'This Ambassador Is Something Special'

The British Ambassador to Israel, Sherard Cowper-Coles, was at Ben-Gurion Airport at 5 A.M. on Friday to meet 11 relatives of Yoni Jesner, who at that point was still on a life support machine in Ichilov Hosptial in Tel Aviv. Cowper-Coles not only accompanied the family through passport control and traveled with them to the hospital, he returned there for three hours later in the morning with his wife Bridget, by which time the family knew that for Yoni there was no hope of life.

The ambassador visited Yoni's moderately injured cousin, Londoner Gideon Black, at the same hospital. He also offered to put up Yoni's relatives at his residence in Ramat Gan and help in any other way he could. The ambassador was flanked by consular officials, but he insisted on attending the stricken family himself.

On Friday afternoon, he and his wife attended Yoni's funeral in Jerusalem. "It's very, very upsetting," the ambassador told Ha'aretz. "It brings [the situation] home. There was Gideon [Black], who was very, very lucky and Yoni, who could not have been more unlucky."

Ari Jesner, Yoni's 26-year-old brother, told Ha'aretz the ambassador was "brilliant. He has been very supportive and very helpful, putting all the facilities at our disposal. He and his wife have been wonderful."

A senior Israeli source with long diplomatic experience said he had thought Cowper-Coles' high-profile socializing in Israel "a little lightweight - until now. Now, with this story, it's clear he's different." Cowper-Coles has been in Israel for a year. He prepared for the assignment by spending six weeks with a Hebrew-speaking family in a heavily Jewish suburb of North London. His determination to speak fluent Hebrew has won wide applause. (His solid foundation in Arabic culture and language was gained during an earlier stint in the British Embassy in Cairo).

He and wife attend numerous social, cultural and charity events, many involving immigrants from the UK, generally charming their acquaintances by remembering names and other details. Cowper-Coles has been interviewed several times on Israeli radio - usually at least in part in Hebrew - most recently prior to this week's Manchester United-Maccabi Haifa football match when he said Israelis should be proud of their nation's soccer teams this year. He added even though as British ambassador he could not wish Maccabi Haifa victory, he hoped Israelis enjoy the football and find the match a pleasant relief from all the talk about bombs and terror. He said he had felt the pride and joy in Israel when Hapoel Tel Aviv beat Chelsea several months ago.

"This ambassador is something special," a veteran Tel Aviv taxi driver told a passenger after the interview.

Cowper-Coles said last night that for him and his wife the weekend had been "absolutely draining. A young life ended prematurely and it is particularly tragic because it's the result of terrorism."

After hearing that the family from Scotland would be landing at the airport at 5 A.M. on Friday, he said he was "in no hesitation about what we should do." The ambassador himself has a son of 19, who returned to London on Thursday after a week in Israel with eight friends from the UK. "They had a wonderful time visiting the Old City of Jerusalem, swimming in the Dead Sea and shopping at Carmel market. They were out clubbing till dawn and they loved it."