H.E. Mark Regev is the Ambassador of Israel to the United Kingdom since April 2016. He was the chief spokesman for the Prime Minister of Israel from 2007 to 2015.
You have been Ambassador in the UK for a few months and had to face the Livingstone affair, when the former Mayor of London compared Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler?
The first thing that needs to be said about anti-Semitism is to talk about two myths that are commonly held. One myth is that anti-Semitism is a disease that infects only the uneducated, those that have not finished high school and do not read books. It’s very comfortable to believe this, because you can believe there is a solution, that you can solve this by better knowledge and education. But this is not true. Intellectuals hold anti-Semitic beliefs. In this country one sees Shakespeare, in France no one would deny Voltaire’s contribution to human thought and yet in Voltaire also you find anti-Semitic prejudices. In Dostoevsky, one of the greatest Russian writers ever, you find anti-Semitism. So, one should not be surprised that one can find anti-Semitism on university campuses. Unfortunately education does not stop anti-Semitism.
And the second myth?
The second myth is that somehow people on the Left are not anti-Semitic. The Left fights for justice and equality, and you would think those people cannot possibly be anti-Semitic. But anyone who knows the history of Socialism knows this is not true. Some people on the Left are in denial. They say they believe in equality, but they do not.
Is the United Kingdom an anti-Semitic country?
No. Britain is not an anti-Semitic country, but no society is immune to anti-Semitism and unfortunately we also see in Britain manifestations of anti-Semitism.
As the former spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu you know that many people demonise Israel because of his politics. Today the Israelis are very often considered to be in the wrong. Is that a camouflage for anti-Semitism?
If you say the Israelis are sometimes wrong, this is not anti-Semitism. In Israel we have very vigorous debates about policy. Criticism of Israel’s policy is the bread and butter of our discussions. But if you demonise Israel, if you say that only evil emanates from Israel and associate Israel with evil phenomena, then this is anti-Semitism.
In what sense?
Instead of hating the individual Jew you choose to hate the collective Jew, which is the Jewish State. If you say today it is the Jewish State that is responsible for the war, and you say that Jews are deliberately killing Palestinian children, this is a 21st century manifestation of a hatred that goes back 2000 years. If you are supporting peoples’ right to self-determination and independence, and the only people on the planet who you say do not have a right to independence and sovereignty is the Jewish people, what is that all about? To deny the same right as you give others is also anti-Semitism. When you say Israel is committing genocide, when you say the Nazis and Israel were partners, you are saying Jews are culpable for their own genocide. What is this all about?
Is the prejudice against Israel or anti-Semitism something you cannot change?
You have to live with it. To the two myths, add a third: “Peace in the Middle East.” It is very difficult to solve. There is no doubt that, in the years immediately following the holocaust, anti-Semitism was contracting, and people thought it would die because of the enormity of the crime. That sadly has not happened. When I talked about these myths, it is not that we can’t fight anti-Semitism, but we have to know what it really is. In the past Jews were hated because of their religion, the killers of Christ, our refusal to accept the prophecy of Mohammed. In the modern period people have written books about Jews being genetically, biologically, evil. Today Israel is somehow the manifestation of evil on the planet. They say we are the biggest enemy of human rights on the planet. It is so absurd. The only democracy in the Middle East is accused of being the biggest violator, and even Professors say we must boycott Israel.
You feel that Israel has no faults?
No one is without fault, and Israel also has fault, but, let me be clear, nothing justifies the irrational hatred, just like when a black man is lynched in Alabama. You must blame those who hate, those who are the instigators of anti-Semitism. No one says, for example, if the Italian State makes a mistake, the Italian State must be destroyed, that Italy has no right to self-determination. No one stands up and says Italy must be destroyed.
When PM Netanyahu was in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre he said to the French Jews, “Come to Israel. It is your home.” What do you think about this?
I was with the Prime Minister on that trip and I remember exactly what he said when he spoke at the Synagogue. It is important to look at all that he said. He said that Jews have a right to live safely and freely wherever they choose, and he praised President Hollande and the French government for their opposition to anti-Semitism. But then Netanyahu added, “Jews have a right to live safely and freely wherever they choose, but today Jews have another right, denied them for centuries, if they choose to exercise it, to go to Israel, and if they choose to exercise that right we will welcome them as brothers and sisters.” This is his position.
Why do you think that a large majority of Europeans support the Palestinian cause?
There is no one single answer. One issue is that in Europe people see the world through their own colonial experience and so we are seen as wrong. Europeans look at Israel through their own colonial experience. Second is that in Europe many have gone into this very post-modern, post-conflict world, where we are all brothers and sisters in a new harmony. Israel reminds people that there is still conflict and this does not fit with the gestalt of today. Third, I think there is a fixation, in some quarters, with Jews and the Jewish State.
Where is the truth?
The truth is that we want peace with our Palestinian neighbours. The truth is that Israel seeks a solution based on security, and based on two States for two peoples, a solution in which a secure Israel lives next to a peaceful Palestinian State. And we are ready, and remain ready, to restart peace talks, direct talks, face-to-face with the Palestinians, immediately and without any pre-conditions whatsoever. Anywhere, any time. If they want to meet in Paris, in Rome, in London, we will meet at any time, in any place.
Sadly, since the murder of Yitzhak Rabin there isn’t much progress. Why not?
Rabin’s tragic death was a blow for all of Israel, but since then we have taken many steps to try to advance peace. Shimon Peres, Netanyahu in his first term, Ehud Barak tried to forge forward in peace with the Syrians and Palestinians and pulled out of the Gaza strip, and for the past eight years Netanyahu has tried. We have not given up. In some areas there has been progress. Let me give you some good news. When people talk about the Middle East today they are often focussed on negative developments, the breakup of states, countries that have imploded, like Libya, Syria, Yemen, the rise of extremism and terrorism, ISIS, Hezbollah, so we are all seeing what’s going wrong. But under the surface there is a positive change, and this is the new dialogue Israel has with the Sunni Arab States. Historically they were not open to Israel, but today they understand that Israel is on the same side they are on in the struggle against extremism. These new contacts between us and the Arab world have the potential to create a new reality. For many years people said, peace with the Palestinians will open the door to the entire Arab world. Today we are seeing the opposite phenomenon, and these better relations will create conditions conducive to making peace with the Palestinians.
We see a new rapport between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin?
There is a good rapport between Israel and Russia, between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin. It’s important for us to have good communications with Russia for many reasons. First, because Russia is a great power with historic interests in the Middle East, and is involved just to the North of our border in a very significant way. And, first and foremost, it was important for us to establish direct communications to ensure that there is no miscommunication, and that Israeli and Russian forces would not be shooting at each other. We don’t want to see the miscalculation of the Russian plane and the Turks. It is important to establish channels of communication to prevent what happened in the Seventies, when there were fights between Russian and Israeli pilots over the Suez Canal. We don’t want to repeat that.
After President Obama re-established relationship with Iran it looks as if your historical alliance with the United States is weaker?
Let’s be clear: Israel is firmly in the West. We know we are part of the West, and we know that our most important relationship is our alliance with the United States of America. It’s true, we had a disagreement last year over Iran, and sometimes it’s not easy to have an argument with a good friend and an ally, but even the best of friends and the closest of allies do not automatically agree on everything. An example from London: people talk about the great alliance during the Second World War between the US and the UK, Roosevelt and Churchill, and they were allies and liberated Western Europe from the Nazis. But, if you look at the history, they had many disagreements. The relationship between Jerusalem and Washington is strong enough that we can digest disagreements when they arise.
But Iran remains an open problem for the security of Israel?
Iran is a problem that unfortunately does not change. It supports terrorism, and the eradication of my country. We did not support the deal, but now that it has been signed we say, “Keep their feet to the fire.” Our Prime Minister has said that the Iranians must cease their support for terrorism. The current Iranian regime is very extreme, with an aptly named ‘Supreme Leader’, and we have not seen a change in their behaviour.
Do you think that the relationship between Israel and the US will change with the next US President, whether it is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?
We have a strong partnership between the US and Israel, strong under Democratic and Republican Presidents, and I am sure that they will continue into the future, no matter who is sitting in the White House. Ultimately, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, the United States and Israel share a common belief in democracy, and we have shared interests. I am confident that our special relationship will continue. In Israel we know that we have no better friend than the United States of America, and I think America knows that in the Middle East they have no better friend than the State of Israel.
How is Israel, considering what’s happening in the world today?
We are facing many challenges and very real threats in the Middle East, and also in Europe, but if I think about what Israel has achieved in its 68 years of independence I have much optimism as we look to the future. By any objective criteria Israel is an amazing success story. A homeless people have a home. A persecuted and defenceless people have the ability to defend themselves. We have built a stable and strong democracy in a region where there are no other democracies. Israel’s economy is a success story. Our GDP per capita is growing very dramatically in the past decades. In science, in technology, water, communications, medicine, we are a leader. In the Seventies people said that Israel was at an amazing disadvantage, with no oil. Today we have what the world wants, technology, and big firms are investing in Israel.
Israel started as a pioneer socialist State and became a modern capitalistic country. What is the spirit of Israel nowadays?
If people have a close look at Israel they can still see many of the positive values on which our country was founded. In fact, today Israel is still a very exciting, dynamic and pluralist, tolerant society. Jaffa oranges were the symbol of Israel. Today the symbol is the hi-tec engineer in telecoms, medical or water saving technology. But it is the same country, with a vibrant spirit and a strong level of social cohesion, where people care about each other, and it has much to offer the world. When I was in the Prime Minister’s office, Heads of States with strong historic connections would come and visit, but in the past few years we saw more that did not have strong historic ties, because they felt that Israel was offering things that are very good for their societies. Modern Israel has more and more to offer the world. I don’t argue that there are challenges and hostility, but the bigger picture means you can still have optimism for the future.
There is growing religious extremism in Israel. How do you cope with it?
Every society has in it racism and extremism. Last year we had the innocent Palestinian family targeted in Duma. There was unequivocal wall-to-wall condemnation. The Cabinet authorised the use of counter-terrorism means to bring those responsible to justice. The Prime Minister visited the people in hospital the same day. The Prime Minister called Mahmoud Abbas the same day, and said we will bring the perpetrators to justice. And we have. In Israel we have seen the danger, and the leadership has no tolerance for this.
Are you helping other countries in the area of counter-terrorism?
We are working closely with many European countries, and our co-operation is appreciated and makes people safer.
What is your hope for the future?
What we have seen here in Britain in the past few weeks was that anti-Semitism was in a dark corner, in the shadows. When it emerges centre stage and comes into the sunlight you see wall-to-wall condemnation. The irrational hatred has trouble justifying itself when it comes to the centre of the discourse, and this gives me hope for the future. Anti-Semitism will not disappear, but maybe the anti-Semites will be playing for the defence.
June 21st 2016
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