The topic of Hollywood sex symbols – specifically, Angelina Jolie and Sharon Stone – is one that hasn’t come up when interviewing an Ambassador before. The fact that the walls of His Excellency Mr Ron Prosor’s office are lined with photographs of him meeting famous people isn’t so unusual, but these two ladies look rather out of place in the company of Bill Clinton, George Bush, Tony Blair, Yasser Arafat et al. Angelina was ‘absolutely charming’, while Sharon Stone accosted him at a dinner in Israel, demanding, ‘Why don’t you make peace with Palestine?’ He grins with a wry smile as he recalls his response: ‘It takes two to tango.’ And thus he and Sharon Stone tangoed across the room – hence the photograph of them dancing cheek-to-cheek.
This is one charismatic man – he’d have to be, as Ambassador of one of the most politically charged countries in the world. Israel is no stranger to conflict: just weeks before our meeting, an Israeli diplomat was expelled from the UK over Israel’s alleged involvement in the forging of British passports used in the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai earlier this year. As much as it pains him, Mr Prosor is clearly used to dealing with such matters. The son of an Ambassador, he grew up in different postings all over the world. Embarking on his diplomatic career, he was initially posted to Germany (1988-92); later he was a spokesman at the embassy here in London from 1995 to 1998, whereupon he was transferred to Washington, DC, until 2002 – a tenure that spanned Clinton, Bush and 9/11. He then returned home to become Director-General at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With this wealth of experience under his belt, he arrived in London in November 2007.
Mr Prosor exclaims: ‘So you meet Heads of Mission who tell you their country is the best every day! What makes Israel so unique?’ His answer: ‘The army. In Israel, at the age of 18, everyone is enlisted in the army for two-to-three years, whether you are a woman or a man. It’s mandatory.’ As a result many bright minds are brought into the system and given the resources to test their aptitude – for example, a group of former intelligence officers have used their army experience to launch a company called Checkpoint, now a world-leader in online firewall applications. Similarly, Given Imaging, a company specialising in gastrointestinal disease diagnosis products, was born when a rocket scientist and a doctor teamed up to invent a pill that travels through the body, taking photographs of the intestine along the way before passing out of the system. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ notes Prosor. ‘And of course, it’s part of the Jewish nature to solve problems.’ However, he concedes that Israelis are not known for their discipline: ‘If you want to run a company in an organised fashion, don’t come to Israel!’ he jokes.
Aside from its exceptional achievements, Israel still receives a huge amount of international criticism – most of which the Ambassador feels is unfair. Rather, he emphasises the continuing ‘Jewish tradition of repairing the world’: earlier this year, his country sent a military rescue team to Haiti following the earthquake, successfully opening a field hospital within 48 hours. ‘The achievements of countries 20 times our size didn’t even come close,’ he proudly recalls. Yet Baroness Tonge, then the Liberal Democrats’ health spokeswoman in the House of Lords, went so far as to suggest that an inquiry should be made into claims that Israeli troops had been trafficking organs out of Haiti. (She promptly resigned at the advice of party leader Nick Clegg).
Mr Prosor states that as Ambassador his greatest diplomatic challenge is to ‘fight this demonisation and delegitimisation of Israel’ among British public opinion. ‘It wasn’t like this 15 years ago,’ he laments. ‘Now we have a situation where the British government understands Israel much better, but the challenges Israel has to confront can be clearly seen in the media – the “gatekeepers” – and at university and NGO level.’ Mr Prosor may be referring to the fact that just last month his deputy, Talya Lador-Fresher, was accosted by anti-Israel activists after giving a talk at Manchester University.
Just prior to our interview Mr Prosor had told The Times: ‘Sometimes we feel people from the outside are pointing fingers at us instead of giving us a big hug, which is what we need in this region. We are the only democracy in this region and the challenges we have against us are enormous. People are not aware of that — or not enough aware of that. I think governments are more aware of the challenges — and the relations between governments are very, very strong — but I am afraid because there is a gap between the Government and the public opinion this will, at the end of the day, go against Israel in the long term.’
He expands on the subject at our meeting: ‘Israel is on the forefront of encountering phenomena that Western democracies have yet to encounter. We feel that we are trying to balance how to maintain a democratic society on the one hand and how not to go overboard on our actions on the other. This is a difficult balancing act.’ Can Israel offer other countries any advice on their history and experience? ‘No advice, just experience,’ he sagely replies.
What are Mr Prosor’s priorities for his ongoing role as Ambassador in the UK? ‘To really see Israel, with its faults, for what it is: an amazing country. We have created something which is new yet combines our history. This is our homeland. We represent a remarkable civilisation and a rich history and I am very proud of this.’
As quickly as his conversation has gone from jovial to extremely serious, Mr Prosor switches back to jovial. He speaks fondly of the ‘unique relationship between the UK and Israel’, recalling that during his previous London posting Ezer Weizman, then Israel’s president and himself a former RAF pilot, came to visit. President Weizman emphatically declared that the most exciting part of his trip was not attending Buckingham Palace but visiting Cranwell Airbase, where he was able to speak to British RAF pilots about both their and his own experiences. ‘In fact,’ notes Mr Prosor, ‘three of Israel’s Presidents wore the King’s uniform. How many countries can say that? This is amazing!’
True to his charming reputation, Mr Prosor concludes the interview by emphasising that, notwithstanding some less-than-cosy moments over the years, ‘when push comes to shove the UK has always eventually been on [our] side. And we have a long memory, like elephants!’