■ THE WIDESPREAD announcement last weekend that the President’s Award of Distinction was to be conferred upon individuals or organizations that have made outstanding contributions to the State of Israel or to humanity, may have created the erroneous impression that only Israelis are eligible. However, according to Ayelet Frish, the spokeswoman for President Shimon Peres, eligibility is not limited to Israelis, and this is borne out in the document that sets out the details of the award and names the president’s advisory panel.

Headed by Supreme Court president emeritus Meir Shamgar, the panel includes Israel’s fifth president Yitzhak Navon, constitutional and parliamentary law expert Prof. Suzie Navot, president of Baka al-Gharbiya’s Al-Kassemi College Dr. Muhammad Issawi, Kiryat Ono Chief Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, Check Point chairman and CEO Gil Schwed, and Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Anita Shapira. According to the regulations governing the award, candidates must have made a significant contribution to Israel or to the improvement of the world through their activities and achievements; brought honor to the State of Israel and significantly contributed to the promotion of its image in the world; or distinguished themselves by their initiative, innovation, creativity and vision.

There are people to whom all of the above apply. Among them is World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who pioneered the Jewish renaissance in Eastern and Central Europe when he was US ambassador to Austria. The Lauder Foundation, established in 1987, when Jews in communist countries were by and large still afraid to admit their religious identities, helped to bring Jews out of the woodwork and to enable them to reconnect with their heritage. The foundation not only encouraged individuals to identify Jewishly, but also rebuilt communities, many of whose members came on aliya.

During his 10-year tenure as president of the Jewish National Fund, he was instrumental in increasing the national donor base in the US to more than 600,000, and also worked intensively to promote projects in the Negev and realize David Ben-Gurion’s dream to make it bloom. He meets frequently with world leaders to promote Israel’s interests and to warn of the dangers of the Iranian nuclear plan, and when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in office the first tine around, Lauder was his liaison to Syrian president Hafez Assad.

And that’s just a short list.

■ IT HAS now been confirmed that billionaire Arnon Milchan, one of Lauder’s partners in Channel 10, was an Israeli secret agent for years and was allegedly recruited by Peres when the latter was defense minister. According to a new book, Milchan worked for a now-defunct department in the Defense Ministry that went under the acronym of Lakam, translated as Science Liaison Bureau.

Currently sweeping the Internet and other media outlets are reports of the new biography Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan by Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman, due for release by Gefen Books on July 30. The colorful and flamboyant 66-year-old, Rehovot-born Hollywood film producer apparently cooperated with the writers of the book, who also claim to have received confirmation from Peres that he recruited Milchan. In March 2005, Peres enlisted him for a different project: In his capacity as minister for the development of the Galilee and the Negev, Peres announced the establishment of the first university in the Galilee, toward which Milchan pledged a donation of $100 million.

Beit Hanassi had “no comment” when contacted by The Jerusalem Post about Milchan’s work for Lakam, but the president has never denied having recruited him to the Defense Ministry and has said on more than one occasion that he is deserving of the Defense Prize.

Milchan also has a close relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns 20 percent of his Regency Enterprises. His other business interests include agriculture, aerospace, plastics fiber optics and pharmaceuticals, and he owns television’s The Israeli Network.

■ THERE APPEARS to be delight among British Jewry that the Foreign Ministry has selected Daniel Taub to succeed Ron Prosor as ambassador to the UK. The British-born Taub, whose collection of degrees includes one from Oxford, is not the first Israeli ambassador who speaks the Queen’s English to be sent back to the land of his birth. Another was Yehuda Avner, whose writings have appeared from time to time in the Post. Both Taub and his wife Zahava were born and raised in London.

■ ALTHOUGH FORMER British Embassy employee Marilyn Lyons retired a couple of months back, British Ambassador Matthew Gould and his wife Celia thought that 35 years of employment was a period to be marked. Since arriving in Israel some 10 months ago, the Goulds have hosted many an event for high-ranking dignitaries, but this time they rolled out the figurative red carpet for Lyons, hosting a tea party for her and some of her close friends. Lyons has a fine singing voice, and a series of British ambassadors have invited her to sing the national anthem at the Queen’s Birthday ceremonies. She last did this at the lavish reception hosted by the ambassador at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Center on the day of Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton, and sang “Hatikva” with Zvika Pick – who incidentally attended the IPO concert at Beit Hanassi.

■ MANY FAMOUS people, if one delves far enough into their pasts, worked as waiters and waitresses, delivery boys, sales personnel and even in escort services after leaving the army or while studying at university. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni is no exception. At a gathering this week of the forum of female executive hotel employees at the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv, Livni – who had been invited by Romi Gorodski, deputy CEO of the Israel Hotels Association, and Smadar Rinot chair of the Hachsharat Hayeshuv hotel chain – confessed that she had a particularly warm place in her heart for women hotel employees, because she had been one herself.

After completing her army service and before joining Mossad, Livni had worked as a waitress at the Diplomat hotel on the Tel Aviv beachfront, less than a 10-minute walk from the Sheraton. She said she had many good memories from that period, and that when her security guards would escort her on a hotel’s service elevator instead of the guest elevator, she felt perfectly at home. Among the new faces at the forum meeting was Gal Naor Tshuva, the daughter of Yitzhak Tshuva, who redesigned the interior of the legendary New York Plaza hotel after it was purchased by her father.

■ WHEN HE was invited by Jabotinsky Institute Executive Director Yossi Ahimeir to be the keynote speaker at a memorial evening for the institute’s former chairman Peleg Tamir, who died two months ago, former IAF chief Maj.-Gen. (res.) Eitan Ben-Eliahu unhesitatingly responded in the affirmative – not only because Tamir had been one of the pioneers of the IAF and later sat on the boards of Israel Aircraft Industries and El Al, but also because Ben-Eliahu couldn’t say no to Ahimeir. He explained to the audience that Ahimeir had been his commander and ground instructor when he’d entered the IAF as a cadet, long before he ever went up in a plane.

■ TIMING IS everything. The fact that easyJet canceled a flight to Israel that was to have carried passengers from the Free Gaza movement and that it advised them that the country would not allow them entry, brought its name to international attention. At around the same time, it was celebrating the six-month milestone of its Basel-Tel Aviv route, and easyJet’s UK Commercial Manager Hugh Aitken came to Israel for the milestone festivities hosted by Swiss Ambassador Walter Haffner at his residence in Ramat Gan. Also present was UK Trade and Investment director Richard Salt; the director of the Trade Commission at the French Embassy, Frederic Szabo; and of course, a lot of civil aviation, tourism and travel industry people from Israel, France, Switzerland and Britain.

In the two years that it has been operating in Israel, easy- Jet, one of the leading low-fare airlines in Europe, has had a tremendous impact on Israel’s airline industry and has enjoyed steady market growth. It flies from Tel Aviv to London, Geneva and Basel. The two Swiss destinations are close to Germany and France.

Relating to the Basel route, which went into operation last December, Aitken said that easyJet had been very pleased to expand its service from Israel and hinted that further expansions were on the way.

■ AT THE annual Bastille Day reception at the Jaffa residence of French Ambassador Christophe Bigot, the diplomat cited the continued captivity of soldier Gilad Schalit, the tragedy of the Fogel family of Itamar, and the three young women killed in a gas explosion in Netanya, in relation to the close ties between France and Israel.

Bigot frequently mentions Schalit – who holds dual French and Israeli citizenship – and said last week that he wanted to see the soldier, who has been incarcerated for five years, finally returned to his parents Noam and Aviva.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has put the Schalit case at the top of his agenda, and the French community has held solidarity demonstrations on Schalit’s behalf, said Bigot.

Peres, meanwhile, told the huge crowd gathered in the ambassador’s garden that Sarkozy was a great friend of Israel and the Jewish People, and expressed heartfelt appreciation for the French President’s personal involvement in efforts to secure Schalit’s release.

A high percentage of the ambassador’s guests were French nationals, and he reminded them that for the first time, French citizens in Israel would be able to vote for a representative in the French parliament who will be representing citizens abroad. According to Bigot, there are around 100,000 French citizens registered with the embassy in Tel Aviv who are entitled to vote.

Bigot spoke in French and Peres in Hebrew, though both have English as a common language. Each praised the talents of veteran translator Gisele Abazon, who is the official translator of the French Embassy, but who also accompanies senior Israeli officials to French-speaking countries.

■ THE VOLUME and variety of food offerings at the ambassador’s Bastille Day reception signified the impact of the recent large-scale French aliya. Whereas at past receptions, a small so-called kosher table with a few crackers, some cut-up vegetables and perhaps a platter of cheese or cold cuts was set up to cater to the needs of guests observing the Jewish dietary laws, sponsors this year included four kosher food outlets: Trocadero, which was serving chickens freshly roasted on a spit, among other delicacies; Habayit Hayarok, whose huge buffet included spicy and succulent kebabs, a couscous and chicken mix, and other traditional dishes of the region; Candyel, which specializes in various sweet-tooth items; and Courcelles, whose genuine French gateaux were to die for.

In addition, there was a grand choice of non-kosher buffets, including some in which the food had been prepared by Thibault Bera, the adventurous young in-house chef at the ambassador’s residence whose praises Bigot never tires of singing. Netanyahu did not attend, but telephoned to convey his good wishes, as he had done the previous year.

■ HE ENGAGES in so much hands-on philanthropy that one sometimes wonders when IDB chairman Nochi Dankner has time for business. But the man whose group controls Shufersal, Cellcom, Netvision, Discount Investments, Clal Insurance, Elron, Nesher, Hadera Paper, Jaf-Ora and Golf, among others, actually does have his finger on the pulse. When this writer met him at a recent function and complained about her local supermarket, he knew exactly which one, was aware of what had prompted the complaint, and promised to rectify the problem.

Dankner did not attend the Bastille Day reception, nor did he go to listen to Opera in the Park in Tel Aviv. He was in Nahariya, where he attended a double event. The first was the inauguration of the IDB Promenade to mark the fifth anniversary of the IDB Group’s involvement with projects in the North, and the second was a mega benefit concert by Shlomo Artzi at the municipal stadium with proceeds going to A Warm Home for Young Girls, an organization that helps girls and young women at risk. The IDB Group underwrote the concert.

Dankner has been intensely engaged with northern communities since the Second Lebanon War. In fact, that’s when Nahariya Mayor Jackie Sebag first met him. Dankner is no less involved with communities along the Gaza Strip.

■ GUSH SHALOM founders Uri Avnery and his late wife Rachel were on the left side of the political fence for so long that it is difficult to imagine that he was once a member of the Irgun and she was a member of Betar. Memories of that period surfaced last week at a special farewell evening for Rachel Avnery at Tzavta in Tel Aviv, where Jews and Arabs alike came to share memories about a unique woman who was so much in total partnership with her husband for 58 years that it was as if she was part of both his body and his mind.

A remarkable teacher, journalist, photographer and peace activist, and a member of the magic circle of the legendary Café Cassit, Avnery died this past May, after suffering for years from a rare liver complaint. In fact, it was little short of a miracle that she survived into her 80s, but she was a woman with hope and with purpose, both of which served her in moments of physical weakness. She did not want to be buried in the regular manner, said her husband. She had asked to be cremated and for her ashes to be scattered on Gordon Beach, which she could see from the window of her apartment. For this reason, he did not want to call the evening a memorial evening, but a farewell, because so many people whose lives she had touched had not had the opportunity to say good-bye the way one does at a funeral or a shiva.


The hall at Tzavta was packed to capacity, with veteran radio personality Amikam Gurevitch as the moderator. One speaker after another painted a portrait of a devoted wife, a woman of vision and empathy, a teacher who left a lasting impression, a decent human being who cared about alleviating the suffering of others, but who nonetheless took instant likes and dislikes to people, and treated them accordingly. She had been an elementary school teacher for 28 years, refusing to teach any grades other than first and second, because children in these grades could still have their characters molded.

A former student, journalist Shlomzion Keinan (the daughter of novelist, playwright, sculptor and painter Amos Keinan and literary critic Nurit Gertz), spoke of how excited she and her classmates had been each morning for Avnery’s classes, and how disappointed she had been to find herself with another teacher in third grade. No one had taught her more than Avnery, she said.

Avnery also taught the children of Uri Zohar, Arik Lavi and Hannah Rovina. Among the other speakers were Ruchama Marton, founder of Physicians for Human Rights – Israel; Nobel Prize laureate Ada Yonath; and photographer Anat Saragusti, because of whom Avnery became a photographer. Throughout the years, she never had any inclination toward photography, but when her husband, as editor of the now defunct Ha’olam Hazeh, went to Beirut in 1982 to meet Yasser Arafat and took along journalist Sarit Ishai and Saragusti, Avnery had a feeling of not being needed, of being useless and unworthy – and on such an historic occasion. She decided it would not happen again and took a photography course, which led her to become a talented and sensitive photographer.

greerfc@gmail.com

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