Working Behind the Scenes to Confront Israel Boycotters

In a farewell interview, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to Britain and next anti-BDS czar reflects on leftist media outlets and the ‘chill factor’ of the delegitimization campaign.

Daniel Taub .
Daniel Taub . “I don’t think our job is to convince the media." Bau Bau

LONDON — Daniel Taub returns this week to Jerusalem, after four years as Israel’s ambassador to Britain, without a new ambassador ready to take his place in what was once seen as a key posting for Israeli foreign policy. As a veteran diplomat and lawyer, Taub will not say anything that may sound like criticism of the Israeli government and the political and administrative logjam that has caused the delay of a long list of diplomatic appointments. Instead, he emphasizes the importance of the London embassy.

“For better or worse, many of the views of the international community are still formed in Britain. Its media is international and it’s a global financial center. The United States is of unique importance of course, but even they don’t want to act alone and Britain is important to them and to us.”

Many in Britain’s political elite seem resigned to the fact that the United Kingdom has become a second-rate power at best, but Taub believes that what it may have lost in military, financial and diplomatic clout it has gained due to the central role played by the British press on the global 24/7 media scene. That is why the embassy in London, and Taub himself, devote more effort than most Israeli representatives to the media, both in interviews and behind-the-scenes briefings. While some of his predecessors saw much of the British media as hopelessly biased against Israel, Taub’s view is more nuanced.

“I enjoy the fact that in Britain people are usually prepared to listen to you and are not as fixed in their opinions as some think.”

Does that mean he feels he has convinced local journalists of the Israeli government’s case?

“I don’t think our job is to convince the media, especially not the left-wing media, that we are always right and the other side always wrong. I’d ask them to think whether they’re being true to their own journalistic and progressive values when they cover our region.”

He admits that over the last four years, this has generally not been simple.

“It’s true that in general, the headlines are not about positive aspects of Israel. It’s easier to get these aspects of Israel into magazine features than into the news coverage; it’s a never-ending struggle. I think, though, that our briefings have had some influence.”

But while the media remain a tough nut to crack, Taub is leaving at one of the high points of Israeli-U.K. governmental ties, with regard to the personal relations between the two prime ministers as well as cooperation on trade and security. Much of this Taub cannot talk about, but London was one of the key points in ramping up the sanctions against Iran in recent years, and security officials in both countries say the level of intelligence-sharing and military coordination has never been higher.

“A lot of our diplomacy here remains beneath the radar, and I won’t run to publicize that,” is all Taub will say. “But the British political leadership is of course aware and appreciative of the depth of the strategic partnership and you can see that reflected in many of their public statements.”

Taub is referring, among other things, to the refusal of Prime Minister David Cameron and the senior ministers of his Conservative Party to denounce Israel during the Gaza conflict last summer, despite intense pressure from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the opposition Labour Party. In addition, his government amended Britain’s universal jurisdiction law, which in the past allowed judges to issue arrest warrants against Israeli officials accused of alleged war crimes.

There is one cloud, however, on this almost idyllic horizon. Britain was a full and willing partner to the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran, and is already talking about reopening its Tehran embassy by the end of the year. The Cameron government’s enthusiasm for a deal led last month to a public argument between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, during his visit to Jerusalem immediately after the nuclear deal was reached in Vienna.

Taub plays down the disagreement, while talking up the U.K. contribution to the negotiations.

“Without going into details, the British did take a stand on some of the clauses and played some role in improving the deal. It’s no secret that we are disappointed and see the agreement very differently from them, but Hammond was the first to come to Jerusalem after the deal to discuss it, and our dialogue continues.”

While Taub has little but praise for the Cameron government, things are a lot less simple with the opposition. Labour is still leaderless in the wake of Ed Miliband’s resignation three months ago, following the party’s thudding election defeat, but the surprising front-runner in the leadership campaign is the ultraleftist Jeremy Corbyn, one of the most strident critics of Israel in Parliament and a man who has called Hezbollah and Hamas his “friends.” Taub admits that despite meeting nearly all the prominent politicians in Britain over the last four years, he never met Corbyn. As a diplomat, Taub won’t comment directly on party affairs, saying only that the situation in the British left is “worrying.”

“It was very interesting that during the election, foreign policy was never mentioned in any of the debates and that’s worrying for someone like me who believes Britain has an important role to play. We need to make sure we have friends also in the left wing. We can’t allow support for Israel to be only within one party. Israel has a historical alliance with the British left and I have invested a lot of time in many quarters here in making the progressive case for Israel.”

Especially over the last year, Taub’s posting in Britain has also coincided with a period of concern for the country’s Jewish community, over what many of its members view as growing anti-Semitism under the cover of anti-Zionism. Taub, who was born and raised in Britain before emigrating to Israel in his early 20s, says that now, “There is a pride in being Jewish in the public sphere which was inconceivable when I was growing up. When there’s a Hanukkah candle-lighting at Downing Street with Cameron and then you continue to another lighting with thousands in Trafalgar Square with [London Mayor] Boris Johnson. When it’s not even remarked upon that so many Jews are in senior positions and both Cameron and Miliband are proud of their own Jewish roots and top newspaper columnists regard their Jewishness as part of their public identity.”

He thinks the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Britain has been exaggerated.

“It exists but nowhere near like the scale in France. It’s important that all the major parties are committed to fighting it. But I am very concerned that a majority of the young people I speak to in the community say they have experienced some form of anti-Semitism. Alongside the main threat, I also worry that they will grow up associating Jewish events and Jewish identity with the need for a security presence.”

The ambassador doesn’t like to play “spot the anti-Semite,” saying, “I will almost never accuse anyone of anti-Semitism, because that sets the bar too low. I don’t want to create a situation where someone only needs to show they’re not anti-Semitic and then their criticism is considered legitimate. I want the debate on Israel to be conducted according to the same standards as any other country.”

Taub’s next job, according to rumors that he declines to confirm, will be as Netanyahu’s special advisor and envoy on fighting the BDS movement and the campaign to delegitimize Israel. Taub’s own take on the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is much more nuanced than that expressed recently by Israeli politicians, including the prime minister.

“The delegitimization campaign hasn’t achieved its stated goals and there are very few actual boycotts. But it does create a chill factor. I’m not saying there is no danger, but that the actual danger is from the boycotters’ unstated goals — chipping away at Israel’s legitimacy in the public consciousness. It’s a complex challenge that manifests in many different ways. That’s why we have to form a very wide coalition to confront it. I’ve said that it’s like changing over from classical music to jazz. We need a lot of players, each playing to their audience in their own way.”

He claims that over the last four years, working quietly with diverse groups in Britain, from academia, business, the arts and trade unions, the number of organizations calling for boycotts of Israel in universities and other forums has actually gone down. “It’s a result of a lot of hard work with a lot of friends.”

Taub says that one of the moments in his four-year posting that was most special to him was the appearance of Israel’s Habima National Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe, in London, in the summer of 2012.

“At first when I heard that Habima had been asked to perform “The Merchant of Venice,” with all the play’s anti-Jewish connotations I wasn’t happy.” The performance was preceded by an intense boycott effort that ultimately failed.

“But when I was there, at Shakespeare’s own playhouse which was rebuilt from the ashes, hearing the play in Hebrew, a language which also rose from the dead, I was deeply moved that after centuries in which this play was performed about the Jews, we now had an Israeli national theater company which could give its own expression.”