Editor's Notes: A most intriguing ambassador

Matthew Gould, Britain’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel, has no hesitation in acknowledging ‘my love of Israel’ in an interview.

Gould 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gould 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Matthew Gould says he hasn’t counted how many ambassadors Britain has appointed to the modern state of Israel, but estimates it “must be in the low teens.” Of these envoys, he is likely one of the youngest – not yet having turned 40 – but far more intriguingly, he is certainly the first who is Jewish.
And Gould is not incidentally Jewish, or awkwardly Jewish, as seems so often to be the case with British Jews who rise high in politics and diplomacy. He is passionately and comfortably Jewish.
For me, an ex-British Jew a few years older, discussing his childhood and background over coffee last week made for a conversation in which plenty of his experiences resonated with mine.
Gould is charming and reasonably candid – choosing to vouchsafe a dramatic, defining incident from his family’s past. He was, in fact, as candid as a newly appointed, unprecedentedly Jewish ambassador to that problematic State of Israel could possibly be expected to be in an interview with the editor of a newspaper whose editorial line on blame and possibilities in the peace process often differs quite significantly from that of the British Foreign Office.
Meeting him less than two months after I had interviewed his departing predecessor Sir Tom Phillips, it was impossible not to be struck by the similarity of some of their answers on those British policies, and by the contrast this constituted with Israeli norms. Whereas our prime minister and his foreign minister, to take the most glaring example, often set out two entirely conflicting world views, the outgoing and the incoming British envoy, no matter how different their backgrounds, plainly read from the very same diplomatic rule book. Questions as to whether Gould’s Jewish heritage might have engendered a more forgiving attitude than Phillips had displayed toward Israeli claims in Judea and Samaria, for instance, were swiftly and efficiently dispatched.
Still Phillips, self-evidently, could not have made this kind of comment: “I do think that one of the things that being Jewish and having my background gives me is an appreciation of what security means to the Israeli people, to the Jewish people... From a very young age I was taught about the struggle for independence, the Six Days War and so on. I think I can say I have a more visceral understanding of what security means, and what craving for security means.”
The new ambassador, who was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) at the precocious age of 26 for his role in arranging the Blair government’s London Conference on Nazi Gold in December 1997, is razor-sharp, confident, extroverted and disarming – a highly potent combination. It lies at the heart of his career success, which has notably included an effective stint as deputy head of mission for Britain in Teheran. There too, true to form, he made no secret of his Jewishness, went to shul, and had no hesitation in intervening on behalf of the Jewish community and other minority communities when appropriate.
Although Israel “loomed large in my childhood,” Gould does not presume to know the country inside out. Far from it. He spoke to British Jews and British Muslims at length about this region before coming here. And he intends to speak to Israeli Jews and Arabs, and anybody else, as he shapes his thinking now that he’s arrived.
“My most important task here is not to come and wag a finger and tell the Israelis what the answers are,” he says at one point.
“The single most important thing I can do here is to listen – and to listen not just to the people who agree with British policy, but to go round the country and talk to the Right and the Left. Talk to settlers. Talk to Israeli Arabs. Talk to the religious and secular.
And really get a sense for myself of where Israeli thinking is, and where the divides are in Israeli society, and what motivates people, and what their fears are, and what their worries are. I need to spend the next few months doing that. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
His earnest, affable appeal is such, I suspect, that his Israeli protagonists will pour out their hearts to Gould, this tantalizing appointee who is both one of our own and one of them.
His appointment, as he rightly asserts, “sends a nice signal about the maturity and place of the Jewish community in the UK.” But it should not be misinterpreted: “At the end of the day,” as he takes pains to stress, “I’m here as the British ambassador, not the Jewish ambassador.”
It’s quite a precedent – being the first Jewish ambassador.
As a British Jew I’m incredibly proud to be doing this job. To be Jewish and to represent my country to the State of Israel, that’s something very special. The degree to which it’s a big deal geopolitically, I don’t know, but for me it’s a big deal. That said, I don’t think I was chosen because I’m Jewish. I don’t think I was chosen in spite of being Jewish. I think the Foreign Office decided that I was the right person for the job. They did that knowing that I was Jewish. But it wasn’t a deciding factor either way.
It sends a nice signal about the maturity and place of the Jewish community in the UK, and about how the UK sees the Jewish community, that it will send a member of that community to be the ambassador here.
I think as well it helps give the lie to this idea of the Foreign Office as a sort of anti-Semitic nest of vipers. When I joined the Foreign Office my friends and family were queuing up to say to me, “You’re mad.” It’s never been my experience. The idea that British Middle East policy is run by a sort of tight clique of Arabists is no longer true either. The Foreign Office has changed a great deal. If you just look at the individuals who run the Middle East policy, it’s just not the case any more that they’ve all spent 30 years of their lives in Arabic-speaking countries.
Why did you want to do this job?
It is the most extraordinary job we’ve got in the foreign service.
The whole question of peace in the Middle East, it’s for decades been the holy grail of international diplomacy. To have a chance to work on that, possibly to contribute something to it, is extraordinary. To be able to do that and at the same time help promote the wider relationship between the UK and Israel, is also very important.
I grew up in London and always felt an undertone of anti-Semitism. Did you share that sense?
Actually, very little. And it’s not because I wasn’t looking for it, because I’m very sensitive about it, as every Jew is. I’ve had a very small number of anti-Semitic comments, and I put them firmly into the category of stupid rather than anything more dangerous.
There is anti-Semitism in the UK, but I don’t think it’s a fundamentally anti-Semitic society. I don’t agree with the suggestion that it’s a place where you have to be brave to be Jewish or where the Jewish community is under serious threat.
What is your family background? How Jewish are you?
(Laughs) Do you want a percentage?
If you like, but I’m talking about the degree to which it is important to you.
My grandfather came from Warsaw; he came over in the 1920s. We grew up in north west London. I didn’t go to a Jewish school, but I went to a school [St. Paul’s] which had a big Jewish population. When Christian kids went off to assembly every day, we went off to Jewish prayers. I went to cheder from when I was about six to when I was about 16. I went to Jewish summer camp every summer. When I was at university [at Cambridge], I spent one summer as a counselor at a Jewish kids’ camp in the States. A large part of my life was going to shul on the High Holydays in religious terms, but in the last couple of years my wife [Celia] and I have been going much more to our shul in London.
I feel thoroughly Jewish. It’s a large part of my identity, but more importantly, it’s a part of my identity I’m entirely comfortable with. I’m asked about this issue between being British and being Jewish, and I have to say that from my perspective, in my skin, I feel no problem, no tension.
There’s no issue to be resolved. I’m very proudly British. I can hardly be British ambassador and not be. And I’m very proudly Jewish. And from my perspective those two sit very comfortably together.
You lost relatives in the Holocaust?
My grandfather was one of 10. Three including him got out before the Nazis took over, and the others all died. His part of the family was decimated. He left Warsaw in the 1920s because of an incident that has shaped my family quite considerably.
He was coming back from yeshiva one evening through the park near where he lived and saw two Cossacks beating up an old Jewish man. He went over to stop them and found it was his own father. He was a strong man and ended up beating them up.
At which point he had to leave the country.
So he was then a refugee around Europe for several years.
He had a trade. He could mend knitting machines. It was a source of great pride to him that, whichever country he went to, he would arrive one day and start work the next. He ended up in Birmingham because he met my grandmother, and that’s how the family started in the UK. That story looms very large in my family’s consciousness…
Let me take you from that to Israel: Here was a country that was set up, too late to save people from the Holocaust, but to ensure that there wouldn’t be a climate in which Jews wouldn’t be defenseless against hostile majorities in Diaspora communities if they didn’t want to be. So where did Israel fit into your life growing up – into your psyche personally? You never thought about coming to live here yourself permanently?
No. I feel very comfortable being British. My job is obviously in the service of the UK.
I’m talking about when you were younger. Were you in Zionist youth movements?
I mostly went to the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues’ (youth movement), and on those summer camps we learned a lot about Israel. About the founding of Israel. About modern Israel. About what Israel has to offer. And my grandparents took me as well. I remember, I must have been 9 or 10, being taken here. And rather than just going to Eilat, we had several weeks of going round, being shown round, seeing Masada, going up to the north, into the Negev, and seeing Ben- Gurion’s house. And when I left university, before I started in the foreign service [in 1993], I came back and spent a couple of months backpacking around, never thinking I’d end up as ambassador here. So I’d been a good number of times.
Israel had loomed large in my childhood as a country which, as proud British Jews, we had a love of and an affinity towards and cared about and which mattered to us. So, yes I was brought up very conscious of Israel, the role that Israel plays for the Jewish people, and learning from a very early age about the threats that Israel has faced and the challenges that Israel has faced.
At the end of the day, I’m here as the British ambassador, not the Jewish ambassador.
But I do think that one of the things that being Jewish and having my background gives me is an appreciation of what security means to the Israeli people, to the Jewish people. Because in my family’s history we’ve known what insecurity means and the price of insecurity. So it’s not just a political concept. It’s something very, very important and tangible. But also because from a very young age I was taught about the struggle for independence, the six days war and so on. I think I can say I have a more visceral understanding of what security means, and what craving for security means, than I might have otherwise.
You have relatives all over the country. In settlements as well?
Not as far as I know.
As a British ambassador who is Jewish, and has a family that fled Europe, I think if I was sitting here as the current prime minister of Israel, I would probably be saying to you: “I hope you recognize Judea and Samaria as the heartland of the Jewish historic narrative. Does that speak to you, Mr. Ambassador? Do you not understand how much we resent the notion that these areas are consigned to the definition of ‘occupied,’ over which we have no rights, when we feel so strongly that we have a peerless claim?” How does that resonate with you?
Like a continuing strong majority of Israelis, I feel very strongly, as does my government, that ultimately Israel’s peaceful, secure, democratic, Jewish future lies in the two-state solution. And working from that, the two-state solution requires the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. So we approach everything through that prism.
I don’t think it is remotely in tension with my background, or my love of Israel, or my desperation that Israel should find the security it wants, to wish for the creation of that Palestinian state. Because I think in the longterm -- and actually, worryingly, not even necessarily that much in the long-term -- it is heavily in Israel’s security interests that that state should be created.
I’m not saying it’s very easy and the answer is obvious, and all Israel has to do is X, Y and Z, and it’ll all be sorted. I’ve never believed that. If it was that easy, we’d have sorted it. But I do firmly believe that the answer has to be a two-state solution.
That two-state solution will mean the West Bank and Gaza, with whatever appropriate land swaps are agreed, becoming a Palestinian state.
Do you think Israel has been messing that up, that Israel could have done more, that the settlement enterprise has been damaging?
Our view is that, first of all, settlements, we consider them to be illegal. Just as important, we believe they corrode the prospect of peace. Settlement building undermines the trust you need to create a dialogue. And that trust is in too short supply at the moment.
And they are creating facts on the ground which won’t make the creation of a Palestinian state easier, but more difficult. For that reason, settlements give us great cause for concern. We’ve been very clear and straightforward about that. When I speak to Israeli ministers or politicians or others, they know where we’re coming from on this.
Does Britain entertain any notion that that blanket designation might be open to question? Official Israel believes that it is wrong to claim under international law that the settlements are illegal. Is that something where Britain made its mind up a long time ago, and that’s not going to change?
Not just Britain but pretty much the entire international community. We would say that in international legal terms, our very strong view is that the territories are occupied, therefore everything that follows from that also, and that there is no basis to change that.
And therefore of course Israel should extend the settlement freeze now? And do nothing to prejudice the possibility of the direct talks moving forward smoothly?
We start from the basis that we don’t believe they should be building settlements at all. So it’s an obvious logical step from that to say that we support the settlement freeze. We particularly support the settlement freeze now because we believe it will help create the right environment for peace talks.
And what then to make of the fact that for nine months of the 10, when this unprecedented Israeli settlement freeze was in place, the Palestinians refused to come to the negotiating table?
We are where we are. We had a month of talks. The focus now needs to be on how we ensure that process continues. I’m not sure it’s necessarily helpful to go back and start allocating blame for this period of things not happening or that period of things not happening.
You could set up a whole separate process to do that. Our focus is very much: Where do we take it from here?
Does Britain feel that the onus here is overwhelmingly on Israel, and that if the Israelis were more forthcoming, peace would be attainable?
Peace needs to be made on both sides. I’m asked repeatedly about what happened after the withdrawal from Gaza, and that the withdrawal from Gaza did not lead to a peaceful border there, but rather a flood of rocket attacks. That underlines to me the importance of a peace settlement on both sides – a negotiated settlement where both sides have bought in.
Can I take you way back, as the guy who’s come from Britain: Is it not Britain that messed this region up in the first place, with the way this territory was divided, with the creation of Jordan immensely complicating matters? Did Britain not fail the Jewish sovereign revival here by carving up the territory ridiculously?
I’m not going to be issuing an apology on behalf of the UK for our history in the region. I know that I’m here carrying an awful lot of historical baggage, and that the relationship between Britain and the region, and the relationship between Britain and Israel, is a very warm and important one, but it’s not a straightforward one… There are some very difficult, painful memories on both sides. Now, as ambassador I’m incredibly pleased that where we are now is we have a very warm relationship, albeit with certain differences and certain issues. In trade and culture and science and universities, there are fantastic things going on that mean, on both sides, we’ve moved on from that history.
Sir Tom spoke about a popular British drift away from Israel. Is that a sense that you share?
The British public continues to support Israel’s right to exist, but there is a concern about the occupation and about some of the activities that the occupation has resulted in.
That concern is growing.
Now there is also a small number who do want to take that concern one step further and turn it into delegitimization. I don’t believe that delegitimization represents the bulk of where British people are. The quickest and most effective and probably the only way to really tackle it, and tackle its very corrosive effect, is to pursue peace vigorously.
And we should be pursuing peace not because of the delegitimizers but in the knowledge that actually the single thing that will take the wind out of their sails is a successful search for peace. I should just say the British government is absolutely, wholly opposed to boycotts of Israel and we will continue to be so.
There is a sense here that Britain underestimates how traumatic the second intifada was, that there’s been a failure to internalize the degree to which the supposedly moderate Palestinian leadership was complicit in a deliberate resort to a strategic terrorist onslaught against Israel, and that there’s an underestimation of the residual trauma and the reservations and skepticism about the Palestinian leadership now.
I would be a very shoddy ambassador if I came out here thinking I knew what all the answers were. I would be a very foolish ambassador if I came out here thinking I knew and understood what motivates Israelis and where their fears are and where their worries are. But of course we understand the real absence of trust that there is on both sides, and understand that a very large element of a successful path towards peace will be building up that trust.
Do you think Tony Blair’s support for Israel was a driver for radicalization in parts of the British Muslim community?
What goes on in the Middle East, and in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is one of the causes around which Islamist radicals rally.
That is self-evident and demonstrable. The UK’s policy to those regions is also one of the causes around which British violent extremists rally as well. But it is absolutely not our view that the tail should wag the dog. Our policies should be the right policies towards those regions. We should regard as absolutely illegitimate any view that says: because of the reaction of violent extremists, we should change our policies towards those areas.
Do you think that Britain’s policies, or Israel’s actions, or the failure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can be described as legitimizing a resort to violence?
No, absolutely not. It is absolutely legitimate to have a concern about what is going on in the Middle East. It is absolutely legitimate for British people regardless of their background to have a real worry about, for example, the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, or any number of other issues which are a cause for concern. But it is never a legitimate basis for resorting to violence.
What was it like being a British diplomat who is Jewish in Iran? And what can you tell Israelis, who see a leadership there that is viciously hostile to this country?
I didn’t hide being Jewish there. I went to synagogue, I met with members of the Jewish community there – the leadership. I’d go to Seder night and Jewish homes. I was made to feel very welcome. We as an embassy and as a government made it very clear that we were watching what was going on with the Jewish community there. And we did intervene, for example, when Jewish cemeteries were being threatened. We intervened with some effect at key points on behalf of the Jewish and indeed other minority communities.
The Israeli public is right to be deeply concerned about the threat from Iran. The British public and government are also deeply concerned. To have a government which is pursuing its nuclear program as it is, at the same time as its president is calling for the destruction of Israel, is a profound worry. Britain and Israel, along with France and the US and other countries, are working rightly, incredibly closely, about what we do about that.
Iran is intensely complex, almost impossible to predict, extremely difficult to understand.
Power structures, and the motivations, are extremely subtle. But the regime, for all its policies and its rhetoric, is not an irrational regime. It is not a regime which is suicidal. Quite the reverse. It’s a regime that has a very clear focus on its own survival.
And we have a policy of building up pressure on that regime, through the ratcheting up of sanctions. And sanctions have now got to the stage where they are starting to have a very serious and real impact.
If the worse came to the worst, and they did attain a nuclear bomb capability, they are sufficiently rational not to use it against Israel?
It is absolutely unhelpful to speculate about how we would handle an Iran with a nuclear capacity, because our single goal is to stop that from happening. Talking about how we would handle it if we failed sends entirely the wrong signal and does nobody any good.
By definition, then, this is still a doable aim? Iran can yet be stopped? It has not achieved near-breakout capability, and mastered everything, and it’s simply a matter of time and will for them?
Have a good look at the Iranian economy.
Have a look at its oil production, which is coming down. Look at the state of its finances. Look at how much pressure the Iranian economy is under. That’s what gives me some confidence that our policy is actually a viable one.
That Iran can yet be stopped?
That the Iranian government can be persuaded that there is a better course of action than the one it’s pursuing.