Israel’s man in London: Ambassador Mark Regev will go anywhere

As ambassador, Mark Regev is involved in interfaith activities, and hosted an iftar dinner at his residence for members of Britain’s Muslim leadership.

Israel's Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israel's Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
WHEN HE arrived in England to take up his position as ambassador to the Court of St. James, Mark Regev was treated almost like a pop star.
As one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s advisers and international spokesman for Israel for more than eight years, Regev’s was a familiar face to British viewers and listeners of television and radio news and talk shows, as well as throughout the English-speaking world. Also, prior to being on loan to the Prime Minister’s Office, Regev had many years of experience of working in Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1960 as Mark Freiberg, Regev was active in Ichud Habonim, a socialist Zionist youth movement, as well as in the Melbourne University Jewish Students Society. A graduate of Mount Scopus Memorial College, the largest of Melbourne’s Jewish Day Schools, he emigrated from Australia to Israel after earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and modern history from the University of Melbourne.
Upon arriving in Israel, Regev worked on a kibbutz, served as a combat soldier in the Nahal Brigade, the main infantry brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, and earned a master’s degree in political science from the Hebrew University. He also changed his diaspora surname to a Hebrew one.
Prior to joining the Foreign Service in 1990, Regev worked as a lecturer on international relations and strategy at the IDF’s Staff College.
Rising through the diplomatic ranks, Regev served as vice consul in Hong Kong, then as first secretary at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing and spokesman at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
While in the US, he also added to his academic curriculum vitae and received a second master's in management from Boston University. Upon returning to Israel, he served as spokesman at the Foreign Ministry before being loaned out to the Prime Minister’s Office.
The London appointment is his first as ambassador. Regev took up the position in April 2016, and formally presented his credentials to the Queen two months later.
During a trip back to Israel, he told The Jerusalem Report he is enjoying his work very much, but is having some trouble persuading British Jewry that in his defense of Israel, be it in the media or on a university campus, he is not the hero.
Stating Israel’s case as ambassador is not much different to having done that as spokesman, he says. “In some ways it’s the same, and in some ways it’s different. Public diplomacy is an important part of an ambassador’s job, but it’s not the only part.”
Despite his long experience as a spokesman for Israel, he believes the time he spent in the Prime Minister’s Office provided the knowledge, understanding and experience to help his efforts to be an effective ambassador.
“It’s an interesting time to be an Israeli ambassador in London,” he says, citing the fascination with Brexit and where this will lead the United Kingdom.
Israel, however, is not taking a wait-and see attitude toward Brexit and the two governments already have established working groups to plan for the post-Brexit era.
On a bilateral level, he says, “it’s a dynamic time in the Israel-UK relationship,” citing “great momentum in economics and security, as well as on the political side.” But that’s not all that gives Regev a growing sense of optimism about the future of`UK-Israel relations. Twice over the past year he has been to the London Stock Exchange to witness an Israel bond sale being oversubscribed. In the past, he says, Israel bonds were regarded as a form of charity, but now they’re seen as a real investment.
Britain, according to Regev, is Israel’s largest export market in Europe. Last year, bilateral trade was in excess of $7.5 billion and it is anticipated that figures for 2017 will be somewhat higher.
Intensified economic relations will create additional job opportunities in both countries, says Regev.
There’s also very close cooperation between the two countries on security issues, especially in view of the terrorist attacks to which Britain has been subjected, including the recent Parsons Green London Underground bombing. This security cooperation will, in Regev’s view, make citizens of both countries safer and more secure.
Given the extent of Israeli representation at the Defense Equipment and Security International (DESI) show that is held every two years in Britain, it was only natural for Regev to attend and take pride in what Israel has produced. He was also very pleased to observe the esteem in which Israeli producers of security and defense equipment are held.
As a former student leader, Regev loves to speak to university students on campus, and the more challenging the interaction between him and the students, the more satisfaction he gets from it.
He has spoken at Oxford, Cambridge and other universities across the UK, but the most challenging speaking engagement was at Soas University in London. Soas Jewish and United Nations student societies had invited him to speak about peace prospects in the Middle East, but certain students and academics at the university objected, saying Regev was too controversial a figure and that his presence on campus could lead to serious tension and distress. More than 150 academics from Soas and other universities together with representatives of 40 student societies wrote to Soas director Lady Valerie Amos urging her to prevent him from speaking. But Soas has a policy of promoting freedom to debate, so the protests failed. In the final analysis, the tension was minimal and Regev was able to get his point across and “present the justice of Israel’s cause.”
He will go anywhere he’s invited to present Israel’s case.
“Nowhere is off limits,” he says, adding that he has even invited himself to a few places. “I’m willing to take Israel’s message to critical and hostile audiences.”
Probably the most critical has been the Palestinian representative in Britain, Manuel Hassassian, with whom Regev recently entered into a bitter public debate.
As ambassador, he is also involved in interfaith activities, and hosted an iftar dinner at his residence for members of Britain’s Muslim leadership. “The fact that British Muslims are willing to engage with the Israel ambassador sends a message of hope instead of hate,” says Regev.
He also is working to soothe members of the Conservative and Reform communities who feel delegitimized by recent decisions by the Israeli government. Regev has no problem meeting with members of non-Orthodox communities, and hopes that through these meetings he has been able to calm things to some extent.
“I want to engage with them,” he says. “The Jewish state was not established for one stream of Judaism, but for all Jews.”
Regev's visit to Israel came the day after he attended a pre-Rosh Hashana reception hosted by Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street and said this, too, was a sign of Britain’s warmth toward the Jewish community and Israel. Although many British prime ministers have issued greetings to the Jewish community for Rosh Hashana, May was the first to host a reception.
She told her many guests she was looking forward to the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which said the UK was in favor of a Jewish national home in Palestine, despite the efforts by pro-Palestinian groups to have the UK apologize for it.
“Born of that letter, the pen of Balfour, and of the efforts of so many people, is a remarkable country. Of course, there are great challenges in the region – and we will do everything we can to support efforts toward building a two-state solution – and the lasting peace that we all want to see,” she said.
When Netanyahu visits Britain in November at the invitation of Prime Minister Theresa May to participate in the centenary celebrations of the Balfour Declaration, it will be his second visit this year, after meeting with May in London in February.
Regev says “the embracement by the British government of the Balfour Declaration is not just looking back, but looking forward,” noting that the Israeli and British governments are committed to further developing their relationship at all levels.
“We have no better friend in Europe than the UK.''