Obituary: Gideon Rafael

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GIDEON RAFAEL was one of the pioneers of Israeli diplomacy, and served as ambassador to London in the difficult years following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Alongside his early chiefs, Moshe Sharett and Abba Eban, Rafael set a standard of independence and flexibility in pursuing Israel's cause that was not always appreciated by a succession of hard-headed prime ministers. For the last 20 years of his life, he was a trenchant critic of governments moving too slowly, or too grudgingly, towards peace.

He was born in Berlin in 1913, the son of a prosperous furrier, and escaped to France in 1933, two months after Hitler came to power. He made his way to British-ruled Palestine a year later. Like many of his generation of German immigrants, he entered the Zionist public service through intelligence. His first mission, in 1939, was to smuggle illegal immigrants from Europe. In 1940, he conducted abortive negotiations with Adolf Eichmann to save 40,000 German Jews.

During the Second World War, in co-operation with British intelligence, he interrogated Jewish fugitives reaching Palestine via Turkey and Syria. It was feared that some might be German spies. He also collected evidence on Nazi war criminals that was handed over to Allied prosecutors in 1945. After the war, he catalogued stolen Jewish property in Germany and Austria.

In 1947, Rafael cut his diplomatic teeth lobbying the United Nations for a Jewish state. When Israel gained its independence in 1948, he helped Sharett to set up the Foreign Ministry in two rooms of the Labour Party's Tel Aviv headquarters. Sharett assigned him to draft cables seeking diplomatic recognition. "Keep them short," he urged. "There's not much in the kitty."

Rafael plunged into the quest for an accommodation with the Arabs. He was the last head of the Israeli delegation to the 1949-50 Lausanne conference, when the United Nations brought Israeli, Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian and Lebanese delegations to the same city, but never around the same table. The Israelis did meet, secretly and separately, in obscure village coffee houses with all but their Syrian counterparts. "The meetings," Rafael recalled, "were friendly, but they only emphasised the gap separating us." The story was the same in clandestine contacts he maintained, as head of the ministry's Middle East desk, from 1953 to 1957.

He once told me of a chance meeting with an Egyptian ambassador on a flight to New York. The Egyptian indicated that he wanted to talk and pointed towards the toilet. A sharp-eyed stewardess intercepted them. "Not on this plane, gentlemen," she said, and another chance went begging.

After serving as ambassador to Belgium and the European Community, Rafael was appointed ambassador to the United Nations in 1967. The Six Day War tested his skill, ingenuity and stamina to the full in Israel's efforts, first to persuade the UN not to pull its peace force out of Sinai, then to head off a premature ceasefire when Israel was winning, and finally to discourage the Security Council from demanding an unconditional Israeli withdrawal. He lost one and won two.

Rafael returned to Jerusalem as Foreign Ministry director-general from 1968 to 1972 before a final posting as ambassador to London from 1973 to 1977. His autobiography, Destination Peace - three decades of Israeli foreign policy, was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1981. He continued writing and lecturing almost to the end and was a willing source for historians and documentary film-makers.

Gideon Rafael, diplomat: born Berlin 5 March 1913; ambassador to the UN 1967-68; Director-General, Israeli Foreign Ministry 1968-72; ambassador to Britain 1973-77; married Nurit Weissberg (two sons, one daughter); died Jerusalem 10 February 1999.