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British Jews Up in Arms over Israeli Envoy with Little Experience

January 12, 2004
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In most diplomatic circles, a posting to London is considered second only to Washington.

But not, it seems, in Jerusalem’s eyes.

More than a year after the current Israeli ambassador’s term was supposed to end, a replacement has yet to be found. To make matters worse, many consider the favored candidate — Russian-born tycoon Zvi Hefetz — unsuited for the job.

Among other strikes against him, he can’t speak decent English, as he has admitted.

Zvi Shtauber, the incumbent, was meant to leave the palatial embassy in London’s exclusive Kensington Palace Gardens in 2002. Appointed by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Shtauber already has seen his tenure extended twice after two previous attempts to replace him failed.

It’s still unclear just when Shtauber — who is seen as an effective ambassador by both Israel and the British Jewish community — finally will step down as ambassador to the Court of St. James, as the London emissary officially is known.

The Israeli government can make up to 11 political appointments per term — they are normally reserved for the highest profile ambassadorial posts. The debacle in London began when a political appointee to replace Shtauber, former Cabinet minister Dalia Itzik, pulled out early last year after criticism of her English.

Shtauber’s tenure was extended while the wheels of power in Jerusalem churned out another candidate who was a politician rather than a career diplomat — Roni Milo, the former Tel Aviv mayor and Cabinet minister.

Milo speaks excellent English and was seen as a popular choice by the embassy in London, the British civil service and the local Jewish community. But he wavered after his psychiatrist wife expressed doubts about finding a suitable medical position in London.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon finally convinced Milo to accept the post. Shtauber again began packing his bags, and even received well-wishers at a formal departure ceremony last Sept. 24.

Days later, however, Milo announced that he had decided to decline the job because of concerns about his wife’s job, and the champagne was put back on ice.

Enter the next nominee: Hefetz, a lawyer and friend of Sharon’s son Omri. Hefetz is the principal owner of the Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball team and deputy chairman of the Ma’ariv newspaper.

If Itzik and Milo turned down the ambassador’s impressive mansion in North London’s fashionable St. John’s Wood — which comes with a butler and a cook — for their own reasons, Hefetz may not be able to make the choice made for him.

His foes in Israel include Labor legislator and career diplomat Colette Avital, who says Hefetz isn’t suitable for the position and has asked Israel’s civil service commissioner to bar him.

The appointment is pending a joint investigation of the Civil Service Commission and the Justice Ministry.

Hefetz has been accused of “buffing up” his resume to emphasize his diplomatic experience, which he claimed was built largely through one month spent working with Nativ, an agency responsible for establishing relations between Israel and Jews in the former Soviet bloc. In that job, he mainly issued visa for Jews wanting to go to Israel. That experience made him instrumental in re-establishing Israeli ties with Moscow, Hefetz told the Civil Service Commission, because he helped to establish educational and cultural ties with the former Soviet Union.

But a former head of Nativ cast serious doubt on Hefetz’s claims, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

“The temporary emissaries were not accredited and were not authorized to maintain contact with any diplomatic official,” Ya’akov Kedmi told the paper.

It’s also unclear whether Hefetz’s business interests might conflict with a diplomatic role — though he told the commission that he would sign an official document suspending his business involvement while he’s ambassador.

But others are worried about something much more basic — Hefetz’s English.

“I am not so much concerned about his tarnished reputation as about the fact that he doesn’t speak fluent English. This is important. This is critical,” Ahron Bregman, an Israeli-born and London-based expert on the Middle East, told JTA.

“Mr. Hefetz may overcome the obstacles and eventually get the post, but he will never, never make a good ambassador,” added Bregman, an author and a lecturer in war studies at Kings College London.

Bregman isn’t alone in arguing that Hefetz’s poor English is a fatal flaw to his candidacy.

A delegation from British Jewry’s umbrella organization, the Board of Deputies, recently met with Sharon in Jerusalem and expressed serious concerns about how effective Hefetz or any Israeli official without excellent English could be, given the hostility toward Israel in much of the British media.

“There is a necessity to ensure that Israel’s diplomatic representatives abroad and its spokesmen used in Israel to address the foreign media should have a sufficient command of English to enable Israel’s message to be clearly understood,” said the board’s senior vice president, Jerry Lewis.

“We hope that, whoever is appointed to become the next ambassador to Britain, ability in this regard at least matches that of the current ambassador.”

For his part, Hefetz admitted to the civil service panel that his English is poor, but said he would be willing to take a course to bring it up to par.

Concerns over Hefetz’s appointment also have prompted other communal bodies to act.

The Manchester Zionist Central Council urged members to send protest e-mails to Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

“I want Israel to take seriously the need for an ambassador who has a good command of English,” the council’s president, Joy Wolfe, explained to the Jewish Chronicle.

Hefetz “could be an embarrassment to the community and ineffective for Israel,” she said.

However the Israeli Embassy questioned the stance of the board and other community representatives.

“So if he comes to London, they won’t speak to him?” the embassy’s press spokeswoman, Shuli Davidovitch, asked rhetorically.

The embassy also scorned the notion that relations between Jerusalem and the British civil service have become strained because Shtauber has been left in limbo.

“There is no way relations have soured. The current ambassador is still working very hard, and the delay just shows that the Israeli government wants to find the proper person for the role,” Davidovitch said.

The embassy also denied that Jerusalem was disregarding the potential public relations damage from an envoy’s shaky grasp of English.

“We are sure whoever will come will do a good job with the press. We more than anybody understand the power of the media,” she said.

The debacle has led an Israeli columnist on the London-based community Web site, to muse, “How will he fight our case in the corridors of Whitehall? By organizing courses in Hebrew for British civil servants?”

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