Tzipi Hotovely: Building London bridges between Israel and the UK

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely after being assaulted: These people don’t represent British values.

Israeli Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely is seen speaking at the London School of Economics, on Tuesday, November 9, 2021. (photo credit: ISRAELI EMBASSY IN LONDON)
Israeli Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely is seen speaking at the London School of Economics, on Tuesday, November 9, 2021.

Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely was thrust into the headlines across Israel and Britain last week when she narrowly avoided an assault by an anti-Israel protester outside a talk she had given at the London School of Economics (LSE).

Ahead of the event, a student group posted calls on social media to smash the windows of Hotovely’s car, offering free beer to whoever succeeded.

When Hotovely walked out of the lecture hall, where she had been able to speak uninterrupted, there were protests outside, and – as seen in a video posted online – a man lunged at the ambassador and security guards pushed her into her car right on time.

The incident brought condemnations from across the cabinet in London, with the education and foreign secretaries and other ministers, as well as Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and members of his shadow cabinet taking umbrage. UK Home Secretary Priti Patel called Hotovely to personally express her outrage at the events.

Hotovely recounted the events to The Jerusalem Post Podcast this week.

 Member of the Likud party and Deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely visits at the Lindenbaum Seminary in Jerusalem on January 13, 2020. (credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90) Member of the Likud party and Deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely visits at the Lindenbaum Seminary in Jerusalem on January 13, 2020. (credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)

“I was invited by the students of LSE to give a lecture about Israel, followed by questions and answers,” she said. “It was an hour and a half of the event with no distractions, a very respectful event hosted by one of the professors in LSE, and I even received flowers from the students.

“When I walked out of the campus, as I was going in the very, very famous video, I was actually holding flowers.”

The protesters outside, from the Palestinian and Islamic students’ societies, among other campus groups, wanted to stop the event from taking place, she said.

“They were protesting against the basic idea of even speaking on campus.... The campus is not a place where these kinds of things should happen, because universities are all about exchanging views, about having debate about different things,” Hotovely said.

Some voices on the far Left took issue with the remarks against the protest and its violent turn. Socialist magazine Jacobin’s article on the incident and its aftermath featured the headline “In British Politics, Pro-Palestinian Activism Is Now Considered Criminal,” and argued that “Starmer’s Labour Party has added its voice to this authoritarian chorus.”

Hotovely, however, argued that “this is not about just criticizing certain policies.

“This is really using violence and bullying in order to silence a legitimate voice,” she added.

The positive side to the incident, Hotovely said, is the outpouring of support for her and for Israel that came soon after.

“The amazing thing about the event was the fact that the whole British government... was supporting Israel and supporting me as an ambassador, and they said [the incident] is crossing a redline,” she said. “I think this message created very good buzz around Israel.... It looked like public support around it was so positive because they realize that those people are not representing British values.”

Hotovely also responded to those saying the protest was about her, specifically, and her right-wing views and affiliation with the Likud Party when she was an MK and minister, by pointing out that her predecessors Mark Regev and Ron Prosor received similar receptions on university campuses in the UK.

“It’s really not about my political affiliation from the past,” she said. “It’s really about some people trying to silence the representatives of Israel. And the most important thing to understand is they don’t represent British mainstream. Those people are minority.”

Overall, Hotovely said, the UK is very positive toward Israel, and people should not take the incident at LSE as an example of broader views toward the Jewish state: “This is not Britain. This is not UK-Israel relations. Government-to-government, people-to-people, we’re in a very good momentum.

“BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] as a movement failed dramatically, because... the UK is still our third-largest trade partner.... Israel is very popular here for its leadership in technology. We heard Prime Minister Boris Johnson just [two weeks ago] at COP26 saying to the Israeli Prime Minister [Naftali] Bennett, ‘We should adopt the Israeli spirit,’ and he wants to move forward with a new trade deal,” she said.

ONE OF the ways in which Israel and the UK have grown closer is cooperation in combating COVID-19.

The pandemic was personally challenging for Hotovely – in March she spoke with The Jerusalem Post Magazine about the challenges of moving to a new country with three small children and starting out as an ambassador in a country in strict lockdown – but she said it brought a lot of opportunities to bolster ties between the countries.

“For a long while, I would open the newspaper and just see very, very good headlines about Israel’s vaccination rollout. We became the vaccination nation. And I think today, Israel was the first country to give the booster, and now the Brits are very much into the booster; they want to cover as many people as possible with the third jab. So health was a big issue here,” she said.

The UK’s National Health Service and Israel’s equivalent system plan to share best practices with each other, with a focus on the NHS learning from Israel about data digitization, Hotovely said.

SHE WAVED ASIDE claims that her right-wing politics would make her a less effective envoy to the UK, and unable to represent the current government, which includes a mix of political views.

“I think politics is one thing and being an ambassador is a totally different thing,” she said.

“Of course, I come with my personality. I’m very proud to be the first female ambassador [to the UK]. I bring that to the table. I bring the fact that I’m representing a younger generation in Israel” – she is 42 years old. “I’m an Orthodox woman, and some people in the Jewish community are really happy [about that]....

“But one thing I need to make clear.... There are totally different issues you deal with when you are a diplomat, representing Israel, than when you are a politician, because... the domestic issues are totally different than the ones we deal with with foreign governments.”

The top issues that she deals with as an ambassador, Hotovely said, are Iran, health and trade, none of which are partisan in Israeli domestic politics.

Hotovely was not able to go into much detail about her conversations with officials in London about Iran, which has said it would resume negotiations at the end of the month to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.

“At a certain point, we felt like the UK government was much closer to the Israeli approach than other countries that were part of the JCPOA, and we share the same goal,” she added, referring to preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon.

“The biggest problem at the moment is that the Iranians are using the time in which the international community doesn’t have any agreement on the table to continue and move forward with the nuclear program. And this is something that all the international community is really, really concerned about. So, I can’t really get too into the conversation, because it’s very classified, but it is something we need to be concerned [by], because... it’s not easy to bring the Iranians back to the table for a JCPOA-plus, because there are not enough incentives to Iranians to do that. This is the main concern at the moment,” she stated.

Hotovely called the Abraham Accords – peace and normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – “a game changer.” Her first meetings in London were with the Emirati and Bahraini ambassadors, and she met with her Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts, as well.

At the same time, she said it was not easy getting London to pay much attention to the event, dramatic as it was, because the British were very busy with Brexit. Still, she said the British Foreign Office was very supportive, and pointed to a newly launched parliamentary group for supporters of the Abraham Accords.

HOTOVELY SAID she finds UK domestic politics to be “fascinating,” and commended Starmer for trying to fight antisemitism in the Labour Party.

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was found by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission to have allowed antisemitism to fester in the party’s ranks, and Labour was found to be responsible for illegal acts of harassment and discrimination.

Hotovely attended a Labour Friends of Israel event this week, which was delayed due to a bomb threat, the Jewish News reported. Starmer apologized to the Jewish community for antisemitism in the Labour Party and spoke out against “anti-Zionist antisemitism.”

“The Labour Party is... trying to create a change,” Hotovely said. “It’s very clear that the leadership of Keir Starmer faces big opposition from people that are coming from the far Left. So, I would say that with the Labour Party, especially with what the Jewish community experienced during the Corbyn time, there is still a reconstruction.... The Jewish community is still skeptical.

“There are many Jews here that supported Labour historically, and there were very good ties between Labour and Israeli Zionist leadership in the beginning and at the establishment of Israel,” she said.

Overall, Hotovely said she finds the UK’s leadership is concerned about antisemitism, both on social media and violent attacks on the streets in recent months, which have led to criminal investigations.

“We have great support here from the British government, and we have the leadership of Labour trying to make a change and uproot antisemitism,” she said.

The full interview with Ambassador Hotovely can be heard on The Jerusalem Post Podcast, available on all major podcasting platforms.

Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.