THE PRESENTATION of credentials is an exciting, emotion-packed day in the life of every ambassador because until the credentials are presented, the ambassador cannot fully function in his or her diplomatic capacity.
Five new ambassadors - Young-Sam Ma of Korea, Ivana Levi of Bosnia Herzegovina, Martin Perts of Latvia, Dimiter Tzantchev of Bulgaria and Haruhisa Takeuchi of Japan - had been scheduled to present their credentials to President Shimon Peres on November 13, but then Peres was given a short-notice invitation to represent Israel at the United Nations interfaith dialogue in New York, and the ceremonies had to be deferred. Within days of his return from New York, Peres paid a state visit to London, leaving December 1 as the next date on which he could clear his desk and have the morning free for diplomatic affairs.
In private meetings with all five ambassadors, Peres asked them about the economy in their respective countries and how their governments were run. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Latvia and Bulgaria, it turns out, have not been as seriously affected as much larger countries such as South Korea and Japan.
Curious, as are many other world leaders about the fate of North Korean President Kim il-Sung, Peres asked Ma whether Kim was alive and if so was he in a fit state of mind. Ever the diplomat, Ma evaded a direct answer and said only that there were conflicting reports.
Bosnia is not feeling the economic crunch, said Levi, because it has the largest hydro-electric plant in the region, and thus a surplus of hydro-electricity, which it exports.
Like the rest of the world, Latvia has some economic difficulties, said Perts. "I was told you had less," Peres interjected. "In a small country, the problems are smaller," Perts responded. The two also discussed some of the important Jewish figures, including founders of the state of Israel, who came from Latvia. In this context, Perts invited Peres to attend an international conference dedicated to Jewish philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin to be held in Riga, the city of his birth, in June. Perts invited Peres to attend the conference or to come to Riga at any time that suited him because it was felt in Latvia that since February 2006, two Latvian Presidents had visited Israel and it was time for Peres to reciprocate.
In his meeting with Levi, Peres was fascinated by her country's system that allows for three rotating presidents - one Bosnian, one Serbian and one Croatian - to hold office.
"And it works?" Peres asked incredulously.
"It works," said Levi emphatically.
Tzantchev, who is entirely fluent in Hebrew, but chose to speak English for the benefit of his deputy, kept forgetting himself and injecting Hebrew words into the conversation. Like his colleagues, he also conveyed an invitation to Peres to visit Bulgaria. As with Latvia, there is a Jewish hook - the impressive Central Sofia Synagogue, which in September will be the focus of a centenary celebration that will bring in participants of Bulgarian background from all over the world.
To Peres's question about the functioning and stability of the government, Tzantschev said that Bulgaria is learning from the Israeli model and trying to form coalitions. "Be careful," warned Peres. "Don't exaggerate."
n THE LEGACY of Yitzhak Rabin must continue, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said last week at a state dinner hosted in his honor by Peres. It is incumbent on everyone to remember the example set by both Rabin and Peres in beginning Israel's dialogue with the Palestinians, said Napolitano, who lauded their courage and their ability to find the inspiration that would enable them to make painful compromises for the sake of peace. Even before Rabin's assassination, recalled Napolitano, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had been assassinated on the altar of peace.
Peres recalled that Napolitano as a young socialist had mounted fierce resistance to fascism during one of the worst periods in European history. He also noted a much more recent period when, at the Turin Book Fair earlier this year where Israel was the guest of honor, Napolitano had taken a strong stand against those who called for the boycott of the fair in reaction to Israel's participation.
Noting that 2009 will mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, Peres said that the generation that had lived through it was disappearing and soon there would soon be no-one to remember. Therefore, it was obligatory for leaders of the free world to ensure that knowledge of the atrocities perpetrated by fascists and totalitarian regimes be passed on to future generations so that humanity would remain alert to the dangers. "There are still people who deny the Holocaust, among them the president of a country which is a member state of the United Nations, who is calling for the annihilation of Israel," said Peres, alluding to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
n AS STATE dinners go, this one, catered by Taam Vatzeva, was probably the best yet in terms of taste, presentation and service. It was one of those rare occasions in which waitresses showed guests to their seats, served female guests first and checked with diners whether they could remove their plates. One of the Italian guests said it was the best food he had ever eaten. Dalit Kool, whom Beit Hanassi spirited away from her job as public relations manager of the Inbal hotel, is responsible for organizing banquets in cooperation with the Beit Hanassi team that was already in place before her arrival, and the pizzazz keeps improving from banquet to banquet.
Among the Israeli guests at the banquet were representatives of the Italian Jewish Museum in Jerusalem, which provided some of the exhibits. Noting that Peres had given Napolitano a menorah as a gift, one of the museum officials said that it would have been more appropriate the other way around. If Napolitano had brought with him the gold menorah from the Second Temple, said by some to be among the Temple treasures that are held by the Vatican, it would have been a most suitable gift for Israel on its 60th anniversary, she said wistfully, and the Italian Jewish Museum, as a bridge between Jerusalem and Rome, would have been proud to display it.
n THE DEARTH of ministers available to represent the government at national day events hosted by heads of foreign missions in Israel has been mentioned in this column on more than one occasion. Thus, the presence of Housing and Construction Minister Zeev Boim at the Albanian National Day festivities at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv, hosted by Albanian Ambassador Tonin Gjuraj, aroused speculation as to the growing importance of ties between Albania and Israel. Much larger and more affluent countries, including those with diplomatic relations that go back to the early years of the state, have had to make do with a deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry.
n JUST A few days later, Romanian Ambassador Edward Iosiper (who incidentally talks to his small daughters in Hebrew) hosted a mammoth reception in the main banquet hall of the same hotel, to which he invited a large representation of the huge Romanian expat community in Israel, plus diplomats, politicians, et al. But this didn't rate a minister, even though it was the 90th anniversary of the unanimous decree by the National Assembly of Romanians in Transylvania of the unification of the historic provinces inhabited by them with Romania. Iosiper noted that the 90th anniversary of Romania's National Unitary State is celebrated in the same year as Israel celebrates her 60th year of independence.
Speaking as always without notes, Pinchas Avivi the Foreign Ministry's deputy director for Central Europe and Euro-Asia, emphasized the tremendous contribution made by immigrants from Romania to all fields of Israeli endeavor. Although he did not mention it, his former colleague, Romanian born MK Colette Avital, a former ambassador to Portugal and more recently an Israel Consul General in New York, was conspicuous by her absence. Several guests looked for her in the ever-growing crowd, wondering why, on the eve of the (aborted) Labor Party primaries, she had not taken the opportunity to campaign for votes among her own people, so many of whom were gathered under one roof.
Iosiper spoke of the special importance that Romania attaches to relations with Israel reflected in visits of high-ranking Romanian officials and the upcoming state visit in early 2009 by Romanian President Traian Basescu. Throughout 2008, said Iosiper, there had been an increase in economic, commercial and cultural bilateral exchanges, especially in terms of introducing Romanian culture to Israel via the recent Romanian Film Festival, the performance by the National Opera of Bucharest in Rishon LeZion this week and the upcoming concert of the Chamber Orchestra of the Romanian Philharmonic in Jerusalem next week. Romania was cooperating with Israel, he said, in commemorating and researching the Holocaust, combatting anti-Semitism and maintaining active involvement in the war against terrorism.
n PHILANTHROPIST AND veteran community activist Raya Jaglom was outraged that at the recent 30th anniversary celebration of Beth Hatefutsoth, no mention was made of Nahum Goldmann, who as president of the World Jewish Congress and the World Zionist Organization first conceived the idea of a Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, and after whom the museum is named. She was no less upset by the fact that certain American Jews who had been connected with the museum since the very beginning, had given handsome contributions to it and had specially come to participate in the 30th anniversary festivities, were overlooked in the speeches.
"We just don't know how to appreciate people in this country" she said. Also under-appreciated the same evening, during a special tribute to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, was Shlomo Lahat, who had brought the plight of the financially strapped museum, when it was on the verge of closing, to Sharon's attention.
n POPULAR SOUTH African Ambassador Maj. Gen. Fumanekile Gqiba and his wife Vuyiswa are making their farewells after a four-and-a-half year stint in Israel where their good humor and ready smiles won them many friends who will gather in Jaffa tonight, Wednesday, for the Gqibas' own farewell party after being hosted several times over within the international community. The Gqibas will never be able to forget their stay in Israel because the youngest of their children is not only a sabra, but her name is Israela.
n IT MAY sound bizarre, but there's no shortage of Israelis who want to be photographed on death row. Photographer Daniel Cohen was taking photos non-stop at what used to be the Central Prison in Jerusalem during the British Mandate and now serves as the Underground Museum in memory of 19-year old right-wing activists Meir Feinstein, a member of the Etzel Underground and Moshe Barazani, a member of the Lechi Underground, who had been sentenced to death by the British but who blew themselves up in prison, thus denying the British the pleasure of hanging them on the gallows. Their cell on death row was visited by scores of people attending the big bash to herald the fourth annual season of Hamshushalayim, a joint project of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Ministry of Tourism, the Jerusalem Hotel Association, Jerusalem restaurateurs, Jerusalem museums and various other bodies aimed at increasing domestic tourism to the capital and increasing local interest in cultural institutions. For many of the merrymakers, this was a fascinating, first-time visit. Cell conditions and the prison supplies depot have been recreated as realistically as possible, even to the extent that there is a statue of a uniformed British soldier reading The Palestine Post, which was the forerunner of The Jerusalem Post. Instead of prisoners in the cells, the people in solitary confinement were musicians playing a variety of instruments - all of which helped to heighten interest in Death Row. Several celebrities from the Coastal Plain thought the event sufficiently different to warrant their attendance, among them Gadi Sukenik and husband and wife actors Yona Elian and Sasi Keshet.
n SOME OF the people invited to the eighth anniversary celebrations of Bruno, the urban Mediterranean gourmet restaurant in the Azrieli tower complex in Tel Aviv, must have wondered what was going on since the number eight, in terms of conventional wisdom, does not have the same significance as 10. But eight is the figure of infinity, and in Chinese culture it represents the balance of the universe. In Hebrew, eight is shmoneh, with its root being shemen, which means fat, thereby signifying abundance. It might be that which prompted Eyal Shani, one of Israel's master chefs, to move out the tables and chairs to make room for a couple of hundred guests in a four generation age range who were invited to sample some of his irresistible cuisine, giving a whole new meaning to fast food. Working in an open kitchen, Bruno staff prepared mouth-watering fish and meat appetizers at lightning speed in batches of 20 at a time, while hopefully future patrons queued up on both sides of the counter and kept coming back for more. Among the celebrities were filmmaker Menachem Golan, Amos Ettinger, who used to host the long defunct "This is your life" on Israel Television, actors Zevulun Mosheashvili and Dubi Gal and socialite Orit Fuchs.
n ALMOST QUARTER of a century ago, when Shimon Peres, as leader of the Labor Party, was running for prime minister, comedian Sefi Rivlin was engaged by Likud to do a spoof on Peres, who at the time was seen to be indecisive and unable to give a precise answer to anything. Made up to bear an uncanny resemblance to Peres, Rivlin, a life-long Likudnik, took his role as more than just another gig, and appeared in Likud's televised election broadcasts looking straight into the camera and saying "O sheken, o shelo" (Maybe yes, maybe no), implying that Peres did not have a clearly defined platform. Funny man though he is on stage and in front of the cameras, Rivlin is also a serious politician, however. After serving on the Rishon Lezion city council, he decided last week to go for the big time and add his name to the list of stellar personalities competing in the Likud primaries.
n WHEN THE Foreign Ministry contacted the Council for the Promotion of Israel China Relations to ask if they would host a luncheon in honor of a visiting Chinese delegation headed by Liu Yunshan, a member of China's influential Politburo, the response was instantly affirmative. The Foreign Ministry suggested the recently opened Noya restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, someone from the Council came from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to approve the cuisine, and the choice was made. The Chinese all fell in love with the focaccia, and the waitresses had to keep on bringing additional helpings from the kitchen.
n NOT EVERYONE in Kadima was in favor of Tzipi Livni's call for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to take a leave of absence in view of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz's announcement that he was considering filing charges against Olmert. In making the call, Livni omitted the operative word "considering" and made it sound as if it was definite that Olmert was being charged. Whether that or something else was the reason that Kadima Council chairman Meir Nitzan berated her for coming out against Olmert yet again, is unclear. What is clear is that neither Livni nor her arch rival within the party Shaul Mofaz showed up at Nitzan's campaign rally in Rishon Lezion on Friday. Nitzan, a former long time mayor of Rishon Lezion, who was first elected in 1983, decided to run for the Knesset after failing to win another term in last month's municipal elections. In the immediate aftermath of his defeat, his wife Naomi told Israel Radio that he would not be idle, but would now have time to write his autobiography. Asked whether it had been demanding to be the wife of the mayor, Nitzan said that she had taken it all in her stride, including the phone calls in the wee small hours. One such call came from a man whose wife had died. After listening to him and giving him all the assistance possible under the circumstances, the Nitzans asked him whether he had notified his family. "Why should I disturb anyone at this time of the night?" was the response.