Meet the Ambassador: A return for the British ambassador

Neil Wigan returns to Israel after previous stint as political attaché.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN greets UK Ambassador Neil Wigan and his family at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem this week (photo credit: GPO)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN greets UK Ambassador Neil Wigan and his family at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem this week
(photo credit: GPO)
Although he is not the only foreign diplomat who was given a second posting to Israel, and although his Hebrew is not nearly as fluent as that of fellow ambassador Germany’s Dr. Susanne Wasum-Rainer, who is also here for the second time, and who will be speaking at the Jerusalem Post’s Diplomatic Conference on November 21, British Ambassador Neil Wigan arguably has a closer relationship to Israel than any of his colleagues.
Both his wife, Yael Banaji, and their two children are dual-nationals with both Israeli and British citizenship.
Wigan met his wife during his previous posting in Israel from 2002 to 2006, during which time he served as a political attaché. Since their marriage, he has been back to Israel several times on family visits and also on matters related to UK-Israel relations.
When he presented his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin in August, he said that he was excited to be returning in his present role.
Unlike some other diplomats who returned to Israel as first-time ambassadors after serving in lower ranking positions, Wigan has previously served as ambassador to Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Prior to his present posting, he was director for Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. An economist by training, before joining the FCO, he worked at the Bank of England and as an economist in the private sector.
In the public sector, he also worked for the prime minister’s policy adviser in the Cabinet Office; and on Middle Eastern and EU economic issues within the FCO.
Like many ambassadors designate who have to wait a month or two or even three before presenting their credentials, Wigan barely waited to take up his ambassadorial duties.
Only two days after arriving in Israel, and a day after settling into his office at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, he participated together with 30 members of the embassy in Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride parade.
Wigan’s immediate predecessor, David Quarrey, is openly gay, and came to Israel with his spouse, Aldo Henriquez.
Quarrey and Henriquez waved to the crowds from a British float at the parade, thereby setting a precedent for future British ambassadors.
The float this year was shaped like a London bus and featured a large slogan stating, “Love is Great Britain.”
In a subsequent interview with the London-based Jewish News, Wigan said that it had been fantastic celebrating shared values and inclusion, and having fun at the same time.
In fact, he tweeted a photograph of himself at the parade.
Although he was having fun, he was also actually working. The responsibilities of a British ambassador include political work, namely the enhancement of bilateral relations on a government to government level, trade and investment, media and cultural relations and officiating at or participating in ceremonies that have a strong a strong British component.
THUS, AT the beginning of last week, Wigan hosted the annual Armistice Day ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Ramle, and later in the week attended the annual Balfour Dinner hosted by the Israel Britain and the Commonwealth Association. Next year, he will also host the annual Queen’s Birthday reception, where he may again follow Quarrey’s example and have it in a large public area, rather than at the British residence, which in previous years tended to get very crowded.
Opting for larger, outside venues not only enabled expansion of the guest list, but also provided more room in which to promote British culture and industry, not to mention the ability of guests to move around with greater ease.
Cornered by this reporter soon after his arrival at the Balfour Dinner, Wigan agreed to be interviewed, but not immediately.
“I’m working,” he explained, and indeed he was, circling the room shaking hands and engaging in small talk with some of the large number of British expats who were present.
Wigan was in Israel in April three months after the announcement of his appointment, while Quarrey was serving the final weeks of his own posting. Wigan was here during both the April and September elections, and if there is a third round of elections, he’ll be here for that as well.
The Second Intifada and the Disengagement from the Gaza Strip took place during his first posting to Israel, and the embassy focus at the time was primarily on the peace process and ways in which to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While this is still on the agenda, and indeed he did tweet last week that the UK condemns the firing of rockets at civilians and calls on all sides to de-escalate the situation, the nature of the embassy’s work has broadened in scope. There is major collaboration between British and Israeli universities, especially in the areas of innovation and hi-tech. The bi-lateral relationship on security, fighting terrorism and combating antisemitism has intensified, with Britain endorsing the IHRA definition of antisemitism. There is also greater cooperation and collaboration in many other spheres.
Brexit notwithstanding, bi-lateral trade continues to be on the rise and last year went up by 15% to reach an all-time record of $11 billion. Figures could rise even further in 2020, based on UK interest in healthcare innovation, in which Israel, despite the national health crisis in the country, has great expertise.
Wigan told a recent annual Texchange meeting between Israelis and their UK counterparts that healthcare innovation has become increasingly important to the UK, which could benefit greatly from Israel’s medical technology capabilities.
Britain is also interested in other areas of Israeli hi-tech.
More Israeli companies than ever before are investing in Britain, including major companies such as Elbit, and in so doing, are helping to create thousands of jobs. British banks and various hi-tech companies are interested in working with Israeli start-ups, Wigan has said on various occasions.
Within the context of cooperation between universities in Israel and the UK, Wigan has made it his business to visit all the universities in Israel. The first was Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He also participated in the Weizmann Institute’s 70th anniversary celebrations, which is hardly surprising considering that Chaim Weizmann, for whom the institute is named, spent so many years in Britain before becoming the first president of Israel. In actual fact, Weizmann, who was an eminent scientist, founded the institute in 1934 in memory of Daniel Sieff, the son of the principal donors, British philanthropists Rebecca and Israel Sieff, and named it the Daniel Sieff Research Institute. It was renamed in honor of Weizmann in 1949.
NEXT YEAR, when WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization celebrates its centenary, Wigan will again join in the festivities in that WIZO was founded in London by Rebecca Sieff, Vera Weizmann and Romana Goodman.
Meanwhile, he has been busy reacquainting himself not only with Israeli organizations and institutions, but also with Israeli cuisine and entertainment, and has traveled the country from Haifa to Beersheba.
He enjoys Israeli comedy, and loves going to Israeli restaurants when he has the time. He thinks that the cuisine is even better than when he served in Israel 17 years ago.
He also wants to visit national parks to explore antiquities. To some extent, he has already done this.
When asked what his major challenges have been to date, he replied: “I don’t have any challenges.” But after a moment’s thought, he expanded on his answer, saying: “Not having enough time to see all the places I want to see and to meet all the people I want to meet.”
Out of all the things he’s managed to do so far, what impressed him most?
Stopping to cogitate, he wanted to be careful not to insult anyone, but had little difficulty in coming up with the answer.
“Joining Israeli Police and IDF search and rescue teams in looking for Oliver McAfee,” he said.
Two years after the Irish cyclist, last seen near Mitzpe Ramon, went missing, Israeli search and rescue teams, along with many volunteers, are still looking for him. Wigan joined the dog unit and the Har HaNegev team last month, and said he hopes that eventually the search will provide news one way or the other for McAfee’s family.
On a somewhat happier note, he has been exploring the different religious communities in Israel – Muslims in Haifa, Christians in Nazareth and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in Jerusalem and Elad.
During Sukkot, he was invited to someone’s sukkah in Elad, after having continued with the tradition of his two predecessors of putting up a sukkah in the grounds of the British residence, together with members of AKIM, the organization for people with intellectual disabilities.
Now, he wants to go to Bnei Brak, and develop an even closer relationship with the haredi community.
This is actually not a new thing for British ambassadors.
It is also something that one of his predecessors, Matthew Gould, who was ambassador from 2010 – 2015 did very early during his posting.
One custom in which he has not yet followed several of his predecessors in doing is singing Israel’s national anthem.
At the IBCA dinner, he was asked to propose the toast to President Reuven Rivlin which he did in a mix of English and Hebrew, but simply stood to attention for “Hatikvah” without joining in. On the other hand, Daniel Taub, Israel’s British-born former ambassador to the UK from 2011 to 2015, who proposed the toast to the queen, had no problem singing “God Save the Queen.”
Nor did the other British expats at the dinner, who gave a robust rendition of the British national anthem, singing it with the same gusto as “Hatikvah.”