Envoy who thought Israel was doomed
BACK IN 2010, the JC revealed that the Foreign Office had refused to release British ambassador to Israel John Robinson’s 1981 valedictory despatch from Tel Aviv on the grounds that it contained views likely to damage UK-Israeli relations.
The rejection of a Freedom of Information request, the JC concluded at the time, meant that “the remarks that Robinson sent back to London may never be known”.
Seven years later, Robinson’s notorious telegram remains unavailable. However, an indication of its contents, as well as a sense of the mindset of its author, can be gleaned from other documents released at the National Archives.
Robinson entitled his despatch, sent to the Foreign Office on June 30, 1981, “Can Israel Survive?”.
From the available archival evidence, we now know that his answer to the question was “probably not” and that, in his view, this was not at all a bad thing. The Foreign Office’s Oliver Miles summarised Robinson’s despatch in a letter to his successor as ambassador, Sir Patrick Moberly.
Miles noted that there was “an astonishing complacency in Israel, a belief that Israelis are actually standing on their own feet when it seems clear to an outsider that they are totally dependent on American arms and money”.
At the heart of Robinson’s thesis was the idea that an unbridgeable gap existed between the Foreign Office’s desire to negotiate an Arab- Israeli settlement that would necessarily require painful compromises by both sides, and the unwillingness of Israelis to make concessions which, they believed would lead “to the disintegration of the Jewish State.”
He compared Israel with “the Kingdom of Jerusalem briefly established by the Crusaders” — an analogy which, Miles suggested, “cannot be lightly disregarded” even if “Zionist ingenuity and ruthlessness” might prevail in the short term. Ultimately, in Robinson’s analysis, Israel was doomed if it didn’t make peace, and doomed to “civil war and disinte- gration” if it tried to. Robinson’s telegram was thus, to put it mildly, a provocative document.
Yet it was not just the line of analysis that led to the telegram being regarded as incendiary material.
What worried the Foreign Office even more was the language with which Robinson had expressed himself.
“Mr Robinson’s despatch illustrates the difficulty of discussing this problem in an objective and unemotional way”, Miles observed. “Some of his phraseology would undoubtedly cause grave offence to Israelis and their supporters.”
Without access to the document itself, we cannot know exactly what it was about this “phraseology” that so disturbed the Foreign Office.
Nevertheless, a study of Robinson’s other telegrams in this period can provide us with an insight into the extent to which the ambassador’s relationship with leading Israelis had collapsed, as well as an indication of the more disturbing opinions that he had begun to form during his ill-fated time in Tel Aviv.
In September 1980, Robinson issued an extraordinary telegram in which he called his Israeli hosts “vindictive” and “without scruple”; described an alleged plot by David Kimche, the Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to smear and discredit him in the press; and accused Israeli intelligence of subjecting his private residence to espionage.
In relation to the latter allegation, Robinson acknowledged that a thorough counter-surveillance examination of the rooms in question had revealed nothing, although he ascribed this to the fact there had been “plenty of time to remove evidence and the Israelis could be expected to clean up before surfacing”.
Some weeks before, Robinson had expressed deep frustration at the work of Britain’s “Jewish lobby” and enquired about the possibility of obtaining statistics on financial contributions to Israel from British Jews.
It appears he was especially keen to make a point about how such dona- tions represented an unfair burden upon the British taxpayer.
Robinson argued Israelis had come to regard Britain as a soft touch — an “easier target to work on” than, say, France.
Though the French Jewish community was larger, he argued, it “has traditionally not been so responsive politically to Israeli government inspiration. The British community know better ‘their duty as Jews’ as the phrase goes here”.
By April 1981, Robinson had come to resent the “offensive” nature of events at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and indicated he had no desire to attend such occasions in future.
The speeches to which he objected were the result, he claimed, not of “the continuing indignation of the Holocaust generation” but rather “a search for a unifying cement and a single identity where none exists”.
Israel’s commemoration of the Holocaust was, in his view, an “aggressive” device to encourage Jews still in the Diaspora “to come here for reasons of fear, since Israel cannot provide any other attraction”.
The British Ambassador, in a startling phrase, had come to regard Israelis as “a non-people in a noncountry”.
It seems reasonable to suggest that it was the reappearance of “phraseology” such as this that persuaded those who read Robinson’s valedictory despatch in 1981 that it had the potential to cause “grave offence” to Israelis and British Jews.
That today’s Foreign Office still regards the 35-year old telegram as being too sensitive to disclose is, if nothing else, a testament to one of the unhappiest chapters in the story of Anglo-Israeli diplomacy.
He said Israelis were a non-people in a noncountry’
( left) believed Yad Vashem memorials ( above) were ‘aggressive’