Israeli ambassador to the UK’s PR problem

Ron Prosor

It would appear that the ambitions of the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom far outweigh his abilities as recently acquired documents from the University of Edinburgh reveal his embassy bungled a public lecture and then tried to lay the blame elsewhere.

Ron Prosor became the new Israeli Ambassador in November 2007, arriving with a fresh enthusiasm for the promotion of Israel. They’ll be “coming out of London to make the case for Israel,” the Israeli daily Haaretz reports he told embassy staff, adding that “I’m not afraid to appear anywhere and there is no platform — suitable, of course — that I will not utilize for PR work.”

Why would the Israeli embassy need to launch a public relations offensive? There are several probable reasons. Firstly it might be due to polls that consistently label Israel the “world’s worst brand.” Or that after Israel’s July 2006 war on Lebanon — during which more than one thousand Lebanese civilians were killed by Israeli forces — an Israeli public relations conference concluded that the propaganda battle had been lost and they had to improve their efforts because as The Guardian reports one attendee explained, “you need to shoot a picture before you shoot them.”

Another possibility is the current campaign for an academic boycott of Israel. Documents gained through a Freedom of Information Request revealed a November 2007 meeting held between Professor Geoffery Boulton, a representative of the University of Edinburgh and Ronit Ben Dor, the embassy’s Director of Public Affairs. At the meeting Ben Dor disclosed that the embassy’s two main concerns were the campaign questioning the basis of the state of Israel and the intensified calls for an academic boycott of Israel. Moreover, Ben Dor blamed the Socialist Worker Party for the academic boycott and singled out motions in the National Union of Journalists, Scottish Trade Union Congress, Unison and Transport and General Workers Union.

During the meeting, as recorded in a summary by Professor Boulton and submitted to the university president, the university made its position clear that while it “deplored” a boycott by the University and College Union (UCU), it respected the freedom of conscience of academics who don’t wish to work with certain countries due to their national policies. These objections might range from “the US, because of Guantanamo Bay, to China because of human rights violations” and included “Israel because of the Palestinian issue.” Boulton explained that he wasn’t wholly against the idea of the university boycotting countries suggesting it might take a “very negative view” of involvement with certain countries like Myanmar.

Edinburgh’s representative added that it’s clear the embassy “wishes to strongly counteract the UCU initiative by enhancing academic contacts, providing funds for bi-national exchanges and for lectures by distinguished Israeli scholars.” Ben Dor responded by inquiring whether a group of events could be organized in Edinburgh at the University to “stimulate relationships with Israel.”

To the university’s credit, their representative declined the latter stating that “advocating the Israel cause and bringing demands for ‘balance,’ [is] almost invariably a rather unhelpful step.” Whether the other less public options were refused is uncertain. However, it was arranged for the ambassador to give a lecture at the university in March.

It was at this point that Ron Prosor’s desires for improved public relations conflicted with the realities of being the ambassador of a country obsessed with security.

About a week before the event, Robert Hamilton-Taylor, from the embassy’s Public Affairs Office, contacted the university “warning” them of the upcoming visit by the security services, as an email between Hamilton-Taylor to Gordon Martin (Head of Protocol) reveals. Apparently a talk at a different university had already been canceled because he hadn’t made it clear to organizers the excessive demands the security services would impose. Hamilton-Taylor added that if Edinburgh had a similar fate he would “take full responsibility for this.” He explained that “we’ve never tried to do events like this before, and I’m receiving a short, sharp lesson in coordinating with the police from a very early stage.”

Several days before the public lecture was due to take place the security team did visit, and university officials via email dubbed their requirements “so onerous that the disruption to normal business … would have been unacceptable” and that “this whole visit by HE Prosor is getting dramatically out of hand.” Apparently the security requirements were greater than the university had experienced with the Royal Family and senior members of governments.

In an internal memorandum, university secretary Melvyn Cornish explained to Professor Boulton that “the level of protection offered to the ambassador is way beyond anything we have experienced with our long history of VIP visits. There are lessons to be learned from this experience on both sides, and the embassy has said as much to me — they have a new ambassador who wants to get out and about, and they are learning that this is very difficult in practice.” Had there been longer notice of security requirements the location could have been changed. Ultimately it was canceled due to a lack of communication and understanding by the embassy of their needs.

It’s revealing therefore that a UK correspondent for The Jerusalem Post contacted the university having heard that the lecture was canceled ostensibly due to threats received from individuals and because of a planned protest. Where did they get this information? The university itself said that they’d received no threats, and made it clear that the protests hadn’t affected their decision. One event organizer even commented, “I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by the courteous nature of the calls and emails received [from protesters]”.

Where The Jerusalem Post correspondent received his information is uncertain. However, what is known is that the Israeli embassy blamed the university for the cancellation, as Ambassador Prosor commented in The Jewish Chronicle that he’d met with the university heads to give them “a piece of his mind.” A spokesman for the embassy was also quoted as saying “The heads of the university said the cancellation was not about them not wanting him to speak, but we are still disappointed. We missed an opportunity because they did not open the doors to us.”

Further to misleading the public as to the cause of the cancellation Prosor continued his defiant and courageous statements to boldly go where no ambassador has gone before telling The Jerusalem Post “from my point of view, we will continue to go anywhere, no matter what and regardless of obstacles, in order to state the case for Israel; this is our duty and responsibility.” This is a bad case of Orwell’s double think as the only obstacles in Edinburgh were his own paranoid security concerns, expecting more attention than our own dear Queen.

With the disingenuous image Ron Prosor presents of himself we might ask what kind of image he is presenting of Israel. It’s instructive that what in private was the “full responsibility” of the embassy is in public the university’s fault. Clearly an obsession with public relations and image has led to this deception. With that in mind can they be trusted to give a realistic perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict? Will they ever accept any responsibility? Will they ever present anything as Israel’s fault?

David Thomson is a Scottish peace activist and blogger. He works on The Fanonite (www.fanonite.org) and is the founder of Israel’s 60th Birthday (www.israels60thbirthday.com).