Man in the middle
A classic centrist, devoid of political ambition, Zvi Heifetz, youngest-ever Israeli envoy to London, forged close bonds in the corridors of power
IT WAS a sign that Zvi Heifetz aimed to start as he meant to go on. On his first Chanucah as Israeli ambassador to London, the youngest-ever envoy to the Court of St James decided it would be fun to have a candle-lighting ceremony at 10 Downing Street with Prime Minister Tony Blair.
But Jewish communal leaders were adamant — it simply could not be done, they said. And why? Because it had never been done before.
In the end, of course, the national media turned out on December 8, 2004 to see a beaming Prime Minister lighting a massive chanuciah at this official residence, surrounded by a clearly delighted Heifetz, his wife Sigalia, a selection of their children and a smattering of communal figures.
Blair announced that this would now become an annual tradition, and the whole affair was declared a great success.
This was not the first time Heifetz had met Blair — although, as friends point out, unlike an earlier Mid-East envoy he never played tennis with him. But it laid the foundations for a one-toone connection that has ultimately led to the outgoing ambassador’s appointment as an adviser to Blair in his role as Quartet envoy to the Middle East.
Such personal relationships have been key to how Heifetz has navigated his way through a highly sensitive and heavily scrutinised diplomatic role, as well as central to his own remarkable rags-to-riches story.
Heifetz would be the first to admit that this network of allies in Israel’s political and business worlds was among his strongest qualifications for the job as London envoy.
A close friend of Omri Sharon — the son of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — and of former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, in 2004 Mr Heifetz was one of the 11 political appointees selected that year for foreign positions.
But friends point out that Mr Heifetz, a classic Israeli centrist positioned firmly within the mainstream consensus, appears entirely devoid of party political ambitions.
As such, his contacts run the gamut of political affiliations, from current Labour leader Ehud Barak to Shimon Peres and former refusenik Natan Sharansky.
In the UK, his friendships span the spectrum from Labour politicians, including Blair himself, to, somewhat bizarrely, staunch Republican Gerry Adams.
And, while a passionate Zionist, he enjoyed warm relations during his term here with Palestinian figures such as former envoy Afif Safieh. This easy charm “was reflected in his farewell reception”, says Mike Gapes MP, chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee and a member of the Labour Friends of Israel, “where there was a large mix of people”. “He worked hard for Israel and although he had a business rather than a diplomatic background, he did well,” the MP said.
“ I w a s v e r y impressed by his acceptance of the invitation by the Britain-Palestine AllParty Parliamentary group to meet and address them in the House of Commons,” says Paul Usiskin, chair of Peace Now UK.
“None of his predecessors had done that, though many had been invited to, I was told.”
The event was “very fair and most respectable”, adds Usiskin. “I thought he was very good.”
Such skills with an unfriendly audience will doubtless prove useful in Heifetz’s future dealings with his Pal- estinian interlocutors. The 50-year-old has had long experience in dealing with hostility.
His grandfather, a wealthy Latvian Jew, was one of the biggest donors to Palestine in the Riga community and was executed for his Zionist activities by the Soviets when they occupied the city in 1940.
For the next 16 years, the entire family was exiled to Siberia, where Heifetz was born.
The family moved back to Riga when the young Heifetz was nine months old, but it was a harsh life.
Heifetz has said that he had physically to fight off antisemitic attacks “every single day”, and so understood at an early age “that you have to stand up and defend yourself”.
He arrived in Israel aged 14, without a word of Hebrew. Like his friend Avram Grant, now Chelsea manager and another Israeli who faced much criticism on his arrival in the UK, he went to school in Petah Tikva.
Then followed seven years in Israeli intelligence, a stint as a successful lawyer, and a move into media business. He became vice-chairman of the Maariv Media Group in 1999 and the chairman of both the Hed-Arzi Music Production Company and Tower Records Israel in 2001.
A self-made millionaire, Heifetz’s only previous diplomatic experience, some months spent in the Soviet Union in 1989, became a source of controversy when a government agency accused him of exaggerating his role there.
Although the allegations were dismissed as being without foundation, the affair contributed to a sense of unease among some sections of the community at his arrival, as did, for some, his Russian-accented English.
A Board of Deputies delegation even expressed their doubts over his appointment in a private meeting with then premier Ariel Sharon.
“There was the impression that some kind of oligarch was going to become ambassador,” says one close friend. “To grow up in Russia and be discriminated against is not fun, and he kind of went through the same process twice. But the first case was easier, as he could fight it.”
“Sometimes the Jewish community became a bit impatient because of his language [skills],” says Eric Moonman, Zionist Federation president. “But what did they want? An Israeli ambassador with an Essex accent?”
Rather than courting communal figures, says Moonman, Heifetz believed that “the ambassador’s job was to park outside No 10 and to be available to the Foreign Office, and he was well regarded at both places.
“He saw four Foreign Secretaries and a change of Prime Ministers, and there is no doubting that his style and behaviour was well regarded by Blair.”
“You can’t be in any senior post without getting criticism,” adds Labour peer Lord Janner. “But overall he did a very good job. I have known a lot of ambassadors and some have not been easy to contact, but he was always friendly.”
Monroe Palmer, of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, says: “On a one-toone basis, he was pleasant and charming.”
Others are more harsh. “He was not good in groups, in public speaking, or with the media,” says one senior communal figure. “But on a personal level he did very well. He was able to hold his own with senior politicians and get the right message across.”
Whatever caveats some may have had about his appointment, no-one who came to know him well during his years in London doubts Heifetz’s considerable charm or success on a senior diplomatic level.
“Diplomatically he was very popular,” notes Brian Kerner, UJIA president. “Very practical” and “very good with Whitehall”, assesses former LFI chair Jon Mendelsohn, now an adviser to Gordon Brown.
And then there i s hi s f a mous sense of humour, which friends say helped greatly to break down the barriers of British reserve, though some of the stuffier members of the community were alarmed at his fondness for telling inappropriate jokes as the ultimate icebreaker. “They could be risque a n d n o t v e r y funny,” grumbles one political figure. The charm effort of the youngestever envoy to the Court of St James was undoubtedly helped by his glamorous wife Sigalia, herself a ninth-generation Israeli. The couple have seven children from previous marriages.
It may have been a rough ride, but they say they leave London with happy memories.
“We will greatly miss having Zvi and Sigalia in London,” says businessman and major Bicom funder Poju Zabludowicz. He describes “not just a strong working relationship, but a genuine friendship as well”.
Hello: Heifetz meets The Queen at Buckingham Palace to present his credentials shortly after his arrival in Britain in 2004
Goodbye: Heifetz and his wife Sigalia at their farewell reception