Ever since Israel’s inception there has been a need to establish and grow the relationship with other nations. This is particularly challenging when faced with hostile neighbors and constantly shifting political environments. Israel has been compelled to be more creative in its approach, to think laterally, to devise and innovate. What makes the challenge even more complex is that some countries want relationships but cannot openly admit it. Others, as we know, are openly antagonistic.
Diplomats have the unenviable task of delicately managing relations between countries, often under great pressure, and are consistently called upon to show remarkable skill when negotiating on behalf of their own nation. But what happens when a country is part of a regional bloc that is outwardly against Israel, due to their own religious or doctrinal ideologies—and yet there are internal elements, often the powerbrokers, civic or corporate leaders, that very much want ties to be established, but done so under the radar? This requires what one might call super diplomacy, a heightened skillset with a deep strategic roadmap, unlike the standard approach to global political engagement. The levels of discretion take an exceptional sort of character.
South African born Brett Jonathan Miller is a career diplomat with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The life of an envoy is markedly different from the conventional existence many of us experience, where we are for the most part settled in one city or country for extended periods, often for entire lifetimes. Diplomats, on the other hand, move every two to three years. Like many of his colleagues, Jonathan has walked an extraordinary path, having lived and worked in all manner of countries and environments. Outside of the usual ambassadorial responsibilities, Jonathan’s efforts also spanned an array of industries, missions and special interests, all on behalf of Israel. Over three decades, Jonathan honed a set of skills that, although manifest through varied and diverse assignments, were drawn from a deep well of resourcefulness, acumen, and agility. This is his story.
Jonathan was born in Cape Town and lived the typical Jewish existence, attending Herzliya and enjoying growing up in the Mother City. A couple months before his Barmitzvah, his parents made Aliyah to Haifa. After high school he attended his military service in the navy, followed by a first degree in International Relations at Hebrew U, and later a second degree in Communications.
“Everyone in the course tried to apply to the Foreign Ministry,” Jonathan explains. “It wasn’t something I had planned on or even thought about, but people were talking about it. What do you do with a degree in International Relations? So, I applied and joined the Foreign Ministry in 1992.”
His time started off in the cadet course, running through a series of tests and challenges to see how and where he might best be placed within the Ministry.
“It’s a special process of being accepted. The idea is that it’s not a regular public sector job. It takes particular requirements, distinctive experience, unique capabilities. It’s also a fairly long course. At the time it took about 8 months.”
Along with three thousand other applicants, Jonathan was tested in general and specific knowledge, languages, and assessed during simulation group activities and other challenging tasks. It was grueling. At each stage you could have been told that you were not suitable.
“I met a lot of other people from different backgrounds across Israel, bringing with them a variety of experiences and skills. One thing that we knew going in was that it was a career for life, and that it required someone with a certain temperament. So motivation was a big part of the endeavour. We were representing the State of Israel, and we were in it for the long haul. Israel’s foreign relations at the time had a certain halo. It was a highly respectable pursuit.”
Eventually, after the final and fairly intense interview with the Ministry psychologist, Jonathan was one of just 18 selected from the cadet course who made it through. His first international posting was to Nairobi. He took with him his young wife and toddler. During their time there, his wife returned to Israel to give birth to their second child.
“We really enjoyed Kenya, even with the hardship of being away from home in such a foreign environment. We discovered that it’s not easy for families to settle in a new country, set up systems, find a community of friends, eventually deal with schools for the kids—and then do it all over again somewhere else. However, we recognized that this was part of the job.
“In Nairobi I took to the challenge of helping run a small but regional embassy in a strategic African diplomatic hub. It was a fascinating time, a period of renewing ties with African countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union. South Africa was also opening up to Africa, with President Mandela now at the helm.”
Jonathan started having his first experiences bringing Israeli seichel into his work, and understood how Israel might be able to help Kenya and the region with their own particular challenges. But, it was personal too.
“In a way, there was also the familiarity and comfort for me, having grown up around Africans. Like us, my baby daughter was now being strapped to the back of our helper at home, much the same with all children in Africa.” Jonathan laughs softly as he remembers those early days. “We realised, however, that when our baby’s first songs were being sung in Kiswahili, as enriching as that was, that it was probably time to return to Israel and spend time with family there.”
He took enthusiastically to his tasks and started seeking posts in other regions where there were greater challenges. It became clear to him that Israel had much to offer the world, and his efforts grew in purpose and mission. The timing of his next posting was providential; he was sent to Oslo in the midst of the Oslo Accords process.
“First of all, the change was phenomenal. From one extreme posting to another. It was yet another fascinating time to witness, with Israeli and Palestinian groups consistently meeting in huts dotted across the country—behind closed doors, to avoid publicity.”
He was also involved in an event that took place in Oslo which proved, yet again, how tiny Israel was moving the dial and impacting an old, stable Scandinavian democracy, with a seismic political moment.
“We held an event commemorating the death of Yitzhak Rabin, which drew the attention of President Clinton, who decided to attend. It was the first time in Norway’s history that a sitting US President visited their country—and it was to attend our commemoration.”
After three years in Oslo, Jonathan returned to Israel to join the economic division of the Foreign Ministry. He was assigned with another extraordinary mission: acting as part of an Israeli diplomatic and economic go-between taskforce, and the newly formed Eastern European states that had come out of the former Soviet Union.
“They needed help with modernization updates and the standardization of their industries, as they were in the process of becoming part of the European Union. They saw Israel as an ideal model, one that was aligned to the EU—but not an old and established democracy, rather a nimble and smart ‘advisor state’—so they looked to us to help them get their industries and private sector up to par with EU levels. This included safety, security, health, all of it. It is for this reason that you see such great success of Israeli companies in places like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria. It opened the doors to accelerated economic ties, to the benefit of all sides.”
His next posting was in Berlin, which he explained was an assignment that is often refused outright, on principle, by members of the Israeli diplomatic community.
“For some it just carries too much weight, heavy with personal and ancestral pain, and they refuse to engage. And yet, Germany has been a rare example of a nation ‘rehabilitated’, who have deeply confronted their past and made profound changes to their culture and politics.”
He returned from Germany to Israel for some time and, eventually, became eager to find another posting in a complex place, so that he could continue adding value where it was needed. That place was Mumbai, India. He was only one year into his post, when he was summoned by his seniors on a particularly special mission. “We need you somewhere else,” they told him. “This time you’re ‘going dark’.” He would not be allowed to speak to anyone but his direct seniors about where he was or what he was doing there.
The new post was in the Kingdom of Bahrain, and Jonathan was tasked to establish the equivalent of an embassy, without any of the diplomatic constructs or overtures.
“It was an extremely exciting opportunity, and at the same time very difficult. Firstly, we knew that there was keen interest on both sides for relations to be pursued. In that sense this buoyed our efforts, knowing that there were serious players there that wanted this to happen. And yet it was effectively covert, so we had to establish entirely unique systems and entities to manage this operation. Instead of your typical consular mission or embassy, we set in place a company with a very broad mandate, and called it The Center for International Development. We, the ‘staff’, all had cover stories supported by LinkedIn bios and other supporting background documents. What we really were, however, were a group of Israeli diplomats with dual nationalities.”
And yet, it wasn’t so simple. They didn’t have the normal structures and comforts to draw on that envoys are generally provided with. It also meant an even more rigorous schedule.
“The constant travel was hard work because we didn’t have the same kind of base and diplomatic lifestyle. This included even more travel in and out, which was exhausting. And, our families stayed back home in Israel, adding to the pressure.”
Even so, the challenge was exciting, and ultimately Jonathan and his colleagues were successful.
“I was impressed by the commitment of the Bahraini’s to pursue economic, technological and personal ties with Israel and Israelis. There were so many people and organisations that came forward, expressing interest in engaging with us, and our products and services. It was just a matter of time for the regional politics to catch up, and it eventually did when the Abraham Accords were put on the table.”
Jonathan is yet again in transition, from his most recent post as Special Envoy for Energy for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, involved in regional energy deals that he sees as essential for Israel’s economic and diplomatic security, to his biggest posting yet—Deputy Ambassador to the UN, for which he moved to New York in mid-2022.
“I think it’s a great closing of a circle, having come to Israel as an oleh, an immigrant, and then representing my country on the global stage. While some do find it difficult, and for good reason, I feel a deep sense of pride when I’m out in the world, being an Israeli diplomat.”
First published in the Telfed Magazine. Telfed supports new olim from South Africa and Australia – www.telfed.org.il