BANGOR man Simon Walters is two months into one of the toughest jobs in world diplomacy.
As the war in Gaza continues to rage, the former Bangor Grammar School student has taken up the position of UK Ambassador to Israel, a role he says he is ‘extremely fortunate’ to have been appointed to.
In an interview before he was officially welcomed as the new Ambassador by Israeli President, Isaacz Herzog, Mr Walters said he has been continually reminded that he is taking over the reins during a period that is ‘particularly lively’ for Israeli politics.
Just a matter of weeks later the deadliest terrorist attack ever carried out on Israeli soil took place when Hamas terrorists killed 1,400 people, injured many others and took over 200 men, women and children hostage.
The attack, which was planned and carried out under the radar of the renowned Israeli intelligence community, unleashed massive retaliation from Israel whose government has vowed to eradicate Hamas.
Thousands of Palestinians have died in the enormous Israeli response to the terrorist attack, mainly from aerial bombardment and artillery, and Israeli troops are now fighting their way into Gaza City as the war continues to take a toll on the innocent.
Mr Walters hasn’t said much publicly since the start of the war, but in an interview with Army Radio he said the UK needs Israel to win the war with Hamas in Gaza but added quickly, “Israel must adhere to the laws of war’.
As the death toll continues to rise steadily in Gaza, the shock at the terrorist attack in southern Israel is being supplemented by huge international concern that Israel is ignoring the plight of civilians in its pursuit of Hamas commanders and fighters.
It is in this febrile environment that His Majesty’s new Ambassador to the State of Israel finds himself, perhaps when he would have expected to have been slowly easing himself into his new role.
After his appointment was announced earlier this year, Mr Walters wrote a piece in the Grammarian, the magazine produced to keep the old boys network of Bangor Grammar School up to speed with developments in the school and among former students and staff.
A student at the school from 1984 – 1990, Walters remembers his schooldays with ‘fondness, perhaps aided by the anaesthetic effects of distance’.
“The creaky, old-wood smell of the Crosby Building. The flap of gowns. Bad jokes about the life-threateningly caustic canteen custard. Horizontal sleet at the Ballymac paying fields,” he recalls.
Torn between becoming a policeman or a diplomat, his path to the diplomatic high table came when the ‘RUC had the good sense not to reply to my application – I would have made a terrible policeman’.
Appointed by the Diplomatic Service, he was sent to Cairo to learn Arabic before his first substantive posting in Saudi Arabia where he remained until 2001.
“I threw myself into exploring and understanding the country and some years later, in early September 2001, I set off on my end-of-tour leave, only to watch the world change on 9/11. Overnight, the Middle East was the centre of attention again.”
The personal consequences for Walters meant a series of tours in regional hotspots – Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen – before being posted to ‘a rather more comfortable job’ in Jerusalem, ‘a city my wife and I quickly fell in love with’.
Then it was back home to the UK for a series of postings in Whitehall before being sent to Istanbul, which he describes as ‘one of the great cities of the world’. A Middle East specialist, he has most recently served as the Foreign Office’s director of national security for the region.
Then, at the start of this year, he was appointed as the Ambassador to Israel, which was an opportunity ‘I was not going to let pass’.
Several weeks before leaving for Israel, Walters spoke before an audience of National Jewish Assembly and Finchley synagogue members. He said that being brought up in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles had given him a keen awareness of the dangers of sectarianism.
He praised the strategic relationship between Britain and Israel and the importance of the trade relationship between the two countries which he hoped to build upon.
Little did he know when he formally took up his post in August that Hamas was already plotting the dreadful events of October 7 and just how savage would be the Israeli response.
As a relative newcomer, Walters has not spoken publicly too often about the ongoing war in Gaza. But in an interview with Army Radio, Walters made his statement that Israel ‘should win the war against Hamas in Gaza’, a statement that the international online news website BNN described as ‘stirring the turbulent waters of international diplomacy’.
“Walter’s words reflect the delicate balance that many Western countries are trying to maintain – supporting Israel’s right to self-defence while also advocating for proportionality and respect for human rights,” stated BNN.
“The call for Israel’s victory should not be misconstrued as a blanket endorsement of military aggression. Walters emphasised the need for Israel to conduct its military operations responsibly, minimising harm to civilians and avoiding disproportionate use of force. His words resonate with the international community’s growing concerns over the reported civilian casualties and widespread destruction of Gaza,” added the news site.
The disturbing trend of antisemitic violence was also touched on during the interview, with Walters expressing deep concern over antisemitic slogans and calls for jihad seen during protests against Israel’s military operation.
Walters’ new life in the most tempestuous region on earth is a long way from his formative years in Bangor but he recognises the education he received in then seaside town played a major role in who he is today.
In his article in the Grammarian he said: “I do recognise that some of the factors which got me to where I am now do indeed go back to my time at Bangor Grammar School.”