Britain’s new envoy to Israel: ‘This is a job I’ve always wanted to do!’

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Britain’s new envoy to Israel: ‘This is a job I’ve always wanted to do!’

After serving as a political attache in Tel Aviv from 2002-6, Neil Wigan returns as the new Ambassador, and tells Jewish News what this role means to him...

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Neil Wigan
Neil Wigan

Britain’s new ambassador to Israel, Neil Wigan, can barely contain his excitement at the prospect of returning to Tel Aviv, where he served at the embassy’s political attache between 2002 and 2006.

“I had a fantastic time the first time I was there, and I always wanted to go back”, says the ambassador. A fantastic time is an understatement: he met his Israeli wife, Yael Banaji, while serving in Tel Aviv, and the couple, who now have two sons, are really looking forward to their posting.

It’s the third ambassadorship for the 48-year-old diplomat — he was British ambassador to the Congo from 2010 to 2013, and then ambassador in Somalia from 2013 until 2015. The Somalia and Israel postings “couldn’t be more different” smiles Mr Wigan. In Somalia he spent most of his time in Mogadishu, the capital, working in conditions of heavy security.

He does not expect life to be like that in Israel, which he most recently visited in April and was there during the latest elections. “I haven’t planned most of my Foreign Office career, but this is a job I’ve always wanted to do”. But, he says, there are big changes between today’s embassy and the one in which he served 17 years ago.

“I was there during the second Intifada, and the disengagement from Gaza. The embassy was very focused on the peace process and the conflict. Now the embassy’s work is much wider and broader than that. We do a lot of work on British and Israeli collaboration between universities, on hi-tech collaboration… the commercial agenda is much more important. We’ve got a much closer security relationship, and we do a lot more with Israel in the region than we used to. The job has become more interesting, more modern and more sophisticated”.

He is rueful about his grasp of Hebrew, although he has a lot of help from his wife and his teacher. “I am grateful to Netflix for improving my Hebrew,” he laughs, confiding that though he currently watches the thriller series Fauda with subtitles, his ambition is to be able to conduct an entire interview in Hebrew (“preferably on the radio, where it doesn’t matter if I make faces when I make a mistake”) before the end of his tenure in Tel Aviv. Ambassador Wigan’s “guilty pleasure”, incidentally, is the so-bad-it’s-good Israeli comedy Hashoter Hatov, or The Good Cop, which he loves.

As far as Mr Wigan is concerned, Israeli companies don’t seem to be waiting for the Brexit shoe to drop in terms of their relationship with Britain. “Trade went up by 15percent last year, $10billion in bilateral trade for the first time ever, and there are more Israeli companies investing in Britain since [2016] referendum than before it. I’ve been round British banks and other companies who are really interested in working with Israeli start-ups. And there are big Israeli companies like Elbit which are looking to strengthen their presence in the UK. So actually Brexit does not seem to be making much of a difference”.

He’s not yet ready to say that he has “a bright idea” which he wants to implement, preferring instead to get to Israel and see how things are working. But he is keen to “embed” and improve on the projects initiated by his predecessors Matthew Gould and David Quarrey, believing that there is “even more potential” in technical co-operation.

He believes, he says, that “Britain is a natural partner for choice” with Israel, and will probably focus on getting Israelis to look at working with Britain rather than the US. But he diplomatically sidesteps when asked about following in the American footsteps and moving his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“We don’t have any plans to move at the moment,” says Mr Wigan, though he wouldn’t rule it out, either. It is unlikely, however, without serious progress in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, “which is endorsed by the international community — but we’re not in that place at the moment”. He thinks Britain, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, still has a voice as a player in the region.

Meanwhile, aside from his assiduous language lessons, the incoming ambassador is eagerly compiling a list of what he’s looking forward to most. “The weather, the food, and travelling around the country. I’m planning to eat my way through the top 50 restaurants —the food is just phenomenal, even better than when I was there before — and then I want to go to the national parks and the antiquities.”

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