The Israeli Embassy in London is one of Israel’s biggest and most important, in terms of trade, security and other partnerships. It’s also led by three women these days: Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely, Deputy Ambassador Sharon Bar-Li and Minister Counsellor for Political Affairs Dana Erlich.
In honor of International Women’s Day, the Magazine decided to check in with the team of smart, strong women representing Israel in the United Kingdom.
Hotovely spoke of the differences between her being an ambassador and a politician, having been an MK in Likud for eight years, as well as settlements minister and deputy foreign minister, among other positions.
“We seek each other’s advice a lot and have a feeling of teamwork on everything,” she said. “People talk about feeling lonely at the top. I was alone because of lockdowns, but I felt we are working together… We had an experience of bonding and of sisterhood that I think made us productive. We had a lot of trust; we share with one another and have respect for the process, not just the result.”
Having a female ambassador also changes the face Israel presents to the world, Hotovely explained.
“It sends a message. I think a society is measured by the status of its women, by who reaches the top roles.
“Israel and the UK have a special thing in common. We both had female prime ministers in a time when very few other countries did. We should be proud of Golda [Meir], the second woman in the world to reach the top of the pyramid, and [Margaret] Thatcher is an icon in British politics. Love her or hate her, she shaped the British economy,” Hotovely said.
Bar-Li emphasized, “We are professionals, we’re not just doing our job as women.”
But she said having a female-dominated embassy has advantages.
“We leave our egos on the side and feel very free to talk and seek advice from one another. We work with our doors open… I feel comfortable being vulnerable with my female colleagues, without looking weak. We strengthen one another.”
Erlich posited that diplomacy is a career in which characteristics that stereotypically belong to women are helpful, such as emotional intelligence, an ability to communicate, to multitask and to pay attention to details.
“When I started in the Foreign Service 11 years ago, I was used to being the only woman in the room. Now when there are more women than men in the room, I don’t always think about it. It’s become obvious. We have a greater presence,” Erlich said.
As for the challenges of being a woman in a senior diplomatic role, Hotovely pointed to the strict lockdowns in the UK due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m a mother to three small girls and I arrived here to a reality in which there is no school for a long time. It’s also an age issue, if you’re a 60-year-old ambassador, then that’s beyond you… It’s not just women; it’s young women,” Hotovely, 42, said.
While Hotovely was used to working long hours as a politician, moving her whole family to another country added another facet to handle. She was grateful to her colleagues who have experience in that area for reaching out and giving her advice.
DIPLOMACY IN the age of coronavirus has been challenging. Hotovely did not get the traditional audience with Queen Elizabeth to present her credentials and all of her meetings have been virtual, not face-to-face.
“Diplomacy is built on interpersonal relationships, and it doesn’t work as well on a screen. We’re all suffering from it,” she said.
Still, Hotovely emphasized the “great opportunities” that can be found in the pandemic.
For example, the ambassador quipped that the embassy’s spokesman got more positive press for Israel than any of his predecessors.
“The headlines about Israel are about us leading the world in vaccines. People are looking up to us and we are a model for the world in getting out of this crisis. It created a positive discourse about Israel beyond the conflict,” Hotovely said.
The UK is often a battleground for Israeli public diplomacy, and most Israeli ambassadors in London are met with a hostile academia and very critical civil society.
But Israel’s COVID-19 response, as well as the Abraham Accords – in which the Jewish state established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – created a more positive conversation around Israel, the ambassador said.
Brexit has also contributed to strengthening Israel-UK ties, and the embassy has been working on building a better trade deal between the countries that will take the many areas of interchange into consideration, such as cyber technology.
And as the leader in Europe in vaccinating, as well as in scientific research, the UK is very interested in working with Israel on pandemic response.
“Scientific cooperation really flourished recently,” Hotovely said. “There is cooperation between our health ministries. Israeli professionals in relevant areas… were guests of honor at roundtables in Parliament. Israel at its best encountered the high quality of British scientific research.”
Bar-Li said it was “nice to see how, at a difficult time like this, the countries worked together to help each other, whether in the time when we needed ventilators, or later, when we exchanged best practices.”
Erlich said her contacts in various UK government ministries appreciated that Israeli diplomats were “here, for better or for worse” during the pandemic.
“A lot of us haven’t seen our families in a long time and some of us got sick, but we’re all in this together,” she said.
Israeli ambassadors also keep in contact with the local Jewish community, and Hotovely said she was received by UK Jewish groups with “great warmth – even if it was on Zoom.”
“It’s very important to us as an embassy,” Hotovely said. “This is a significant Jewish community, one of the biggest in the world, with a great connection to Zionism.”
Asked about how she responded and plans to respond to the antisemitism that British Jewry has faced in recent years, Hotovely commended the government of the UK.
“Fighting antisemitism is not just a Jewish and Israeli topic. It’s a disease that infects any society in which it exists. Societies must fight the diseases of racism and xenophobia. The UK government was the first in Europe to adopt [the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism], and it is doing good work advancing it in universities,” she said. “There is good cooperation with the government in fighting antisemitism.”
In recent years, BDS and anti-Israel groups have been on the decline in the UK, and the focus has shifted away from Israel, Hotovely said.
Bar-Li said, “BDS failed,” and pointed to the trade agreement between the UK and Israel.
“If you look at the trajectory, year after year trade has increased. There is no better proof than that of BDS’s failure. They became irrelevant. They’re not relevant to the post-Brexit psyche, which is looking for more economic opportunities. Israel here is seen as a place for cooperation, because of hi-tech and academic excellence and innovation… BDS is an anachronism,” Bar-Li said.
DESPITE ALL the challenges, moving her family during a pandemic and trying to do her new job as a diplomat when she can’t have face-to-face meetings, Hotovely said she’s glad she took a break from politics to become ambassador.
“I feel like I’m doing very important reserve duty. I’m serving my country,” Hotovely said. “This was a very drastic change even after four years at the Foreign Ministry, which I really loved… I think the big advantage is that it has given me perspective. Our politics are so internal, and now I’m seeing the world.”
The UK, Hotovely explained, is “an important bridge between Europe and the US and is very central in our relations. The triangle of US, UK and Israel on security and intelligence is of strategic importance and like no other.”
“Serving here is so important. The depth and perspective I’m getting – I wouldn’t give up on it, even with the difficulties of coronavirus and moving my family.”