Behind the Headlines Israeli-british Relations Improving

The man who has been Israel’s acting Ambassador since Shlomo Argov was crippled by Arab terrorists 13 months ago cleared his desk today, saying that Israeli-British relations were steadily improving after their worst-ever spell.

Yoav Biran, 47-year-old minister plenipotentiary, is being replaced here by 48-year-old Moshe Raviv who, like him, will be Israel’s senior representative until the arrival of Yehuda Avner, the successor to Argov.

Biran, a Hebrew University Oriental studies graduate, had already been here five years when Argov was gunned down outside London’s Dorchester Hotel. That attack also triggered off Israel’s massive invasion of Lebanon and an international diplomatic crisis in London with which Biran has been trying to cope ever since.

For his valiant efforts, he has been singled out by his government as his country’s most outstanding civil servant. But this was an honor he has not relished. Homesick for Jerusalem, Biran was already impatiently planning his farewell reception when the wounding of Argov forced him to occupy the Ambassador’s desk over a year ago.

A YEAR OF TENSION

Although Biran is hesitant to put it in such grim terms, the year which has followed saw British-Israel relations sink to their lowest ebb since the end of British rule in Palestine in 1948. British politicians and the media reacted violently to events in Lebanon, culminating in the horror caused by the Sabra and Shatila massacres by Lebanese Phalangist forces.

But relations, however frought, have at least remained intact and Biran is content to have seen what he calls “a more relaxed approach” by the present British government.

His optimism stems not merely from the relaxation of the Lebanese situation but from the new team which has taken over the British Foreign Office following the recent general election here.

Richard Luce, who has replaced Douglas Hurd as the minister in charge of the Foreign Office, is carefully studying the subject before committing himself to what Israeli circles regard as the same old pro-Arab line.

The Israeli view is that this British reassessment is being conducted because of a realization that the so-called moderate Arab states, from whom Britain previously expected a positive response, have so far simply failed to deliver. In the future, according to this assessment, Britain is likely to stay closer to the Americans and to think twice before trying to pursue its own path on the Middle East.

PRELUDE TO AVNER’S AMBASSADORSHIP

Raviv, the new minister, is one of Israel’s most seasoned diplomats. He served in London in a junior capacity between 1958 and 1963. He then went on to serve in Jerusalem. Washington and the Philippines before occupying his latest post as director of the Foreign Ministry’s economic division.

Raviv, a youth aliya refugee from Germany, will serve as number two to Avner, scheduled here at the end of the month. Originally from Manchester, Avner is the first British-bom Israeli Ambassador to serve in London — although the job has been held by two South Africans, Michael Comay and the late Arthur Lourie.

Biran might have left even sooner had the British not reacted negatively to an earlier request that Eliahu Lankin, the present Ambassador to South Africa, should replace Argov.

This was because of Lankin’s membership in the Irgun Zvai Leumi, which indulged in armed attacks on British forces in the last years of the Mandate.

In many respects, Lankin would have been an ideal candidate for the post. Thanks to his past political affiliations, he might have helped to exorcise some of the historic grievances and misunderstandings which still occasionally haunt relations between Britain and the Israel of Premier Menachem Begin.

But that was not to be. Instead, the task of further improving British-Israeli relations will be borne primarily by Avner. He will be helped by the fact that the British side, as well as the Israeli, feels that relations between these two traditionally friendly states have been allowed to deteriorate too far. As one senior British official recently remarked, “At least the new man will be able to understand our mentality.”

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