Cameron’s Undiplomatic Welcome

You have to sympathize with U.K. Ambassador Matthew Gould even as he's branded a strike-breaking scab by his Israeli diplomatic colleagues.

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British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould in London.
British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould in London.Credit: Tal Cohen
Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman

You have to sympathize with Matthew Gould as he prepares for what should be the highlight of his term as Britain’s ambassador to Tel Aviv – the visit of Prime Minister David Cameron – while being branded a strike-breaking scab by his Israeli diplomatic colleagues.

In case you haven’t noticed – and why would you, since no one outside the Jerusalem beltway seems to care – Israel’s Foreign Ministry diplomats are on strike. That means none of the usual – and often vital – Foreign Ministry groundwork for Cameron’s visit and no accompaniment from Daniel Taub, Israel’s ambassador to the Court of St James's.

In a letter sent to Ambassador Gould on Tuesday, the union of Israeli Foreign Ministry employees accused the British Embassy of “actively contributing to the ongoing efforts to break our struggle for better and fairer conditions.”

“As a colleague, we would have expected you to ask Mr. Cameron to defer his arrival here, until such a time when we could extend to him the kind of reception he certainly merits. Instead, by cooperating with alternative Israeli government organs in circumventing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the British Embassy is knowingly contributing to denigrating our status, undercutting our traditional responsibilities and disrupting a just and legitimate labor dispute,” the letter continues. “We have been hoping for your solidarity and support.”

Ouch.

The diplomats have good cause to strike. Their pay and conditions are awful. Dozens of diplomats have quit the ministry, unable to survive on the ministry’s starvation wages and the shocking way in which it treats their spouses and careers. To add insult to injury, the ministry’s work has been sliced away, salami-style, for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to distribute to his coalition favorites.

First, the Ministry for Public Diplomacy was given ham-fisted responsibility for Israel’s public information efforts. Then the Ministry for Strategic Affairs was given large parts of the Iran portfolio. Then Tzipi Livni was put in charge of the Palestinian peace talks.

Despite these strategic blunders by the government, the Foreign Ministry has continued to make huge strides in various areas of diplomacy around the globe - including in China, where relations are growing steadily, and in Britain.

Ambassador Gould has made no secret of his enthusiasm for closer ties between Israel and Britain, expressed through a number of ground-breaking initiatives in joint scientific research and investment. The U.K. Embassy’s High-Tech Hub that encourages links between British services and Israeli tech firms was Gould’s brainchild and it has been such a success that it is to be duplicated at other British embassies around the globe. The $15 million Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange has funded cutting-edge innovation in Israeli health research under Gould’s stewardship. And next week, 15 Israeli start-ups will be hosted in London as part of TeXchange, a unique program that brings together Israeli and British tech pioneers and companies to share ideas and technology.

With Gould’s encouragement, bilateral trade has soared recently to more than $7.5bn a year. For comparison, Israel has only $8bn annual trade with China.

So it’s fortunate that Gould has these successes behind him as he faces the disappointment of his Israeli colleagues.

“Once our strike is over, will you continue seeking those services from the same government departments with whom you are now cooperating in breaking our struggle?” the Israeli diplomats ask Gould.

But I'm not sure they are being quite fair to the British envoy. The question is, what would they have done if the positions had been reversed? 

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