The Michael Caine of Israel Ambassadors

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published June 30, 2010, issue of July 09, 2010.
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Maybe I’m watching too many movies. When I was called and asked if I wanted to meet Matthew Gould, Britain’s first-ever Jewish ambassador to Israel, I immediately imagined a blue-eyed Paul Newman type who passes undetected. Searching the Web, I learned that his background includes deputy chief of mission in Iran and security-related postings in Pakistan and Washington, all by the tender age of 38. Now I pictured some sort of cross between a cynical James Bond as played by, say, Daniel Craig, and a hardened Jewish partisan or Israeli agent played by — well, also Daniel Craig.

The guy I met at the British Consulate was more like Michael Caine as played by Billy Crystal. He could have passed for half the people I sat next to in shul last week. He started out by noting that he isn’t the ambassador yet — he doesn’t start until “right after Rosh Hashanah” (he pronounced it “Russia-shunna,” like somebody who didn’t learn it from a language tape but actually grew up with it). He tried to downplay his Jewish upbringing: He attended “heder (religious school, he explained) at a Reform synagogue (“comparable to your Conservative”) but “didn’t pay attention,” and now he’s sorry he didn’t bother learning Hebrew.

It quickly became clear that London hadn’t merely appointed an ambassador who was Jewish; it appointed a Jewish ambassador. I needed to re-examine my notions of European diplomacy.

If others react the same way, Gould won’t be sorry. “I’d like to think I got the job not because I’m Jewish, but because I was the best qualified,” he said, but still, “the fact that regardless of my background, they sent me to this job — it does say something about the country that sent me.”

Some critics snipe that he will tilt toward Israel. Others fear he will bend over backward the other way. But the overwhelming reaction has been positive.

“I hope that my background does send a positive message, but I’d hope that when I’m there, I’ll be judged by my work,” he said.

In fact, Gould’s work will have a lot to do with his background, though not in the obvious way. He has emerged in the past two decades as one of British diplomacy’s top experts on Iran and the Muslim world. Straight from college he joined the foreign ministry’s security desk, dealing with the war in Bosnia. Then three years in the insurgency-plagued Philippines; two years as speechwriter for then-foreign secretary Robin Cook; two years as deputy head of the consular division, dealing heavily with British immigration issues; two years in Pakistan as political counselor (or chief regime analyst); two-and-a-half years in Tehran as deputy mission chief (and, he says, sometime synagogue-goer); two years in Washington, in charge of the Iranian issue; three years as chief of staff to Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and now Tel Aviv. Individually, the titles don’t say much. Together they speak volumes.

Not surprisingly, “one of the things I will do in Israel is to maintain an extremely close partnership on Iran,” Gould said. “Britain and the United States work extremely closely on Iran. So do Britain and Israel.”

We met a few days after Congress passed its harsh new sanctions on Iran. Gould says he’s more optimistic than he has been in a long time that sanctions and diplomacy “can work” as a way to deter Iran’s nuclear project. He points to a host of economic conditions in Iran that are dire and getting worse.

He hardly needs to spell them out. Oil prices, Iran’s chief moneymaker, are way down. A worldwide supply glut is lowering production. Foreign investment is dropping. The regime, widely despised since last year’s election protests, has been buying popularity through subsidies, but it’s going broke. The Obama administration and the United Nations are actively jawboning other countries to tighten sanctions. For all Iran’s bravado, its nukes are costing it dearly.

Deterring Iran isn’t only about nukes. Britain worries about its sponsorship of terrorism and, pointedly, about its promotion of Islamic radicalism beyond its borders. Both matter to London. “We have faced the threat of terrorism for decades,” Gould said. “Previously it came from Irish groups. Now it comes from Islamic radicalism.”

In particular, “there is a real issue that we have been tracking for considerable time of British-born Muslims who have become radicalized,” he said. Thinking back to London’s horrific bus-and-subway bombings of July 7, 2005 — seven-seven, Brits call it — “one of the saddest things was hearing the videos recorded by the boys who blew themselves up. If you closed your eyes, the accents sounded very familiar. They weren’t foreigners.”

That familiarity is part of British security theory. “Tackling terrorism presents a difficult tension between short-term and long-term goals,” Gould said. “Some of the things you can do in the short term to tackle the immediate effects can, in the long term, undermine the things you need to do to develop relationships and alter events in a fundamental way.

“The classic example is profiling. You can make a case that if you want to stop terrorists, you have to do that. On the other hand, if in doing that you give a whole community a sense that the government doesn’t treat them equally, you do enormous damage to your efforts to build relationships with the moderate mainstream and isolate extremists.”

Such nuances give Britain a reputation in some quarters as soft on terrorism, which Gould insists is unfair: “True, we’ve tended to go down the law enforcement route” more than the American war-on-terror route. “But frankly, we think it works.”

Equally touchy is the image “in some quarters” that Britain is neutral or unfriendly toward Israel. “The government that I represent regards itself as a partner of Israel, and more important, as a strategic partner of Israel,” he said.

What about British public opinion? Gould paused, searching for words, and then said: “The population of the U.K. strongly supports the Israeli people and the Palestinian people in their quest for a peaceful solution to their conflict.” There are people who “seek to delegitimize Israel, but the government strongly rejects that.”

“I’m hugely proud as a British Jew to be going to represent my country to the State of Israel. And while there are some who find it problematic, there are many more who see it as a good thing.”

Contact J.J. Goldberg at and follow his blog at

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