Photo Credit @AmbMarkRegev on Twitter.
The Israeli Ambassador the United Kingdom, His Excellency Mark Regev, held a brief talk, followed by a Q&A at my University Yesterday. What follows is a brief summary of his main talking points, and my opinion on both the wider Arab/Israeli conflict, and the ambassador’s arguments
“Mark, I know the Jewish People suffered greatly in Europe, but why did Europe have to solve the Jewish Problem at my expense?”
The First impression I had when seeing Ambassador Regev was that he looked exactly the same as the image I have in my head when I thought Diplomat. His relatively soft Australian tilted voice (he was born in Melbourne after all), helped give an air of friendliness, but his demeanour and the passion in his voice definitely gave the impression that this was a man who both knew exactly what he was talking about, and he was in his element. It didn’t surprise me when he mentioned that his previous job was working as the official spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, and that the press in this country have likened him to Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s Right Hand Spin Doctor.
Through this facade of spin and polish, the ambassador was remarkable in his defence of a nation he clearly loves, and he seems genuinely at odds with the common perception of Israel as an oppressive government when it comes to Palestinians. He straight away addresses this, relaying to the students a conversation he had with a member of the Palestinian Authority, with whom he had appeared on BBC’s Newsnight, over a coffee in Jerusalem. The unnamed Palestinian simply said to him, “Mark, I know the Jewish People suffered greatly in Europe, but why did Europe have to solve the Jewish Problem at my expense?” This, Regev said, was the crux of the entire conflict in the region, and I am inclined to agree with the ambassador here. The state of Israel, which commemorates 69 years of independence this year, was carved out of the UN’s British Mandate of Palestine, a land which has been occupied by Palestinian Muslims since Saladin conquered the region in 1187, and many of the Palestinians were forced from their homes or absorbed into a state which they wanted no part of, due to their rejection of the UN partition plan of 1947. This Plan would have resulted in both an Israel and a Palestine coexisting in the region, but the Arabs, who didn’t want to cede their land to perceived ‘invaders from Europe’ as many of the Jewish people in Eretz Israel (the forebear of the modern state) were displaced Jews from Europe, many of them survivors of the Holocaust.
The Ambassador also spoke of this anniversary of the founding of Israel, and criticised the Palestinian representatives who rejected partition in 1948, as he said that Palestine should also be celebrating 69 years of independence. Instead, they celebrate “The Nakba” or The Catastrophe. The Arabs saw the establishment of a Jewish state on their land as an affront to the war of liberation they fought against the Ottoman Turks during the First World War, when the Arabs fought with the Lawrence of Arabia to free the region of Ottoman influence (and also secure the region for Britain who needed oil for the War in Europe).
Regev spoke about Peace, and the need for 2 ingredients which need to be in place before they can achieve Peace. Mutual Recognition of each state’s right to exist, and Security. Without Legitimacy and Security, Israel and Palestine can never peacefully coexist. As the above section noted, the Legitimacy of the Israeli State is difficult to achieve due to the perception that the Jews stole Arab Land, and therefore the Arabs cannot recognise a State which stole land from Arabs. This is another point where I agreed with the ambassador, as the Israeli people; especially those who live in the Land that was Eretz Israel, not the Occupied Territories; they didn’t take this land from the Palestinians, they were Born there, or invited by the Government, or they were put there by the British during the interwar years. You cannot punish the Son for the Sins of the Father, as the saying goes. However, Israel does need to recognize equally the Palestinian right to exist as a state, and not treat the territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority as an autonomous region which they still have military control of, but as a sovereign state, which 136 other states have recognized.
The Security argument was the main line of argument that I found troubling. The Ambassador spoke of a need to ensure that there will be no terrorism before there can be peace in the region, stating that extremists see peace as a weakness and therefore violence would intensify and create a roadblock to peace. This argument is a fallacy in my humble opinion, as the only way to create peace, as indeed Regev stated during his talk, was through dialogue and peace. He states correctly that Palestine cannot defeat Israel militarily or economically, so it must negotiate. This talk of security puts a pre-condition on peace which is wholly unobtainable. In speaking about negotiations working, Regev used the example of Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, being invited to speak at the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in 1977, and the peace treaty that followed as part of the Camp David in 1979. What he failed to mention was that in 1981, Sadat was assassinated by Egyptian jihadis who opposed the treaty, but the treaty still stood with successive Egyptian governments. While violence is not wanted, it is not an insurmountable block to peace, the only roadblock to peace is the unwillingness from one side to not talk. The best example of a peace treaty with terrorists who wanted recognition and legitimacy from a government was the Good Friday agreement signed by the British Government and the Irish Republican Army. This is a conflict which still has the occasional flare up 20 years after its signing, but a general peace was achieved due to the willingness on both sides to talk, negotiate and compromise
Regev spoke about the need for direct negotiation. He spoke about the frustrations the Israelis feel at the Palestinians working through the United Nations rather than dealing directly with Israel, calling the activities of the Palestinians Authority the “politics of theatre” and that without negotiation, nothing will get done. He pointed out that Yasser Arafat, in a letter to Yitzhak Rabin, there were two commitments made for peace: All outstanding issues between the two sides will be solved through negotiation; and all forms of terrorism and violence will not be sponsored by either side. Regev holds that the Palestinians have not kept to their word, pointing to terror attacks from Hamas and the boycotting of Israel both economically and diplomatically by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
He was however optimistic in the possibility of peace with the Palestinians, repeatedly pointing out that he is willing to listen and negotiate. For what its worth, I feel like Regev would sit and negotiate. Whether his government would be another matter, as Netanyahu has never struck me as someone who wants peace, unlike his predecessor Ariel Sharon. Regev also spoke of the switching of tactics Israel has engaged with. Instead of using negotiations and peace with Palestine to foster relations with the wider Arab world, the Israelis are using their talks with the Arabs, and establishing relations with nations such as Jordan (with whom it shares its longest land border) and Egypt. this is due to the shared concerns about terrorism in the region, especially in recent years with the rise of Islamic State as an actor in the region.
All in all, Mark Regev gave the impression of a man who wants to help his country, and would fight tooth and nail for whatever would be best for Israel, whether that be war or peace. His oratory skills were impressive, and he certainly challenged my views on Israel, and furthermore he made me consider how a Peace could be achieved in the Middle East. In answering one of the questions not wholly centred on the Occupied Territories (which was most of them), Regev spoke about Israel’s economy, and how it is the third biggest Tech Hub in the world, after Silicon Valley in California, and Boston. When he spoke about how the government offered 20 year bonds and that they were massively oversubscribed at the London Stock Exchange, my mind was cast to the efforts China has been going to in recent years to foster relations and goodwill through infrastructure investment in the developing world. If Israel needs to build trust with the Palestinians, and Israel wants to keep a strong economy, it would be remiss to not consider using economic assistance through investment and nurturing Palestinian innovation and infrastructure. Instead of building settlements and Israeli factories in the Occupied Territories, why not invest in Palestinian Business, offer them the infrastructure needed to thrive. As a Wise man once said, give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, help a man create a million dollar business, then he won’t try to blow up a military checkpoint.*
*Okay, it was me who said that.
Please let me know what you think of this write-up.
I would like to thank His Excellency Mark Regev for giving this talk at the University, and Dr Steve Hurst for allowing us the opportunity to attend this talk.