You never know who you will meet in the cafes around Kensington. At one a few months ago, I heard Ivrit being spoken loudly from a nearby table.
On leaving, I found myself in conversation with the now infamous Shai Masot, who wondered about opportunities for a further meeting with me and Daily Mail colleagues.
No follow-up did take place, but I was not surprised when the now famous Al Jazeera sting also took place in a fashionable eaterie on Kensington High Street. With the embassy around the corner, it’s hard not run into Israeli diplomats and politicians, including on one occasion, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
The Masot affair raises broader questions about the role of embassies in an age of instant communications and the limits of their responsibilities. That there are people working in embassies whose role stretches the definition of diplomacy should come as no surprise.
Christopher Steele, compiler of the ‘dodgy’ dossier on Moscow and Trump, served as a high level British Embassy official in Moscow and Paris. He was also a known M16 agent, showing how blurred the lines can be among diplomacy, politics and intelligence.
There was nothing particularly unusual about Masot’s activities, but his methods were unusually clumsy and he crossed the line by speaking publicly about wanting to undermine a democratically-elected official.
For many years, the Israeli Embassy in London was undervalued in Jerusalem because of the UK’s diminished place in the world. That changed over the past decade or so. Among the triggers was the rise of the power of British news brands in the digital world. The strength of the BBC, the online Guardian and Mail Online as global sources of news and analysis meant the views of the British media on the Middle East and the world have gained enormous traction.
With the storm about ‘false news’ propagated by largely unmonitored websites, the premium value of properly-checked, accurate and edited news and analysis has become ever greater.
The need for articulate, knowledgeable and robust diplomats in London, who could harness the capital’s media influence, produced the two most recent ambassadorial appointments. Daniel Taub, the British educated lawyer turned diplomat, was followed by the former voice of Israel in Jerusalem Mark Regev.
Taub was a brilliant representative able to engage combatively on the BBC’s Today programme with Israel’s critics and brave enough to take the battle against demonisation of Israel into the regional heartlands such as the Israel ‘no go area’ of Bradford. The lines between normal diplomatic activity and the political-intelligence role of the embassy had been crossed.
The role of the modern ambassador is less political and more about communications and commerce. The narrative of the Israeli-UK relationship focuses on trade and technology.
Clearly, it was Regev’s job to express disquiet at the recent British vote at the UN Security Council and to dismiss the relevance of the Paris Middle East peace conference. But is not his job to publicly target or disparage the politicians or officials who made the decision. It would be lunacy if the London Embassy did not have a political-intelligence agenda too, for instance, to help target and defeat the embedded boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign in the UK.
But a line has to be drawn between the role of normal diplomatic activity and getting down and dirty.