Name a famous British diplomat.
A Google search only turns out 354 responses – Viscount Grey, Sir Harold Nicolson, Gladwyn Jebb – none of whom are household names, despite having been extremely influential. Jebb, for example, acted as the first Secretary-General of the United Nations.
And Tom Phillips is no exception. Ambassador to Israel (an important, if not cushy posting), his job has taken him to Tel Aviv via Kampala, Washington and Harare. Now, he finds himself on the front line in a search for peace that has eluded the efforts of figures as recognisable as Clinton, Netanyahu and Arafat.
So why does he, like the rest of his colleagues, maintain such a low profile? When I ask Phillips about his job, he always prefaces his answers with a disclaimer. ‘My government’s role…’ he begins each sentence.
I press him for a more personal answer, and he pauses. ‘There are so many individuals involved. Tony Blair, for example, in his new role as Middle East peace envoy, has been instrumental in trying to build the civil institutions that the Palestinians so desperately need.’
The former Prime Minister, with whom Phillips’ relationship has not dimmed since he stepped down last year, seems to loom large on the Israeli horizon. His attempts to shore up the flagging Palestinian economy have recently been complemented by a £243 million pledge from Gordon Brown for UK investment in the Territories.
‘There was a really successful conference last week in Bethlehem,’ Phillips tells me, ‘involving 1,000 business leaders from across the region, and the UK has promised to match any funds raised by these individuals and their companies.’
His overall tone is optimistic. ‘Things are a great deal better than they were a few years ago,’ he says. ‘We’ve moved on from the entrenched, ideological debate of the early 1990s, and there is a far greater emphasis on finding a practical solution.
‘Particularly if you look at the voices of those on the right in Israel – people who insisted that the entire state must remain intact – those voices have relented.’
I ask Phillips about the balancing act he must perform with regard to criticism of Israeli domestic policy. ‘We have a frank bilateral relationship,’ he says firmly, ‘and the Israelis know full well that we have significant humanitarian concerns over how they, for example, respond to Hamas’s rocket attacks.’
I hover on the edge of my next question, but Phillips is quick to retrieve his impartiality: ‘of course, we understand Israel’s security concerns. And, whilst we’ve always had terrorism in the UK, recent events have made Britons far more aware of what it feels like to have suicide bombers in our midst.’
He is also keen to point out that for all its shortcomings, Israeli society is vibrant, democratic and self-scrutinising. ‘People back in the UK shouldn’t imagine that Israel carries on without reflection. It has a remarkable ability to take long, hard looks at itself, and it does so more often than many countries in the West. After the intifada restarted; after the 2006 war in Lebanon, Israel really needed a lively press. And it has one.’
His concern for freedom of speech continues as we move on to discuss the role of students with regard to the peace process. ‘Israeli academics often think that their British counterparts are biased towards the Palestinians. Personally, I’m delighted to see people like Shlomo Ben-Ami being invited to talk at Balliol, as he was a couple of weeks ago.’
Ben-Ami remains a controversial figure, even in his home country, for his role as Minister of Internal Security during riots in October 2000, which resulted in the deaths of 12 Israeli Arabs and a Palestinian.
Despite this, Phillips remains a vehement opponent of academic boycotts: ‘It is absolutely vital to keep all channels of communication open. Until one understands both narratives, it’s impossible to move towards that common ground where peace is forged.’
He wanders back mentally to his student days, during which he was ‘passionately engaged with issues like this.’ His early career as a journalist, which marks him out noticeably from his civil service colleagues, seems to have nurtured an infectious enthusiasm for the power of debate.
‘I’m all in favour of demonstrations – as long as they remain within the law – but honestly, I believe discussion is the best way that both students and academics can advance the process.’
And diplomats, perhaps? ‘My role,’ Phillips says, finally turning the conversation to himself, ‘is partly about finding creative paths to our goal of a two-state solution.’ But the UK also ‘has an incredibly detailed regional counter-terrorism strategy. It’s partly about reaching out to those in Islam who want to see…’
Phillips hesitates. ‘Different solutions from those which the UK believes will bring lasting peace. And it’s partly about a strategic dialogue with Israel that makes sure we’re prepared for anything.’
I ask how he feels about the stability of the Middle East at present. ‘We’re always looking over our shoulders when engaging with the Palestinian issue. We look across at Lebanon, which had a pretty worrying few days recently – and of course the shadow of Iran’s nuclear ambitions hangs over us all.’
Phillips’ deep antipathy towards nuclear weapons, whoever’s hands they may be in, gives me another reminder of his unusual path to the civil service. He doesn’t like to talk about his personal political beliefs, but it strikes me that he is very much a child of the sixties: socially and economically liberal, and serious about ‘world peace.’
But unlike the loud activism of the 2000s, which preaches environmental protection from concert stages illuminated by thousands of floodlights, Phillips’ quiet voice is committed to consistency, and sees links between everything.
I ask him about the effect of Israel and the Palestinians’ relationship on everyday life in Britain. ‘This is one of the central conflicts of our age,’ he says, ‘and there is clearly some kind of a link to our present experience of radicalism in the UK.’
He puts the emphasis on ‘some.’ For Phillips ‘doesn’t buy the argument that “if there wasn’t a crisis in Israel, Al-Qaeda wouldn’t exist.” It’s much more complicated than that.’
A devotion to dialogue, therefore, seems the overarching – and rather unsurprising – impression that Phillips leaves me with. I’m still not sure exactly who he is, but what I am sure of is that his low profile is a cultivated one. He keeps quiet so that others can talk; he facilitates dialogue by stepping back.
After the interview has finished, I wander into a bookshop and glance at the poetry shelf. Save the Last Page for Me, a collection of poems that include ‘troubled private reflections on the public world in which the author operates,’ sits to one side of a vast stack of Carol Ann Duffy volumes.
Its author is ‘Tom Vaughan, a British diplomat who has served in Africa and the US, and who is currently stationed in the Middle East.’ The cover photo impresses on me the anonymity of its figures, cropped from the neck up, and as I turn to the first poem I wonder whether these, perhaps, are the pages he has reserved for his own voice.