When the first two of five new ambassadors presented their credentials to President Reuven Rivlin on Monday, it seemed that the morning would evolve into something that could be headlined as “football diplomacy.”
An avid fan, Rivlin often injects something related to football, or soccer, into his conversations.
Thus, after accepting the credentials of Netherlands Ambassador Gilles Beschoor Plug, he could not refrain from mentioning the legendary player Johan Cruyff, and his son Jordi Cruyff, who, after playing for Barcelona and Manchester United, was recruited by Maccabi Tel Aviv to serve as sports director.
Plug said he was a football player himself, but not as good as Cruyff.
Rivlin recalled seeing the senior Cruyff kick a goal in the first minutes of a game against Germany, “but Germany won the game. They always win,” he said.
Austrian Ambassador Martin Weiss, at the conclusion of his own meeting with the president, presented Rivlin with the shirt of the Austrian football team.
For some odd reason, Rivlin did not mention foorball in his conversation with Costa Rican Ambassador Esteban Penrod Padilla, even though Costa Rica has exported a number of fine players.
Similarly, it did not come into Rivlin’s discussions with Moldovan Ambassador Gabriela Moraru, nor with Vietnam’s Cao Tran Quoc Hai However the point he did make to each of the new envoys was that the international community cannot resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – or, as Rivlin calls it, “the tragedy” between two nations living on the same small piece of land, and each believing that it belongs to them. The problem can be solved only through direct negotiations between the two parties, he insisted.
He conceded that Plug, with his vast diplomatic experience in the Middle East, could be helpful in making this point understood in the Council of the European Union, of which the Netherlands currently holds the presidency until June 30.
Aged 52 and a career diplomat since 1988, Plug is extremely knowledgeable about the region, having served as deputy chief of mission in Syria from 2004 to 2007, and subsequently as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
With regard to the Council of the European Union, Rivlin said: “We don’t want anyone to support us, but we want support for a solution to the problem.”
While advocating direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Rivlin sought the help of the international community in building confidence measures. Referring to the Palestinians, he said: “They have to understand that we are here [to stay] and we have to understand that they are here.”
Plug said that with all the regional experience he had accumulated, he was still learning something new every day.
For Austria’s Weiss, Israel is a first ambassadorial posting. Rivlin noted that this year, Israel and Austria will mark 60 years of diplomatic ties, although he underscored that trade relations between the two countries did not reflect a 60-year relationship. Weiss said he believed bilateral trade would improve over the next year.
While commending Austria for its stand against anti-Semitism, Rivlin was unhappy about Austria’s relations with Iran, saying the problem with Iran went beyond nuclear weapons because Iran supported terror “and says so loud and clear” when talking about Israel.
For Padilla, who served here from 2010 to 2011, it was almost like a homecoming, and he was plainly excited.
Rivlin reminisced over Costa Rica’s role in the birth of the State of Israel, and also noted that for many years, it had maintained an embassy in Jerusalem. Padilla told Rivlin – in Hebrew – that he was very pleased to be back in the Holy Land; he wrote in the presidential guest book that it was an honor to be back in Jerusalem.
With Moraru, Rivlin dwelt on the long history of Jews and Moldova, and said there were some 100,000 people in Israel of Moldovan origin – many of them serving in the Knesset and the government. He also voiced Israel’s appreciation that Moldova had made January 27, the date of the liberation from Auschwitz, a national remembrance day.
Moraru said that Moldova placed great importance on its relations with Israel and was allied with it in fighting anti-Semitism and terrorism.
Vietnam’s Cao was the last to present his credentials and said he would like to promote more exchange visits between high-ranking people from Vietnam and Israel. He added that Vietnam was very keen on enhancing relations with Israel, saying that this year, a thousand Vietnamese students would come to study.