Sixty years of British-Israel ties

Sir Francis Evans, Britain’s first ambassador to Israel, was in a sense Israel’s guardian angel.

Sir Francis Evans 311 (photo credit: National Photo Collection / Cohen Fritz)
Sir Francis Evans 311
(photo credit: National Photo Collection / Cohen Fritz)
Sixty years ago, Sir Francis Evans became Britain’s first ambassador to Israel.
During his nearly three years of service in that role, Evans became, in a sense, Israel’s guardian angel. When Sir John Troutbeck, Britain’s ambassador to Iraq at the time and perhaps the most pro-Arab British envoy in the Middle East, urged the Foreign Office to adopt a much more favorable policy towards the Arab world at the expense of Israel, Evans retorted simply and powerfully. “It would be immoral to for us to abandon Israel in this way,” said Evans.
The Balfour Declaration, said Evans, was largely responsible for creating the State of Israel, and so Britain had a moral responsibility toward the new country.
Furthermore, Evans questioned whether an unequivocal pro- Arab policy would not be counter- productive. Might not the Arabs, he asked, perhaps rhetorically, “interpret a withdrawal of our support from Israel as a sign of weakness which they should exploit, rather than an expression of friendship meriting gratitude?” The Foreign Office in London fully concurred with Evans.
To be sure, Evans was not a blind supporter of Israel’s policies.
Indeed, he favored trying to achieve peace between Israel and the Arab world by “trying to bring pressure to bear on both sides.” However, he was motivated by a moral postulate with regard to Israel. Evans thought that Britain had to keep its obligations, notwithstanding any pragmatic considerations which might indicate an apparent benefit to siding with the Arabs.
Evans was there, so to speak, whenever Israel’s basic case was questioned, arguing with a judicious blend of reason and emotion.
He was a professional diplomat, with years of experience.
No less important, he was sensitive in understanding the Israeli side of the argument and sharp in analyzing the undercurrents of the complex regional situation in the early 1950s.
Evans had served for many years as British consul in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. He then served in a senior position at the Foreign Office in London before being sent to Israel at the beginning of 1952, first as Britain’s minister and from September 1952 as ambassador, when the legation in Tel Aviv was elevated to the status of embassy.
His first impressions of Israel reflect his poetic streak. Drawing upon his US experience, he compared Israel with the southern part of California. “The similarities,” he claimed, “are largely physical.” However, it was in the human domain where he encountered similarities which inspired him to articulate, in exquisitely vivid language, a particularly colorful analogy: “There is here, as in Southern California, the mingling of many races.”
He went on to compare the Californians of Spanish stock with the Arabs, the Mexicans and the East Indians with the Yemenites, the conservative settlers of Los Angeles City and its satellites with the commercial and professional German Jews, the driving and optimistic “boosters” of Southern California with the enthusiastic and no less optimistic Russian Zionists of Israel.
“There is throughout both areas,” Evans concluded, “a spirit of adventure, of purpose, of determined and hopeful upbuilding, coupled with an intense – perhaps an inordinate – pride of achievement.”
On the May 4, 1952, the Israeli Cabinet decided to move the Foreign Ministry from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Israeli Foreign Ministry explained this decision in wholly pragmatic terms. The move was not intended as a political demonstration. It was rather an internal organizational imperative. The permanent separation from other government ministries and from the Knesset affected the work of the ministry, hindering its efficiency.
To begin with, Evans argued before his government that a delay in the implementation of the decision ought to be secured.
What is interesting is the wording used in this regard: the move to Jerusalem was “premature,” stressed Evans. Indeed, when Evans met the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Walter Eytan, he conveyed to him that the transfer was considered to be “inopportune.”
There appeared to be no opposition in principle to the move on his part; certainly he evinced no desire to argue his case vis-avis the Israeli government from a principled, rather than a pragmatic, position.
Evans suggested to his government that, if there was no general agreement by the three Western powers (US, Britain and France) to object to the proposed move, Britain should prepare to move its legation (later embassy) to Jerusalem.
He argued that if Britain delayed action until the last possible moment, “the Israelis would find our attitude a little unfriendly and very difficult to understand.”
Evans made it clear that his suggestion was designed to facilitate the work of the British diplomatic staff with the Israeli government in Jerusalem.
The Foreign Office in London was persuaded by Evans’ arguments; indeed, its legal department maintained that moving the British Legation to Jerusalem would be in accordance with international law as long as it was stipulated that such a moved did not entail any legal recognition of Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the Western part of the city which it controlled.
The Israeli government waited a year before implementing its decision to move the Foreign Ministry to Jerusalem. By then, circumstances had changed. Had Israel proceeded to carry out its decision sooner, Evans’ suggestion might perhaps have become a reality. He might have thus served not only as the first British ambassador to Israel but also as its first diplomatic envoy to Jerusalem, its capital.
The writer is a member of the Social Sciences faculty at Tel Aviv University.