Welcome to London, Madame Ambassador

“IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY of an Israeli ambassador to maintain intimate links with his fellow Jews, in whatever country he serves. If you have a Jewish heart and soul, how can you not want to be an integral part of a Jewish community when you are representing the Jewish state?”

So spoke Yehuda Avner, a much-respected former Israeli ambassador to both the UK and Australia in the 1990s. Originally from Manchester, Avner understood Diaspora Jewry – Jews who live among non-Jews. He was an old school, affable diplomat who served Israeli prime ministers as diverse ideologically as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin.

It was, therefore, with some incredulity that British Jews greeted the announcement last month by Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that he had appointed Tzipi Hotovely, the sharp-tongued doyenne of Israel’s religious Right, to be the next ambassador to London.

In January, Netanyahu divested himself of numerous portfolios after he was indicted on various charges by the Attorney-General and Hotovely was appointed Minister of Diaspora Affairs. She was also asked to establish the new Ministry of Settlement Affairs. Several hundred British Jews have since signed a petition to the British Foreign Office opposing her appointment as ambassador; a considerably smaller number has welcomed the appointment.

Mainstream Jewish organisations have put out a tepid welcome to the first Israeli woman ambassador to the UK, but clearly, whether publicly or in private, British Jews are jittery.

Hotovely does not have a traditional Likud heritage. Her background is national religious – Bnei Akiva, the teachings of Rav Kook and Midreshet Lindenbaum (Bruria) seminary. She first became politically aware when former prime minister Ariel Sharon initiated a unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005.

Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, promoted the possibility of evacuations of West Bank settlements and a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Noticed for her celebrity status and strident performances on television, Netanyahu put her on the Likud list of candidates for the 2009 election.

He was clearly struck by Hotovely’s ability to explain an issue in easy, black-and-white terms. And she was a fluent English speaker. Following Netanyahu’s victory in the 2015 election Hotovely was made Deputy Foreign Minister. After the public relations fallout from Israel’s Gaza offensive in 2014, she was called on to mount a counterattack against growing sympathy for the Palestinian cause in the wider world.

Hotovely did this, however, by promoting her views rather than those of Netanyahu. For her, Netanyahu’s governments had tried too hard to appease international opinion. She spoke about Israel’s national cause and Jewish history. She accepted Golda Meir’s dual projection of Israel as a Shimshon — Samson the Heroic and as a nebech — small and weak.

Shortly after her appointment, Hotovely told the Knesset: “The Land is ours. All of it is ours”. The Melbourne-born Mark Regev, the outgoing Israeli ambassador to the UK and then a spokesman for Netanyahu, declined at the time to comment publicly. However, a few months later, in October 2015, she said her dream was “to see the Israeli flag flying over the Temple Mount”. This earned her a rebuke from Netanyahu’s office and the comment that her statement was not government policy.Outgoing Israeli ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev

All this is rooted in the national religious belief that Zionism is biblical rather than originating in the aftermath of the French Revolution, fashioned by the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and modern European national liberation movements. For Hotovely, Hebron is both older and more important than Tel Aviv.

For her, there is no such entity as a Palestinian people and so no rational basis for a Palestinian state. Shortly after being elected to the Knesset, she endorsed the idea of a one state solution – Israel and the West Bank without Gaza. Jews would be the 60 per cent majority and all would have the right to a vote. Mass immigration of Diaspora Jews, it was argued, would resolve any potential demographic problem.

In 2017, in a speech to the Knesset, she provoked its Arab members by recommending that they read Assaf Voll’s A History of the Palestinian People. Holding it up before them, every page was blank. Such gimmicks complemented those of Netanyahu on the international stage but, crucially, her opposition to a two-state solution are not the views of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the main American Jewish leadership group AIPAC and Australian Zionist organisations.

Netanyahu may have seen in Hotovely a younger Bibi, belonging to the same club as other Americanised Israelis, Ron Dermer, David Bar-Ilan, Moshe Arens – close to the Republican party and irritated by the liberalism of the vast majority of American Jews. When Princeton University’s Hillel House withdrew its invitation to her in 2017, Hotovely angrily spoke about the suppression of free speech under “a liberal dictatorship”.

When interviewed on US television, she told viewers that unlike Israelis, American Jews have “quite convenient lives” and did not have to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, General David Lee Goldfein, might possibly disagree with that sentiment.

Moreover, the UK is not the US and despite the embittered debate about Brexit, it has not prostrated itself before a Trump-like figure. It may be the same language, but it is a profoundly different political culture. Britain has been the refuge of many fleeing political repression – from Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini’s sojourn in the 1840s to a plethora of exiles from apartheid South Africa in the 1960s.

Hotovely’s 2018 comment about African refugees in Israel – “South Tel Aviv is terrorised by infiltrators who are driving up crime rates and sexual harassment and making the streets unsafe for Israelis” – may not endear her to a multicultural Britain in the aftermath of the George Floyd affair.

When Hotovely was Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, she attacked Breaking the Silence (BtS), a group of ex-soldiers who presented public testimony about the conduct of troops in the West Bank. She branded them “traitors from within” and blamed them for “internationalisation” of the propaganda war against Israel and attempted to cut off foreign funding for an exhibition BtS held in Zurich, which the Swiss Foreign Ministry gave US$16,000 towards because it assisted in “dialogue” and the cause of “human rights”. Netanyahu’s government formally complained to the Swiss in June 2015.

When members of the US House of Representatives who held hostile views towards Israel were barred entry to the country, she spoke out in support of the ban even though she contradicted the view of the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. Senator Joe Biden said of the affair: “No democracy should deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas – even ideas they strongly object to. And no leader of the free world should encourage them to do so.”

In 2004, leaders of the Board of Deputies of British Jews privately met then prime minister Ariel Sharon to express their concerns that Zvi Hefetz, a man with little diplomatic experience, poor English, a third choice for the post  and a friend of Sharon’s son, Omri, should not be appointed Israel’s ambassador to London. It made no difference.

Similar concerns are being expressed today about whether it is appropriate to appoint Hotovely to a Jewish community that, according to several scientific surveys, overwhelmingly opposes the settlement drive on the West Bank.

British Jews also worry that Hotovely’s political baggage will prove to be a goldmine for the genuine enemies of Israel in Britain.

In his last interview as ambassador, Regev was asked by the BBC about Hotovely’s political record. He replied: “She’s a politician, when she becomes the Israeli ambassador, she will cease being a politician and will become a civil servant and part of Israel’s diplomatic corps.”


British Jews will extend a polite and generous welcome to Madame Ambassador, but that will not make them less nervous about the future.

Plus 61j 14 July 2020

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