The most embarrassing moments in my diplomatic career

Here was I, alluding to the mysteries of Jewish history, and there was the queen, discussing the weather.

By YEHUDA AVNER
August 22, 2007 19:34
The most embarrassing moments in my diplomatic career

queen elizabeth 224.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

There is a mistaken belief that a diplomat's job is a sort of high-society affair, consisting of frequent grand balls in white tie and tails, redolent, say, of Fred Astaire in Top Hat. In fact, an Israeli diplomat is very much overworked and underpaid. True, the job can be interesting and even huge fun at times - if one can stand the pace, the recurrent stress of events and entertaining visiting MKs, some of whom are ghastly. Protocol looms large in diplomacy, and any departure from it is immediately endowed with extraordinary political meaning. I recall a Buckingham Palace banquet when the Swaziland High Commissioner suddenly dropped dead and the Duke of Edinburgh was heard to muse out loud, "Now, I wonder what he means by that." The quintessence of British protocol is the ceremonial surrounding an ambassador's presentation of credentials to the queen. When I presented mine, I put my foot in it a bit. London was hot and humid on that August day many years ago. Dressed as protocol required, I had a winged collar around my neck, tightly noosed and inflexible, and wrapped around the collar was a white bow tie. Collar and tie were mounted by studs to a dress shirt, its starched-pleated front as unyielding as a breastplate. A white waistcoat held my middle in like a corset, and all was encased in a black, long-tailed morning coat. I was trussed up and looked splendid. STIFFLY, I climbed into an 18th-century gold- and black-lacquered ceremonial coach with wheels as high as my head, attended by crimson-liveried, top-hatted equerries who handled a team of four white horses that clip-clopped through Hyde Park toward the gates of Buckingham Palace, where busbied ceremonial guards marching their sentry paths snapped to attention in salute to my grand entry. Tourists crowding the square, delighted by the pageantry, applauded and clicked their cameras while I, by now sweating profusely, my head gawkily perched on its starched-winged pedestal, waved back, feeling ridiculous, conspicuous and nervous. Escorted into the queen's chamber by a chamberlain dressed like the Duke of Wellington, I executed the rehearsed choreography with due aplomb: bowing at the door, walking two steps forward, bowing again, two more steps forward, bowing once more and proclaiming, "Your Majesty, I have the honor to present to you my credentials as the ambassador of Israel to the Court of St. James's." "Thank you," said the queen, taking the embossed document in her white-gloved hand and passing it to her chamberlain. Then, in a voice that sounded mystified, she said, "I do believe this is the very first time I have ever received credentials from a foreign ambassador actually born in this country. How did you manage that?" ANTICIPATING the question, I had rehearsed a rather high-minded response: "Your Majesty," said I, "though physically born in this country, I was spiritually given birth to in Jerusalem, from whence my ancestors were exiled by Roman legions 2,000 years ago." "Were they really?" said the queen. "How unfortunate!" and she began to talk about the weather. Droplets of sweat trickled down my armpits. Here was I alluding to the mysteries of Jewish history's conundrums, and there was she talking about the weather. What could she possibly know of the dreams of a 17-year-old Jewish boy in post-war Manchester driven by an irresistible urge to fight the British to expel them from Palestine, and who now, 36 years later, had returned to the country of his birth bearing the credentials of the country of his birthright? How could she not be mystified? After introducing my wife and members of my embassy, the chamberlain sounded a discreet cough indicating the audience was over, whereupon we all bowed/curtsied in unison, took two steps backward, bowed/curtsied again, took two more steps backward, bowed/curtsied once more and finally made our way out of the chamber. THAT WAS in 1983. Fifteen years earlier, serving as a novice on the staff of prime minister Levi Eshkol, and taking my initial steps in speech-writing and note-taking, I escorted him to London for talks with prime minister Harold Wilson. There, outside the quiet facade of the world's most famous burnished black door, 10 Downing Street, I was almost arrested. Nowadays, iron gates at the entrance to Downing Street obstruct public access for reasons of security, but not then. Then, token demonstrations were allowed to form on the sidewalk at the corner of Downing Street and Whitehall, and such a one, of 15 Arabs or so, some carrying crude placards, was assembled when Eshkol's limousine swept up to the British prime minister's front door. However, being a junior member of the entourage, the car in which I was traveling was the last in the motorcade, and by the time it turned to enter the street the demonstration had become unruly, interfering with the traffic. So, inexperienced as I was in the logistics of prime ministerial motorcades - which requires tremendous agility to sprint from a rear car to catch up with that of the premier's up front - I proceeded on foot, and by the time I reached No. 10, the door was closed. "Move on," said the sergeant in charge. "I'm with the Israeli party," I explained. "Are you now?" He looked me up and down, peered at my lapel and asked sanctimoniously, "So where's your security pin?" Stupidly, I had left it attached to the jacket I had worn the evening before. "Shove off," he spat, and then, arms akimbo, planted himself in front of the Arab demonstrators who had meanwhile surged forward, shouting profanities. "No, you don't. Back you go," he hollered at them. "Nobody's going to demonstrate in this 'ere bloody street. You there, you in the black 'at" - he was looking at me - "move away from that door NOW, or I'll 'ave you arrested." He approached me menacingly, loosening his truncheon at his belt. AS I FELL back into the crowd of Arabs, the policeman faced us squarely, fanning the air with his truncheon like a pendulum. One of the demonstrators tilted his placard as though to charge, and the sergeant instantly whacked his shoulder, causing him to yelp and his placard to clatter to the ground. "Right! That's it," he bawled at us. "Off you go the lot of you, or I'll have you all in the clink. SCRAM!" He watched in contempt as the protesters slinked away, mumbling curses in a language neither he nor I understood. "You, too," he hollered at me. In desperation, I fumbled for my diplomatic passport and began flashing it at him like a talisman. He glanced at it, consulted another constable, leafed through its pages and, satisfied I was who I claimed to be, said, "Sorry for the misunderstanding, sir. Please follow me." Mustering my last shreds of dignity, I followed him to the door of the British prime minister's official residence, where he snapped to attention and gave me a whirling salute as I walked in. AND THEN there was the time, in January 1968 following the Six Day War, when US president Lyndon Baines Johnson invited Eshkol and his team to his Texas ranch for talks about the future. The talks were held in the president's den - a mixture of warm leathers, rust couches and a low, husky oak table. During a break, I repaired to the bathroom, only to find it locked. As I was about to turn, the door swung suddenly open, and out strode the towering president, vigorous, groomed and commanding. "It's all yours, son," he boomed. "Be my guest." "Thank you, Mr. President," I squeaked. The seat was still warm. The writer, a veteran diplomat, served on the staff of five prime ministers. [email protected]


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