Tzipi Hotovely is marking three years this month since her appointment as Israel's Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The State of Israel is currently facing numerous challenges, including judicial reform, the Abraham Accords that are expanding, and the possible discussions about normalization with Saudi Arabia.
Last July, the President of the United States conveyed to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that he should not pass the legislation without broad consensus. The British government called on Israel to preserve the independence of its judicial system and to avoid legislation. However, according to the ambassador, the relations remain good as always, and a stream of visits by Israeli government officials make their way to the British Kingdom. In anticipation of the New Year, in a special interview, we spoke with the ambassador about diplomacy between the countries, anti-Semitism in the kingdom, and her personal coping as a religious individual.
How are you these days?
"In action. The Head of Military Intelligence visited here last week, and also the ministers Shikli, Akunis, and the chairman of Yad Vashem, Danny Dayan, will visit. There's no week without an official visit; we are in a summer of action. This year is historic because a new king was crowned in the kingdom, which hasn't happened for decades. When I arrived here, I presented my credentials to the Queen. It's a continuous embassy."
We are in tense days in Israel. The White House has criticized, and Britain called on Israel to maintain the independence of the judicial system. On the other hand, we see ministerial visits. Isn't there a dissonance here?
"There is no dissonance because we need to understand that we are in the golden era of Israel-UK relations. In the past month, a strategic dialogue has been launched between the countries led by the heads of the National Security Council, and Prime Minister Netanyahu came to open it. The senior level indicates the security cooperation between Israel and the UK. Britain sees Israel as a central and important partner, and we are working on signing an innovative trade agreement. We provide services and sell technology, and the British are also enthusiastic about Israel's proposals.
"We have made significant progress in the trade agreement and hope it will advance to its conclusion. All these factors make Israel a very close ally. These aspects are highly appreciated by the British, and all of our leaders have visited here. Britain will not colonialize what is happening in Israel; on the contrary, it treats it as an internal matter. It expresses support consistently throughout various international organizations. Britain leads Western Europe in supporting Israel in the UN, almost in every decision, and opposes anti-Israel resolutions. Good things are happening here."
Where does the trade agreement that the BDS movement can put obstacles in the wheels stand?
"The trade agreement went through three rounds of negotiations, which is a relatively intricate stage. The British Foreign Secretary is supposed to visit Israel at the beginning of September, and I am confident that this will provide an additional push, as it is important for both the British and the State of Israel."
"British criticism of Israel is softer than before"
We are currently in a right-wing government, and the recurring criticism against settlement construction from the international community is resurfacing. The Foreign Ministers of Britain, Australia, and Canada announced in July that they oppose the construction of 5,000 housing units beyond the Green Line. How do we redirect the conversation to the fact that there is no partner on the other side, and it is time for Israel to act according to its own judgment, rather than being dictated to?
"I'll quote the former ambassador who said that 80% of the time is spent dealing with the conflict and settlements. We want to focus on the 80% of the positive things that Israel and Britain can do together – collaboration in research, security cooperation that already exists and is strong. Our current situation under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his predecessor in the role, Boris Johnson, is very positive towards Israel. Britain stands alongside us in the fight against taking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. British criticism of Israel is softer than before, even if there are differing opinions in friendly countries. The elected Israeli government has full authority to do what the people of Israel have chosen; nobody wants to dictate or oppose. Everyone wants peace and an end to violence and terrorism."
Recently, there has been a wave of terrorism in Israel. How do you address the line of explanation with the British government?
"Every attack in Israel receives extensive condemnation in Britain. One of the events that shocked the British political establishment was the murder of the Dee family daughters, the Rabbi and his wife Lucy, z"l, are British citizens. This received very wide coverage. When there are attacks, our task is to put them in context. All IDF operations carried out in Jenin and Judea and Samaria are actions aimed at preventing attacks. We convey this message to the British authorities at the highest level; there is an ongoing dialogue among senior officials of the countries. Unfortunately, it has been a tough year with challenging communication.
"Our role at the embassy is to combat inaccurate coverage, there is a lot of work involved. I meet constantly with the top BBC officials, with senior figures in the British press. Part of our work is to provide explanations, both externally and within the studios. I convey messages through important media outlets and high-frequency opinion articles."
She says, "During Operation Guardian of the Walls, there wasn't a studio we didn't go to in order to explain what Israel is doing. Operation Protective Edge, the largest protest in the history of London against the State of Israel, took place in front of the embassy. We went through tough periods, media blitzes. I was moving from one studio to another, working around the clock. They started asking questions about Israel's internal dynamics. The Jewish community is very concerned about what's happening in Israel in terms of judicial reform, and it troubles the community."
There is activity in Europe and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the UK against Iran. Regarding normalization with Saudi Arabia, a White House advisor said that there is no progress in the contacts. Do you know of anything else?
"I think it's clear to all of us by now that it's in Israel's interest to expand normalization. The Prime Minister is putting in a lot of effort to achieve that, without compromising Israel's security and our strategic assets in Judea and Samaria. The UK government welcomes every step of normalization expansion. The Abraham Accords have been a central axis of our action, there even was a soccer tournament here and Israel didn't win, but for the sake of peace, we're okay with that."
Good relations with the Labor Party
"Relations with Britain have experienced ups and downs over the years. Former leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, was suspended in 2020 following the publication of a damning report about his anti-Semitic statements. During his tenure as leader of the opposition, Corbyn was often linked to anti-Israel events. Among other instances, he was documented participating in a memorial event for the terrorists of the "Black September" organization, responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Just this past April, another party member, Diane Abbott, was suspended for stating that 'Jews cannot be victims of racism.' According to surveys, the Labour Party is expected to win the 2024 elections, and adjustments are being made accordingly."
The Labour Party is expected to win the 2024 elections. How are you preparing for this situation, especially given that just months ago, Diane Abbott was suspended from parliament due to her problematic statements?
"We live in a world where elections are a year away, and there is still time. In a period of political change, we don't predetermine the fate of the elections before the results. I am certainly working with the conservative government while also recognizing that we need to work with the opposition. We maintain good relations with the Labour Party. We are also part of the shadow cabinet with the leader of the opposition. There's no contradiction for me – diplomatic work always involves developing relationships with the elected government while not forgetting the opposition.
"In a democratic country, there are changes in power, and we maintain a good relationship system. The Labour Party has undergone significant changes. Diane Abbott was denounced at the highest public level from the chairman of the party through every public body and everyone understood that this was a problematic statement. There is a strong desire to combat anti-Semitism and to conceal Corbyn's legacy."
Where do the relations stand today with the British government compared to 20 years ago?
"A huge gap, the situation is much closer and better. There is a very good friendship between Blair and Netanyahu. The relationship is very close, Israel is a close ally, something the public is less familiar with. Military and intelligence missions are one of the main things in the relationship, the British are seen as close to us in friendship in the world. I arrived here during the Obama era, even though Johnson was foreign minister, Britain acted against Israel in the UN and today we don't see that. Very positive things have been done in these years."
Queen Elizabeth had never visited Israel. Will we have the privilege of a visit from King Charles as head of state?
"Definitely yes, President Herzog very much wants to invite the King. The royal palace has announced the itinerary. The King doesn't decide on his own, there's a public committee that determines it. In the upcoming year, he intends to focus on Commonwealth countries. There are priorities, but there's no doubt that Israel is a place close to the King's heart. I met with the Duke and Duchess and Prince William told me that he really enjoys being in the country. I told him that we would be delighted to see the family in our country again."
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In the past month, a report was published indicating a 22% increase in cases of anti-Semitism over the past two years. Jewish students are concerned, and you yourself experienced an unpleasant incident at LSE. Is there a structured plan to address this issue?
"It's very concerning. I myself have experienced anti-Semitism. In the neighborhood where I live, there have been marches with Palestinian flags and harsh words against Jewish girls, along with very heated pro-Palestinian demonstrations. This is a phenomenon that worries both Jews and the British government. There is serious activity here on this issue, and the Prime Minister appoints individuals tasked with combating anti-Semitism; it's part of the government's work. There's also activity on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In our home, we've taken the idea of commemoration into our living room as an opportunity to talk to non-Jewish youth; it's called the 'Ambassadors Project.' It deals with fighting anti-Semitism and passing on the memory of the Holocaust. Holocaust survivors who are well-known in Britain come here and share their stories. In the end, they return to schools and the communities they live in, with the mission of educating."
How do you eradicate anti-Israelism?
"I have news for you, one of the significant moments that the British Parliament brought up for discussion is the BDS law. It's a very dramatic development. They are legislating a law against BDS and Israel is mentioned in this law. There's no going back now; only the government will have the option to conduct diplomatic relations with whom they choose. It's in the pipeline of the Parliament. This signifies a change from the BDS movement, and now a law against them is being enacted."
What are the chances that it will pass?
"There's a good chance, it's a matter of time because the legislation goes through a dual process, the House of Commons and the Lords. There is a strong desire to pass the law; it was part of the election agenda that it will be legislated in Parliament."
What do you hear from the Jewish community about the anti-Semitism?
"Security that protects the community's institutions, this is an issue in the constant struggle of the Jewish community."
The British Minister of Health blessed his daughters on Friday evening
Unlike the other ambassadors, Hotovely as a religious woman has additional challenges within the role. But she claims that precisely as a Torah observant woman she believes in what she calls "Jewish diplomacy" in order to connect the British to Israel through access to the Jewish world.
As a religious person, what are the challenges you face?
"As an observant woman, there are many advantages; it provides a lot of strength. I believe in Jewish diplomacy. Our home reflects our values as a religious family. We have a regular Torah study session every Thursday. Shabbat meals are an opportunity to present the Jewish Shabbat table. The British Foreign Minister joined us for a Shabbat meal; the fact that he experienced the Shabbat meal and we explained to him the piyyutim 'Eshet Chayil' and 'Shalom Aleichem,' and all the beautiful aspects of our tradition, is very moving and connecting. He shared experiences from his time in Israel, how it's a very containing country full of contrasts, with people running on the beach on one side and others praying in synagogues on the other.
"The British Minister of Health who had Shabbat dinner with us saw Or my husband blessing the girls, he was very moved and said it was a beautiful tradition, he stood next to Or and blessed his daughters in Hebrew. We have many experiences around Israeli holidays, Sabbaths. On Hanukkah, it is always made sure to light a festive candle, even with the Prime Minister and in the presence of the Chief Rabbi. Jewish diplomacy is critical and it brings our values to the forefront, we should be proud of that."
"The decision to get married requires internal clarification and not social pressure"
The topic of singlehood is very close to the heart of the ambassador. Together with her husband, Or Alon, they have spoken with singles over the years about the significant challenges they face. In the UK as well, she occasionally hosts Shabbat meals for London's singles. As the holiday season approaches, the ambassador shares insights from her own time as a single and provides tips for those seeking a partner.
The challenges faced by singles during the holiday season are not easy to bear. As a couple who has worked on this issue, what recommendation do you have for getting through this period in an encouraging way?
"We organized singles' Shabbatot in English, conducted lectures. I truly believe that we are dealing with a generation with great aspirations and significant challenges. I want to send words of encouragement to the singles community. There's an internal clarification process that every individual goes through on their journey to find the person to build a home with. I have undergone many processes of change in this area, where everyone carries around a list of traits. In the end, what matters are our emotional needs. We ultimately choose our partner based on who meets these needs, not based on a checklist."
In her words: "The process of internal clarification is a good thing to define what is needed. Regarding the holidays, every person should be in a place where their heart desires. As a single, I was at a Chabad house in Nepal, and you're with young people, and it's an experience. There are singles who want to experience these moments. In the end, you need to do this internal clarification, where you decide to marry someone because you feel from within that it's the right thing, not due to societal pressures. In my opinion, it's more essential where you celebrate the holidays. Ultimately, the goal is the place where you'll celebrate the holidays."
In conclusion, the ambassador wished to bless the people residing in Israel on the occasion of the new year: "I want to send my wishes for a good year and bless them in a year of unity, where we will speak and understand each other. The challenges from London are so great, and I hope that in Israel, there will be unity and that we will preserve what is most precious to us."