OPINION: The chips are down for this hot-potato posting

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OPINION: The chips are down for this hot-potato posting

Columnist Jenni Frazer has every confidence the UK's new Israel envoy will be as successful in his role as his predecessor. But he arrives in a country much changed

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Israel's President Isaac Herzog and British Ambassador to Israel Simon Walters with their wives. Credit: Haim Zach/ GPO
Israel's President Isaac Herzog and British Ambassador to Israel Simon Walters with their wives. Credit: Haim Zach/ GPO

Simon Walters, Britain’s new ambassador to Israel, presented his credentials to President Herzog this week. If ever there were a hot-potato posting, this is it. 

I have every confidence the new ambassador will be as successful in his role as his predecessor, Neil Wigan. But just the same, His Incoming Excellency has arrived in an Israel very different from that which welcomed Mr Wigan.

Any western diplomat has a tricky road to negotiate when serving in Israel. Too critical of Israeli government policies and he or she risks being frozen out of essential information to relay to the Foreign Office back home. Too sympathetic and there’s a different skewed version of events.

Ambassador Walters has an unusual background for a member of the Foreign Service.His government biography reveals that before joining the FCO, he worked as a full-time volunteer at a hostel for homeless men in Liverpool. And two weeks before flying to Israel, he told an audience at Finchley synagogue that he believed being brought up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles had given him a keen awareness of the dangers of sectarianism.

This is not his first rodeo in the region: he has served in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen and, most significantly, was the British consul in Jerusalem between 2008 and 2011, so understands more than many of his new ambassador peers of the issues of the Palestinians.

And yet Mr Walters has arrived in an Israel which is a cauldron of protest, with a festering series of Palestinian terrorist attacks and some hateful behaviour by settlers. All this would be bad enough were it not for the frankly lying statements made by members of Israel’s present government.

The latest such example comes — not unusually — from prime minister Netanyahu himself, on his way to America as Rosh Hashanah ended. He has a meeting at the UN, and separately with the Twitter/X owner Elon Musk, whose platform has hosted some vicious antisemitism in recent weeks. One such poster — whom you might have thought would be a prime candidate for being banned — uses the hashtag “Gas The Jews”. Charming, huh, Bibi? Are you going to challenge Musk about this?

Instead, the prime minister’s valedictory message as he flew off was a petulant — and untrue — attack on the anti-judicial reform protesters. He declared: “Whoever organises the protests does it with a lot of money and financially-backed demonstrations… We are seeing people that are joining forces with the PLO, with Iran, and with others. Nothing surprises me any more.”

Such was the backlash against this comment the prime minister’s office was forced to clarify, stating when he  used the word “joining”, he “meant the fact that when the prime minister of Israel is representing the state of Israel at the UN, Israeli citizens will be demonstrating at the same time as supporters of the PLO and BDS which has never happened before”.

Candidly, I think the explanation only makes things worse. The extremist creatures in Bibi’s coalition immediately leapt on the remarks, so now the pro-government narrative claims  those protesting against judicial reform have publicly aligned themselves with the PLO and Iran.

If it weren’t so serious, one might laugh at the stupidity of such a claim.

All of this is by way of wishing Mr Walters, a cool cookie on his showing at Finchley synagogue, the very best of luck in his new posting. If recent events are anything to go by, he is going to need it as he walks the diplomatic tightrope.

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