British ambassador tells Israelis how to polish their image

March 27, 2002


[Note by Tom Gross]

The Jerusalem Post interview which follows this report from the London Times is long but worth reading.

The British Ambassador to Israel risked causing a diplomatic row with the Arab world yesterday when he offered to help the Israeli military to improve its battered image abroad.

Sherard Cowper-Coles also recommends that British Jews systematically take up clearly distorted reports in the media, where the facts are indisputably wrong, and refrain from generalized complaining. He also advises British Jews to ignore some of the "sillier and more superficial" attacks.

He also acknowledged that the BBC is "not usually considered a friend of Israel."


Envoy tells Israelis how to polish their image
By Richard Beeston
The Times of London
March 27, 2002

The British Ambassador to Israel risked causing a diplomatic row with the Arab world yesterday when he offered to help the Israeli military to improve its battered image abroad.

Sherard Cowper-Coles said that the Israelis should copy tactics employed by the British Army in Northern Ireland in its fight against the IRA. "I wish I could do more to help Israel's hasbara (public relations) effort," he told the Jerusalem Post. "I sometimes feel that Israel could make a better case for itself."

He recommended that the army should supply its own pictures from scenes of incidents more often and get its message out faster. "As the British Army learnt from bitter experience fighting terrorism in Northern Ireland, if you do not give the media pictures, the enemy will," he said. "As soon as there's an incident, you have to put up a spokesman, preferably a young, fresh-faced officer, who will give the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) account. In Northern Ireland, every officer received media training, and it's better to show the young officers than crusty old generals."

He said that making Israel's case to the British Government had been made harder over the past 18 months because the "chattering classes" in Britain had turned against the Jewish state. But he insisted that it was possible to improve the image, and cited a recent BBC documentary about an elite IDF unit. "It showed the IDF in the best possible light," he said. "You could see the IDF's courage and professionalism."

Mr Cowper-Coles's remarks risk provoking an angry response from Palestinians. He caused an uproar in November when he compared dealing with Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to "wrestling with jelly".

Sir Cyril Townsend, a former British diplomat and the director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, said that Mr Cowper-Coles had "overstepped the mark" with his comments. "It was imprudent for the British Ambassador to get involved in giving Israel such detailed PR advice," he said. "I like to think that he is working flat out to get the Israeli Government to support the Saudi peace plan."

Mr Cowper-Coles said that his remarks were in response to a question about public relations, and did not mean that Britain was uncritical of the Israeli miliary's behaviour in the occupied territories. "In public and private we have been very critical of the IDF," he said. "We have a very robust dialogue with the Israelis."



Language of diplomacy
By Miriam Shaviv,
The Jerusalem Post
March 26, 2002

Britain's Ambasador to Israel Sherard Cowper-Coles has quickly made his presence felt in the country, due in no small part to his determination to grapple with Hebrew. In an interview with Miriam Shaviv, he notes that the 'center of gravity in the chattering classes' in England has shifted against Israel and that 'I wish I could do more to help Israel's hasbara [public relations] effort.'

Exiting the King David Hotel at the end of an interview, British Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles spots Israel's former ambassador to the UN, Dore Gold, crossing the lobby.

In almost accent-free Hebrew, Cowper-Coles calls out, "Adoni hashagrir, mah shlomcha?" "Mr. Ambassador, how are you?" Gold, still a few meters away, stops and stares at Cowper-Coles, visibly puzzled. Finally, recognition dawns on him.

"Mr. Ambassador..." says Gold in English, extending his hand. "The Hebrew threw me off."

Gold is probably not the only one to be taken by surprise by the Hebrew-speaking ambassador. When Cowper-Coles began his term in Israel in September, he presented his official credentials to President Moshe Katsav in Hebrew, and has made a point of speaking it ever since. At the beginning of this interview, it was hard to get Cowper-Coles, who introduced himself in Hebrew, to start speaking English.

Indeed, over the last seven months, Cowper-Coles has truly immersed himself in Israeli culture. He has thoroughly toured the country, from cycling in the Golan Heights to coral diving in Eilat. He has taken an active interest in Judaism, experiencing a range of religious experiences, from Hanukka in a Vishnitz yeshiva in Bnei Brak to seder night, next week, on a kibbutz in the North.

A source close to diplomatic circles points out how unusual Cowper-Coles is in this regard, both compared to previous British ambassadors and to other European ambassadors.

"Nothing in his record would have made anyone believe he was going to take such an interest," says the source. "He has previously held postings in the Arab world, and is a product of the British Foreign Office" which Israelis often perceive as Arabist.

Cowper-Coles's curiosity has certainly resulted in an unusual sympathy for Israel and Israelis. It has not necessarily translated into support for the policies of the Israeli government, but the source notes that at least once, Cowper-Coles betrayed the frustration of dealing with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. "Dealing with Arafat is like wrestling with jelly," he said in November.

While it is hard to tell to what extent Cowper-Coles influences British foreign policy in the Middle East, the source says he certainly has the ear of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

At least one previous ambassador has risen to "dizzy heights," says the source, referring to David Manning who is now foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. "No one would be surprised if Cowper-Coles also has that kind of future ahead of him."

Cowper-Coles was born in London in 1955, and grew up in Kent. After reading Latin and Greek in Oxford, he joined the diplomatic service in 1977.

His initial contact with the Middle East was the result of a considered academic decision. The Foreign Office thought he was capable of learning a "hard language" and gave him the choice of Arabic, Japanese, or Chinese.

"I chose Arabic," he says, "because of my background in classics. I felt that learning Arabic was closer to home, and would help close a circle." Cowper-Coles was sent to an Arabic school in Lebanon, but was evacuated shortly afterwards because of Syrian shelling in Beirut, and sent to the University of Alexandria in Egypt instead.

To improve his language skills, he chose to live with a local family and their four children, in a two-bedroom apartment.

"I witnessed an exorcism," he still marvels. "They slaughtered two chickens and some pigeons and put the blood across the door's threshold in order to cure the mother of rheumatism." After Arabic lessons in the morning, he would tour Alexandria in the afternoon with his old car.

"It is a very romantic, Mediterranean city," he says. "I saw the death-mask of a Greek poet, and even visited the synagogue there, which was very sad because it was all boarded up." He says he was impressed by the way that Egypt seemed to include cultural elements from many different civilizations.

"It was like the scrolls of the Geniza," he says. "Different people had made their marks over the years, and you could feel all of them the Greeks, the Romans, the Jews. The Arabs were relatively late arriving."

Cowper-Coles became second secretary to the British Embassy in Cairo in 1980. His reading of the political situation was not always spot-on he recalls sending a telegram back to England, saying that the new President Hosni Mubarak might not last more than a few months but he remembers being excited by Egypt's emerging relations with Israel.

"It was a time of hope and excitement, and I felt I was witnessing the beginnings of the peace process," Cowper-Coles says. "I even had a great friend in the Israeli embassy." His friendship with Dan Kurtzer, then a political officer in the US embassy in Cairo and currently the American ambassador to Israel, also dates back to this time. Cowper-Coles says of Kurtzer: "The more I see of his work, the more I admire what he is doing. He's undemonstrative, but a totally dedicated diplomat, totally dedicated to peace and to Israel."

Cowper-Coles also had a family tradition of interest in Israel. "I am a quarter Dutch, and my family there were ardent Zionists," he reveals. "My great-uncle was shot for hiding Jewish children in the Second World War, and my family sent blood to Israel in 1967."

In 1983, Cowper-Coles and his wife Bridget, whom he married in 1982, drove across the Sinai to Israel. They stayed with friends in Jerusalem, toured the Galilee, and swum in the Kinneret.

He was immediately struck by the amount the state had accomplished in the 35-odd years of its existence.

"We felt we were moving from the Third World to the First World in a matter of yards," he says. "Israel was very emotionally engaging, it was very exciting to see the miracles created here the cultivation. I was impressed by the spirit of can-do, by the sheer excitement of the Jewish people having their own land."

The couple and their nine-month-old son sailed out of Haifa harbor, and returned to London, where Cowper-Coles had little to do with the Middle East for the next 20-odd years. He initially wrote speeches for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ("very demanding"), and four years later was sent to Washington, where he covered US politics.

In 1991, he again returned to London, where he was seconded to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and headed the Hong Kong Department of the Foreign Office. After helping to negotiate the return of the last British colony to Communist China, he was sent as the political counselor to the British Embassy in Paris. Twenty months later, in 1999, he received a tough posting as private secretary of then-foreign secretary Robin Cook, whom Cowper-Coles remembers as a highly intelligent man, and a skilled diplomat.

"He is not really understood in Britain, partly because of his manner," Cowper-Coles says.

Cowper-Coles was not yet working for Cook when the latter's March 1998 visit to Israel ended in diplomatic pandemonium after he publicly challenged policies of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He accompanied him on two subsequent visits, though, where he had "very successful" talks with prime minister Ehud Barak and foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

"When it came to Israel, [Cook] always took the view that to influence things here, you had to work with Israel," says Cowper-Coles.

Last year, he felt he had a good chance of securing one of the "medium" embassies the top-rank embassies were still out of his reach because of his young age.

"Both Bridget and I wanted to come to Israel because of the emotional and intellectual excitement," he says. In addition, they felt that peace "might be around the corner" although he notes that the professional challenge of his job has just increased since the resurgence of the violence.

To prepare for the posting, Cowper-Coles decided to throw himself into a Hebrew-speaking environment, as he had done with Arabic in Alexandria, more than 20 years earlier.

"It was also important to me to get to know more about the Jewish community in Britain," he says. "A lot of my Jewish friends had married out, and I wanted to live in a Jewish community, to get to know Judaism better." For five weeks last summer, Cowper-Coles lodged with a family of Israelis living in Hendon, a heavily-Jewish suburb in North-West London.

"The wife was a beautician, and I had to share a bedroom with her laser machine," he says. "She fed me Israeli salads for breakfast and called me motek [honey]." Every morning, Cowper-Coles cycled to Balfour House, the London headquarters of the Jewish Agency, where a team of Jewish teachers waited to teach him Hebrew.

The experience, Cowper-Coles admits, did not give him "complete insight" into Israeli society, but gave him a sense of "the immense pride in what Israel had achieved and the deep love of the land of Israel" held by many Israeli expatriates.

When he finally arrived here sailing into Haifa Harbor, this time with a 19-year-old son he says he did not suffer culture shock. However, he was amazed to discover "the depth of despair" caused by the Palestinian rejection of what Cowper-Coles calls Barak's "offer of unprecedented generous proportions." "I had not realized how high hopes had risen, or how badly people felt left down," says Cowper-Coles.

Soon after he arrived, he went to visit the mother of one of his Hebrew teachers on kibbutz. Her parents had died in the Holocaust, sending their daughter a last letter from Berlin which warned, "We are going on a long journey."

"It upset me to think of a woman who escaped such awfulness in Europe, once again facing a sense of doom and hopelessness for her children," says Cowper-Coles. "I found it very upsetting." Cowper-Coles also quickly realized that he had not appreciated Israelis' sense of international isolation. "Israelis crave love from the rest of the world," he says. "They long to be accepted as a normal member of the family of nations, and you have to live here to appreciate that."

In hindsight, however, Cowper-Coles says that there was a hint of that insecurity in the British Jewish community. "Although I regard the Jewish people as an integral part of British society, it is only by living in Hendon that I realized how many people I knew in England were actually Jewish, although they had never let on," he says. "There is always a fear at the back of people's minds that what happened once could happen again."

How does a man as sensitive to Israelis' frame of mind as Cowper-Coles regard his own Foreign Office, which is traditionally treated with such suspicion by Israelis? Cowper-Coles says that Foreign Office officials are naturally better acquainted with Arab countries than with Israel, since so many more diplomats have to be trained for those states. He says that he is trying to make sure that those who are sent to Israel are better equipped than they have been in the past, beginning by improving their Hebrew skills.

Cowper-Coles is, predictably, reluctant to admit that any systematic bias permeates the Foreign Office. "Individuals may criticize individual policies of Israel, but I have never come across a British diplomat who does not believe in Israel's right to exist in security," he says.

"The overall policy is set by the ministers, who decide on policy. A sensible minister always takes the line that to build peace, you have to work with Israel, because grandstanding on behalf of one party or another deals you out of the game."

He rejects the suggestion that successive British foreign ministers have, in fact, shown considerable hostility to Israel. Robin Cook, for example, enraged Netanyahu in 1998 by touring Jerusalem's Har Homa, and meeting there with Palestinian Legislative Council member Salah Ta'amri. Netanyahu responded by canceling a state dinner, and Cook left the following day without the usual courtesies of an official send-off.

The current minister, Jack Straw, drew fire in October when he wrote in an article published in an Iranian paper, "I understand that one of the factors which helps breed terrorism is the anger which many people in the region feel at events over the years in Palestine."

"[Straw]'s one sentence in one article expressed sentiments which some Israelis may disagree with, but you cannot interpret them as violently anti-Israel," he says. "You need to look at the foreign minister's subsequent visits to Israel as well. On Straw's last visit, he expressed understanding for the suffering of people here, which provides a more balanced and accurate taste of his views."

Cowper-Coles emphasizes that Blair is a strong supporter of Israel. His feelings for the country, says Cowper-Coles, go beyond intellectual calculation. "Touring with him in Israel, I could see he has an emotional connection as well," says Cowper-Coles. "He admires the rule of law here, and the success of Israel and its people."

One segment of the British population where Cowper-Coles does detect an increase in anti-Israel sentiment is the liberal intelligentsia. He will not discuss recent claims by Daily Telegraph columnist Barbara Amiel that the French Ambassador to Britain, Daniel Bernard, referred to Israel during a dinner party she was hosting as "that shitty little country" which threatens world peace.

However, Cowper-Coles agrees that the "center of gravity in the chattering classes has shifted against Israel." He says he is pained by the change, which also makes his work harder, because he has to represent Britain in Israel and make sure that the Israeli case is heard fairly in the British government.

"I wish I could do more to help Israel's hasbara [public relations] effort," he says. "I sometimes feel that Israel could make a better case for itself," he says.

Cowper-Coles recommends that Israel supply pictures from scenes of incidents more often. "As the British army learned from bitter experience fighting terrorism in Northern Ireland, if you do not give the media pictures, the enemy will," he says.

The IDF, he says, should also be quicker to offer its versions of events. "As soon as there's an incident, you have to put up a spokesperson, preferably a young, fresh-faced officer, who will give the IDF account. In Northern Ireland, every officer received media training, and it's better to show the young officers than the crusty old generals."

He believes that an improvement is possible, citing for example a recent documentary by the BBC "not usually considered a friend of Israel" about an IDF elite unit's activities. He considered the result so positive that he even sent a letter of congratulation to OC Planning Maj.-Gen. Giora Eiland, one of the military figures interviewed.

"It showed the IDF in the best possible light," says Cowper-Coles. "You could see the IDF's courage and professionalism."

Despite recent reports about an increase in anti-Semitism in Britain, Cowper-Coles says it is difficult to point to hard evidence. He argues that it is important not to label all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, and that a distinction must be made between those who are anti-Sharon, those who are against the IDF, those who are anti-Israel, and a "very nasty" strand of anti-Semitism which sometimes disguises itself as anti-Sharonism.

"What worries me more is the perception that anti-Semitism is on the rise," he says. "This feeds into people's fears and is bad for Britain and for British Jews."

Dealing with the problem, says Cowper-Coles, is not the task of the British government: "We are not into thought control." He recommends that British Jews systematically take up clearly distorted reports in the media, where the facts are indisputably wrong, and refrain from generalized complaining. He also advises British Jews to ignore some of the "sillier and more superficial" attacks.

"I persuaded Robin Cook not to read the papers every day," he says. "Sometimes you have to ignore attacks in order to lower the temperature."

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.