Captain Ayoub is now Israel’s ambassador to the UAE – on TV
‘Fauda’ actor Itzhik Cohen, who plays Ambassador Yitzhak Maymon in new show, ‘The Embassy,’ told JI that his character is ‘a very Israeli guy with a lot of chutzpah’
Judging a camel beauty contest, clandestinely befriending the Tunisian ambassador and babysitting a government minister intent on a massive shopping spree: These are some of the uncomfortable situations Israel’s top envoy to the United Arab Emirates finds himself in – at least in the new fictional TV comedy series, “The Embassy.”
Based in part on real stories from Israeli diplomatic missions around the world, the satirical show, which is currently airing in Hebrew on Reshet, Israel’s Channel 13, is the brainchild of screenwriter and actor Yuval Haklai.
Haklai plays Tzvika, a straight-laced Israeli diplomat who is endlessly saving a lovable but slightly crooked Israeli politician-turned-ambassador from embarrassing himself or causing a diplomatic incident.
“The idea came from wanting to create an ‘Office’-type sitcom set in the workplace and which combines my love for politics and international relations,” Haklai, one of the show’s three creators, told Jewish Insider in a recent interview.
“Setting the show in an Israeli embassy where you have all the diplomacy and the Mossad inside the workplace, and then placing it in an Arab country, creates an even more dramatic area to explore,” he continued. “I also wanted to do something new, so I thought, ‘Let’s say Israel signs a peace agreement with a hostile country in the Gulf,’ like the United Arab Emirates or Qatar.”
But when Haklai first came up with the idea, he was slightly ahead of his time. It was six months before the signing of the Abraham Accords normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain in September 2020, and everyone said the storyline was too far-fetched.
“They told me to create an imaginary country,” he laughed. “Then perhaps it might be more feasible.”
“When I told it to my agent, she was like, ‘Yeah, yeah right.’ She was not excited about it all,” recalled Haklai. “And then, six months later, we woke up to the news [of the Abraham Accords].”
“Israel kept the agreements super-secret, but suddenly we were in a new era of peace in the Middle East, with the UAE, with Bahrain and they also even talked about Saudi Arabia joining,” he added. “Then my agent called me and said, ‘What about the show you were telling me about six months ago?’”
Luckily for Haklai, he had not taken too much notice of the naysayers and was able to reply that the show was already in the works.
“I told her that I had already developed the characters, the plotlines and had half of the script written, and from there it all came to life really, really fast, in terms of TV,” he said. “From the first day I had the idea to when it went up on air was only three years; some TV shows take more than a decade to get on air.”
Launched at the end of January — the first episode features the camel beauty contest — “The Embassy” stars Itzhik Cohen, whom “Fauda” fans will recognize as Capt. Ayoub, as the slightly arrogant yet insecure Ambassador Yitzhak Maymon. Maymon heads a diplomatic mission of colorful characters, most of them Israeli, who race around Abu Dhabi in an attempt to build relations with their new friends, the Emiratis.
Hilarious scenarios ensue when cultural differences, such as the Israeli drive for fast-paced, immediate results, contrast with the more relaxed, laid-back Gulf approach. And a roster of Israeli visitors – mostly politicians and businessmen looking to make money out of the new diplomatic arrangement – ends in all sorts of predicaments.
In one episode Maymon hears that the mayor of Tel Aviv is trying to twin his city with Abu Dhabi. The ambassador, who realizes the financial upsides to such a partnership, invites a cousin, who is now deputy mayor in his former stronghold of Rishon Lezion, and together they hatch a plot to outsmart the other mayor. In another plot twist, Tzvika, who serves as the embassy’s administrative officer, political advisor and culture attaché – and is the only staffer with any real diplomatic experience – is left to manage a frivolous Israeli culture minister, who shows up on an official visit but only wants to shop.
Niv Gat, the show’s director and co-creator, told JI that he and the show’s other creators carried out a great deal of research while gathering materials for the show.
“We started out with the low-hanging fruit, researching the industry or just talking to people that we knew personally who were ambassadors or who had worked at embassies,” he said. “We listened to their stories and heard some pretty mind-blowing experiences. The more research we did, the more we realized, wow, there’s a show here that can last seasons, so much happens.”
Gat, who was raised in California and worked in the film industry there before moving to Israel, traveled with Haklai and a third creator, Arnon Weiss, to the UAE for research. The show itself was filmed in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv, and only includes Israel-based actors.
Cohen’s casting as Ambassador Maymon, Gat said, was a natural choice.
“It’s funny, we talk about it sometimes, like, when did the idea of Itzhik Cohen coming on board first start, and none of us can actually remember the moment when we thought he should play the ambassador,” said Gat. “There was just no other actor, he was just so perfect for the role, and we were like, ‘It has to be him.’ There was never any question about anybody else.”
For Cohen, playing an Israeli ambassador in an Arab country is full of ironies after his portrayal in “Fauda” of the head of an undercover unit that infiltrates and tracks down Arab terrorists.
“I got an offer from Niv and Yuval, they asked for me and I didn’t even audition, but I swear to God, I didn’t read more than four sentences of the script before I said yes,” Cohen told JI.
“I thought it would be very, very funny to play this part, which is very different from the other characters I’ve portrayed,” he continued. “Since ‘Fauda,’ everyone sees me in a more dramatic way, so I thought it would be fun to do something lighter and funny.”
“It’s very funny because most of the Arab characters in ‘The Embassy’ are actors that were with me in ‘Fauda,’ but in ‘Fauda’ I was interrogating them and here I am trying to collaborate with them,” he joked.
Asked about the quirky story lines that appear to be real life for some Israeli diplomats, Cohen said none of it really surprised him.
“I am an Israeli and Israelis play everything by heart and nothing according to the rules and regulations; everything is improvised and on the spot,” he laughed. “So, the show isn’t so different from living in Israel, because you know, in Israel, when there’s a queue, there are always 10 people trying to go in from the side.”
“This ambassador, Yitzhak Maymon,” Cohen continued, “will do anything to get his way. It doesn’t matter if it really works by the rules and regulations of the United Arab Emirates. He is a very Israeli guy with a lot of chutzpah and a lot of nerve, and he thinks he can go to Abu Dhabi and all the sheikhs will give him money to do whatever he wants.”
Eight of the 20-episode series have aired on Reshet so far, and while Haklai and Niv say they have enough material for at least one more season and are hopeful about keeping the show on air in the future, both agree that signing on long-term with an Israeli TV company is almost as complicated as running an Israeli embassy in an Arab country.
“It all depends on our ratings,” said Haklai of the show, which started with high ratings that have now dipped slightly. “Reshet also has some problems at the moment, so it really depends. We just don’t know.”