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

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