that there are attempts to break down channels of communication, attempts to delegitimize Israel itself, and there we have to be very, very active,” he said, adding that Israel must continue to reach out. “We have to work with our partners to try and confront those [challenges], and that is one of the things we have been doing.”



So Taub was asked, didn’t he find visiting university campuses one of the most difficult of his many assignments? Clearly not. Yes, there could be people who disagree with his position, some will be standing up and shouting, others will be demonstrating outside, but he had a far more positive take. In most cases he found that once engaging with people he met, he could have “very meaningful, intelligent discussions and, in most cases, very productive sessions.”

Reminded of his visit to the University of Edinburgh, which was disrupted by hecklers, he recalled dealing with them by persuading them to invite him back to give the very lecture some of them had disrupted.

“It went very well and we had a very, very valuable discussion. They were very interested and impressed with my lecture,” he added.

And he said he relished the opportunities for intellectual debate, not just on the core subject of the Middle East; rather, by broadening the range of issues, depending on his audience, be they from a law faculty or a literature department, he was able to share perspectives of Israeli life, an aspect of his job that he said he enjoyed the most.

But underlying his willingness to combat antagonism toward Israel on campuses, he had harsh words for the administrators of several universities.

“I found that the administration, the heads of the universities who you would have expected to know better, have caved in to intimidation from extremists, and I think one of the very important messages that we need to give to university administrations is that they are custodians of a very important intellectual space, and their job is to protect that space, to allow Israelis and other people to come and speak and to engage.”

So how did he cope with the two Gaza wars – Operation Cast Lead and Operation Protective Edge – during his term of office? They were both rated “difficult” but for two differing reasons, one professional and the other personal.

The professional issue was caused by the fact that one “saw an image of what is going on in the region portrayed [in a way that is] very, very far from the image that we know, [that] the people living in Israel know.”

As for the personal dimension, he explained that while his wife, Zehava, and he were here, “We have two sons who are serving in the IDF, and to be here, fighting the fight that we are fighting for Israel’s legitimacy but knowing that our kids are fighting a much more real, a much more immediate, fight for Israel’s security, is a difficult thing to do.”

Israel’s relations with Britain have certainly become warmer and closer during Taub’s watch. He described them now as “very close,” in large part due to the current British leadership, which he said recognizes that the two countries have “common values” and “common challenges.” Both sides, he explained, had worked very hard to broaden the range of issues on which they cooperate, and this meant not just political and security issues. An example was joint trade, and he was proud that during his four years it had doubled and the trend was continuing.

Equally important were the joint research projects, especially in hi-tech and science, and all this was enhanced by the many senior British government ministers and shadow ministers visiting Israel.

“The most powerful impression that you can make on somebody is when they see the reality of Israel, and we have been lucky that we have had some very high-level Israeli figures come over to visit the UK.

They are all signs of a very healthy relationship,” he added.

But had there not been problems – some visiting Israeli politicians facing the risk of arrest on alleged war crimes charges? Taub would not comment on the confidential discussions on such issues with the British government, though he added that they were concerned about the possibility that “there might be political groups which will try and take advantage of the legal situation in the UK to make political statements.

But the fact is that we have worked very closely with the British government and with the relevant British officials, and I am pleased to say that nothing like that has happened so far, and we are going to work very hard to make sure that it does not happen in the future.”

He expressed special praise again for Gould, whom he described as a remarkable ambassador, and he cited the “absolute passion” the British ambassador had shown in deepening the business and technology relations. They had partnered each other in identifying opportunities in what he called a “winwin situation.”

“It is a model of how diplomacy can actually produce benefits for both sides. It is an absolute pleasure, and I hope that kind of cooperation will continue,” he added.

Was not last October’s House of Commons vote on a motion calling for early recognition of a Palestinian state – albeit a nonbinding resolution – something of a black mark on his period in the UK? Taub said it was very helpful for Israel to know that the government did not favor the vote nor did it participate in it. However, there was a message for Israel to take away from the event.

“It did remind us of how important it is to make it clear to the British government and to the British people that the way to help the Palestinians is not through encouraging them to engage in unilateral initiatives.

We have had decades of unilateral initiatives, including votes in the United Nations, and they actually haven’t helped the situation of Palestinians in the region one iota,” he said, adding that the only way forward is face-to-face negotiations.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron received strong praise from the ambassador.

He said he had been “enormously touched and moved by the depth of his concern for the people of Israel and the depth of his understanding for the challenges we face.” That sort of support, Taub added, was “enormously appreciated.”

Taub, 53, came to London, the city where he was born and where his parents still live, without having served previously in an embassy before. He was the Foreign Ministry’s deputy legal adviser, and as such he had considerable experience in some of the negotiation sessions with the Palestinians, which he could draw upon to illustrate some of the difficulties facing Israel in attempting to secure a peace agreement.

Was his legal background an asset in his term as ambassador? Absolutely, he said, explaining that every diplomat has a kit bag in which they carry their various skills and which they try to deploy as part of their diplomatic initiatives. He found having a “legal toolbox” particularly useful because as issues arose, such as boycotts, “it is helpful to get to grips with them.”

He added, though, that he had not sought to speak to people’s legal minds but rather to address their hearts, other parts of their personalities. For much of the time, he acknowledged, he spent trying to remind himself “that there is a lot more to being a diplomat than being a lawyer, and so I was trying to develop some of those other skills as well.”

Reference was made earlier to Taub’s comedian skills, and he certainly used every opportunity to produce a good laugh before getting down to the nitty-gritty of his speeches. One thing, he said, he quickly learned: People did not mind if he repeated a speech, but, he observed, if you repeat a joke, you are close to being a dead man, so you have to keep trying to come up with new material.

Humor, he added, was a great way of breaking down barriers, and with the British having a “tremendous comic tradition,” he enjoyed the opportunity to try to take advantage of this.

He illustrated his trademark comic skill recalling a dinner he attended last year with Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne – who many believe will take over as Britain’s premier when Cameron decides to step down, and who Taub said is a “very good friend of Israel.”

Osborne had remembered in his youth bemoaning the fact that – by being a Christian – he had been deprived of having a bar mitzva, suffering “trauma” as he saw his Jewish friends enjoying the spoils of the event.

Taub made the next speech at the dinner, and he did it with great aplomb and against a background of very loud laughter.

“I presented him with a belated bar mitzva present, along with a letter from his Uncle Moishe and Auntie Sadie, and so on and so forth, and he thought that was wonderful.” Extracts from the letter of the fictitious Moishe and Sadie had everyone in fits of laughter.

But Taub made clear, too, that humor has a serious point. Not all the issues being dealt with are comic. Diplomats were often dealing with very serious issues, “but part of the job of being a diplomat is to use all of the tools and all of the full range of possibilities of communication.

Humor was both a funny one and an important one.”

How did he feel being born British and returning to the UK to become ambassador for Israel? The last person to ask him that question had been the queen, when he presented his credentials four years ago.

His reply then was to express how honored he was that it had fallen to him to raise his children in their historic homeland after a 2,000 year exile. But he reminded the queen that when one looked at his family’s history, their times of greatest opportunity and greatest hope were while they lived in Britain.

“I said four years ago that I hoped to be able to express my appreciation for that by deepening the relations between our two countries. And as I leave, one of the things that gives me the greatest sense of satisfaction is that I hope in a small way I have been able to do that.”

Mention of the queen afforded the opportunity to ask the perennial question: When – if ever – will there be a royal visit to Israel? Wouldn’t the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Balfour Declaration in 2017 provide a wonderful backdrop to a first state visit by a British monarch to Israel? Taub, ever the diplomat, skirted around the issue, besides saying that a royal visit would be “wonderful.” However, as regards the Balfour Declaration anniversary, Israel is just at the beginning of the planning stages to mark “that extraordinary moment when Britain committed itself to the establishment of a Jewish homeland.”

But he had one clear vision about the anniversary.

“What I would like to see those events capture is the recognition that if anyone who was involved at the time of the Balfour Declaration could visit Israel today, in 2015, even if they would visit the worst streets in Israel on the worst day of the year, it would exceed their wildest dreams. If we can capture that spirit of Israel today being a miracle that exceeds the dreams of our great-grandparents, we will be doing something very important.”

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