En­voy who thought Israel was doomed

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY JAMES VAUGHAN Dr James Vaughan is Lec­turer in In­ter­na­tional His­tory at Aberys­t­wyth Univer­sity

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’


John Robin­son

( left) be­lieved Yad Vashem memo­ri­als ( above) were ‘ag­gres­sive’

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