As the outcry continued Sunday over hidden footage of an Israeli Embassy staffer in London calling to “take down” British Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan, Israeli officials insisted that “the matter was closed.”
With their wayward staffer Shai Masot reprimanded, fired and on his way back to Israel, and apologies – both private and public – made, there was nothing more to the story, the embassy repeated over and over.
“All anyone can do now is rewatch a sexy video of two low-level aides gossiping over a glass of wine,” said Yiftah Curiel, the embassy’s spokesman.
Whether or not the story is truly over is debatable. Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, which gathered the footage during a six-month undercover sting operation, has hinted at more bombshells to come in “The Lobby” – their four-part series about Israel, British politicians and pro-Israel activists, set to start airing next week.
But what is less debatable is the “sexiness” of this initial video – which was obtained and released by British tabloid The Mail on Sunday: It features embassy staffer Masot – a young man the embassy insists is not a diplomat at all but rather a junior local hire, but whom the British and international media are describing as a “senior political officer.”
Whoever he is, the hapless Masot is captured on video and in halting English by an undercover reporter as he seemingly plots – together with a British civil servant – to destroy the careers of senior politicians critical of Israel.
Duncan, the main target of Masot’s plotting with parliamentary aide Maria Strizzolo, previously called Israeli settlements an “ever-deepening stain on the face of the globe,” and likened the situation in Hebron to apartheid.
“Can I give you some MPs that I would suggest you would take down?” Masot says to Strizzolo, without specifying what he means by “take down.” When pressed for names, Masot says: “The deputy foreign minister.” Strizzolo later hints that “a little scandal” might see Duncan dismissed.
Another name mentioned in the taped conversation is Crispin Blunt, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, who has voiced his support for the Palestinian cause. Strizzolo refers to him as being on a “hit list.”
U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson doesn't emerge unscathed, either. Masot called him an “idiot,” adding for good measure that Johnson, while “solid” on Israel, is “without any kind of responsibilities,” and hinting that this is what makes Duncan all the more worrying.
A seemingly embarrassed and defensive Strizzolo told The Guardian that the quotes were used out of context, and that the conversation was “light, tongue-in-cheek and gossipy.”
But condemnation from all sides was swift.
Both MP Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, and MP Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party’s foreign affairs spokesman, refused to accept the matter as “closed” so swiftly, and both called on Johnson to revoke Masot’s diplomatic status and expel him from the country.
Thornberry further demanded that the government launch “an immediate inquiry into the extent of this improper interference, and demand from the Israeli government that it be brought to an end.”
Lord Stuart Polak, the head of the Conservative Friends of Israel, condemned the incident: “We utterly condemn any attempt to undermine Sir Alan, or any minister, or any member of parliament,” he said in a statement.
Mark Regev, Israel’s ambassador to London, immediately apologized personally to Duncan “and made clear that the embassy considered the remarks to be completely unacceptable.”
In a statement, the embassy reiterated that Masot was only a “junior embassy employee who is not an Israeli diplomat, and who will be ending his term of employment with the embassy shortly.”
A spokesman for Boris Johnson said, also in a statement: “The Israeli ambassador has apologized and made it clear to us that these comments do not represent the views of the Israeli Embassy or government.”
The Israeli Embassy wasn’t expecting further embarrassing revelations in the coming days. “If this dirt on a lowly staffer is the best they [Al Jazeera] have after a six-month operation, that’s a sign they don’t have much,” said one Israeli Embassy staffer, who asked not to be named.
Who is Shai Masot?
A Tel Aviv native and former naval officer, Masot received a degree in international relations from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, and then returned to the military, spending time in the office of the coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT). He also worked briefly as a parliamentary aide to controversial right-wing minister Miri Regev, all before moving to London a few years later to work at the embassy.
As embassy spokesman Curiel explained, Masot is a so-called local hire who did not go through the two-year diplomatic training and does not have diplomatic immunity. He was, however, recruited for his position – as a junior assistant to the deputy ambassador – and relocated to London by the Foreign Ministry. As their name implies, local hires are often in the host country, but it is not unusual for a local-hire-level job to be recruited in Israel, said Curiel.
Curiel dismissed Masot’s boasts, caught on the same tape, that he came to Britain “to take care of specific political issues,” and that he was in the running for some sort of higher level intelligence job back in Israel. Curiel also dismissed suggestions made in The Mail on Sunday and elsewhere that Masot was some sort of “Israeli intelligence expert,” or even a Mossad spy. “Absolutely not,” said Curiel.
Those who know Masot from his days in the navy say he always liked to “big himself” up. One person who served under his command, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was no surprise that he had got himself in trouble. Masot was a “hard” person who “took being in the navy very seriously” and “lacked a sense of humor about himself,” the source added.
Masot himself has made no comment since the story broke Sunday, and has hastened to erase his social media footprint – deleting his accounts on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn – where he had stated that his work was “being the chief point of contact between the embassy and MPs, and liaising with ministers and officials at the Foreign Office.”
Masot even took down his Couchsurfing profile, in which he described himself as a man who likes to ski, surf and read philosophy, and who has “open views” committed to “doing good in the world.”
Masot was asked on the Couchsurfing site about his favorite book. According to the Middle East Eye website, which took a screenshot of the page before it was removed, Masot was a fan of that Italian Renaissance diplomat and politician infamous for endorsing cunning and dishonest behavior – aka killing innocents – as sometimes necessary and effective political tools.
“Machiavelli,” wrote Masot, “is my God.”
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