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Heads up – Embassy 37

Dramatic diplomacy

Israel’s Ambassador to London and peace negotiator, Daniel Taub, has a secret weapon to promote dialogue: soap operas.

The lawyer-turned-diplomat is also a part-time playwright and the unlikely author of a popular Israeli TV drama.

“It’s set in the court of a Hasidic rabbi and the idea was to increase understanding in Israeli society between the orthodox and secular communities through the dilemmas of the rabbi,” smiles Taub.

But fostering a greater understanding of Israel’s dilemmas on the world stage may prove a lot tougher – and with uprisings flaring up in Israel’s neighbours, the plot has got a lot thicker.

The mood in Israel as developments unfold oscillates between “cautious hope” and “genuine concern,” reflects Taub.

“What started as a genuinely impressive cry from a young generation calling out for basic rights and freedoms is increasingly carrying the potential for instability and the fear that vacuums will be created and undemocratic forces will fill them. So we are concerned with what that means for the prospect of long-term peaceful relations with our neighbours.”

The conflict in Syria is particularly troubling for Israel. The Ambassador is familiar with the country’s complex patchwork of political and regional allegiances, having been an Israeli negotiator in short-lived peace talks with Syria in the late 1990s.

“A lot of things are in play at the moment,” says Taub. “Many the major terrorist organisations in our region have been operating out of Damascus and there has been a significant amount of weapons transfer to Hizobllah across the Syria-Lebanese border.”

“We cannot pull out of the West Bank, which is so close to centres of Israeli population, without a sufficiently strong sense that it won’t turn into another Iranian-backed terrorist base”

Taking Syria out of the “Iranian orbit” would be a long-term strategic benefit, he says.

But Iran has regional interests too, something which is of grave concern to Israel.

“Doing nothing is not an option not just for Israel, but for the Western world as a whole,” responds Taub when asked what options are open to Israel in confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“All options carry certain risks, but those have to be weighed up against the consequences of doing nothing: not only would a nuclearised Iran start a nuclear arms race in the Arab world, there is the potential of nuclear capabilities getting into the hands of Iran’s proxies, as well as the fact that a repressive regime under a nuclear umbrella would get an additional layer of immunity.”

For now, Israel is prepared to see if non-military options – tighter sanctions – deliver results.

“The good news is that the international community has found a second wind of confidence for bolstering the sanctions regime which seems to be having an effect. Our hope is that continued resolve will mean that sanctions are effective.”

But he warns: “The time window for these measures to take effect is shrinking with the revelations that Iran is attempting to speed up its programme.”

This febrile regional atmosphere adds complexity to the Middle East peace process, but Taub says there is no reason to stop talking.

A veteran of the peace process, Taub was involved in the early rounds of secret talks in Oslo that continued through the 1990s.

 “There was this tremendous sense of going into the unknown; of doing something historic,” he recalls.

“You would have Israelis and Palestinians on different sides of the negotiating table who had literally been on different sides of the barricades in the first intifada and together they were trying to create something new. The phrase that we all started using at the time was that we had to change the disc; we had to reboot.”

The recent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah may also complicate matters but in theory a united Palestinian government should simplify negotiations, he says.

“Israel has never said that it won’t negotiate with Hamas; it’s said it can’t negotiate with any partner until they accept the ground rules established by the international community - which means renouncing violence, recognising Israel’s right to exist and not rejecting the agreements reached in the past.”

But Taub doubts Hamas is ready yet to change its stance on Israel. “The truest test of your intentions is what you teach your children. One only needs to look at what Hamas teaches its kids, and how terrorists are glorified,” he says.

“And we still see missiles being fired from Gaza into Israel and attempts to smuggle heavy-duty weaponry through the sea into Gaza.”

This sometimes provokes a severe response from Israel, such as the its military operation against the Turkish flotilla.

Taub acted as Israel’s legal counsel at the UN investigation and while he believes the UN was “receptive” to Israel’s position, he concedes that security responses can carry a diplomatic price.

“Unfortunately we are involved in an asymmetric conflict where states that are hostile to Israel use non-state actors as their proxies. These terrorist organizations in turn shield themselves behind civilians,” he explains.

“This creates a perverse ‘win-win’ scenario for them: either they will be left alone to perpetrate their atrocities or they will be attacked and gain some sick PR advantage.”

Over the years Israel has adapted to meet these difficult security challenges, he says. But he is also aware that Israel could lose the battle for hearts and minds in the Palestinian territories with suffocating security measures.

“It’s a challenge that this government took head on when it came into power,” says Taub. “It removed hundreds of checkpoints because even though it may increase the security challenges, we also have another strategic goal which is to see a prosperous Palestinian society.”

Settlements remain a controvesial issue, but the Ambassador admits there is growing doubt in Israeli society that a withdrawal from the West Bank would bring peace.

“Over the last decade Israelis have had to fight two armed conflicts, one in Gaza, one in south Lebanon, both of them in response to attacks from areas from which Israel pulled out.

“We cannot pull out of the West Bank, which is so close to centres of Israeli population, without a sufficiently strong sense that it won’t turn into another Iranian-backed terrorist base.”

But the Ambassador, who now faces the worry of a third son starting his military service, stresses that scepticism in Israeli society about the peace process should never be confused with a lack of desire for peace.

“Making peace would be an enormous benefit and remains a dream for all Israelis.”

It is that dream that drew the young, Oxford-educated Taub from the safe confines of suburban North Finchley in London to the negotiating tables of the Middle East.

Now back in the UK, he wants to help his country further by deepening and broadening cooperation between Israel and the UK –  whether it’s the ever-important security relationship, science and innovation, trade and investment, exciting new collaborations in film or the arts or academic ties (he’s already visited his alma mater proudly bearing his Oxford Union membership card).

He also wants to work with the media to give the British public a more nuanced view of Israel and the complexities of the peace process, while the opinionated Jewish community will keep him busy too.

“I see Israel as a house, with many different doors,” says Taub. “And our job is to hand out as many keys for as many doors as possible.”

That doesn’t leave much time for scriptwriting. “My producer is nagging me to write a drama about diplomats and I have to keep telling him I am still gathering material!”

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HE Mr Israel Daniel Taub

“Doing nothing about Iran is not an option, not just for Israel, but for the Western world
as a whole. All options carry certain risks, but those have to be weighed up against the consequences of doing nothing: not only would a nuclearised Iran start a nuclear arms race in the Arab world, there is the potential of nuclear capabilities getting into the hands of Iran’s proxies”

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