The prince of protocol

After seven years on the job and 41 years as a diplomat, Yitzhak Eldan has just stepped down as the Foreign Ministry’s chief of protocol.

November 14, 2010 23:58
THIS WAY, GENTLEMEN. Yitzhak Eldan (right) guides

Eldan 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file[)

We schedule our meeting in the lobby lounge of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, where Yitzhak Eldan has waited so often for a president, a prime minister, a foreign minister or a new ambassador about to present credentials.

This is where Eldan feels at home, where he is known and where deputy general manager Sheldon Ritz addresses him as “Mr. Ambassador” an is solicitous about his comforts. “A glass of water? Maybe a coffee?” Ritz sends a waitress to the corner where we are sitting.

At the end of October, Eldan wound up a 41-year career at the Foreign Ministry and a seven-year stint as its chief of protocol. As far as he’s aware, it’s the longest continuous period in which anyone served in that position.

In newspapers, magazines and on television screens, it may look like a cushy job – a constant red carpet affair, a lot of glitz, the opportunity to shake hands with dozens of world leaders and the official photographs to prove you’ve actually done so. But in truth it’s a nerve-racking occupation that involves dealing with the bureaucracy, stroking egos, averting crises, running interference between foreign and local security personnel, persuading the Immigration Police that a certain detainee is in fact a diplomat and not an illegal foreign worker, attending countless diplomatic events, planning itineraries for visiting dignitaries, meeting them at the airport, escorting them to meetings with officialdom and then seeing them off. And that’s just part of the story.

It’s so demanding, tiring and timeconsuming for most diplomats, says Eldan, that those who take on the challenge usually spend only two to three years in the post – and then they’ve had enough.

ELDAN, WHO now lives in Tel Aviv after almost 40 years in Jerusalem, has arrived at the hotel ahead of time, and is in the corridor saying hello to Hungarian Ambassador Zoltan Szentgyorgi, who is escorting Foreign Minister János Martonyi on an official visit. After we sit down, Eldan spies Russian Ambassador Piotr Stegny and rushes across the lobby, but Stegny has disappeared by the time he crosses the floor.

We get back to the interview – to the beginning, when Eldan, one of eight siblings, was a boy in Casablanca.

He and an older brother, Shlomo, came to Israel in 1956 with a group of other Moroccan youngsters under the auspices of Youth Aliya. They were taken to Tirat Zvi, a religious kibbutz, where they thought they would be able to complete high school. Instead, the kibbutz put them to work and gave them very little secular education, focusing more on religious studies.

The youngsters were not happy.

Aside from anything else, the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were far from ideal years for Moroccans here. They were treated as inferiors and with suspicion.

The youngsters asked to be transferred to Mazkeret Batya, and the request was honored. Eldan, because he was the youngest, stayed at Tirat Zvi and was adopted by a Polish family who treated him well and was very supportive. But it was still no fun being a Moroccan boy in an Ashkenazi enclave.

Although only 12 when he left Morocco, Eldan had a bar mitzva there, probably because his parents thought they wouldn’t be on hand when he turned 13. He had a second bar mitzva on the right date in Tirat Zvi. He still remembers his portion, Noah, which he can chant in either the Moroccan or the Ashkenazi style.

He learned the Ashkenazi style to please his adoptive parents, and picked up many Ashkenazi customs at Tirat Zvi while never forgetting the traditions with which he came to the country.

“It helped me a lot as a diplomat,” he says.

Though no longer observant, Eldan is quite comfortable in a religious milieu, regardless of the stream of Judaism. In Montreal, where there is a very large Sephardi community, congregants were delighted to hear him chant in the fashion of the old country; in other places, where he prayed with an Ashkenazi congregation, he adapted accordingly, giving fellow congregants the sense that he was one of their own.

While many Israeli diplomats barely follow any religious practice when serving abroad, Eldan thinks it is essential that Jewish representatives of the Jewish state know how to conduct themselves in synagogue and keep a kosher home so that the local rabbi and president of the congregation can eat there.

Their private life is their own business, he says, but anyone representing the country should outwardly respect the traditions.

The same philosophy prompted his dictate that Foreign Ministry staff should not meet the planes of foreign dignitaries arriving on the Sabbath or on a Jewish holiday, nor should there be any official luncheons or dinners in nonkosher establishments. “People who don’t respect their own traditions can hardly expect others to respect them,” he says, noting that most Christians are aware that Jews don’t eat pork. If a Jew eats pork in their presence, it encourages disrespect, he argues.

It was in this vein that he once informed US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice that, much as he admired and respected her, he would not meet her plane if it arrived on Saturday.

Rice, coming from a religious background, understood this perfectly and accepted it.

BACK TO his youth. Even though Eldan’s kibbutz family treated him like genuine kin, some of the youngsters on the kibbutz were cruel and taunted him with anti-Moroccan slogans.

What saved him was his athletic prowess. He was good at soccer, basketball and volleyball. When he was old enough to join the army, he served with the Golani Brigade, and later put himself through university.

While still a student, he joined the Black Panthers, a protest movement of young Israelis from Middle Eastern countries who fought against poverty and ethnic discrimination. At around the same time, he was a diplomatic cadet at the Foreign Ministry, having been one of three people accepted from 350 applicants.

Someone in the Mossad warned him that if he stayed with the Black Panthers, it would be at the risk of his future as a diplomat. But Eldan, who believed in social justice, refused to sacrifice his beliefs for his career. He did make it clear to the Black Panther leadership in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara that he would not engage in acts of violence. His membership did not affect his work in the Foreign Ministry, nor did it hamper his advancement.

In fact he’s very proud that never during his four decades at the ministry did he feel any ethnic discrimination.

He is also proud that two foreign ministers, David Levy and Shlomo Ben- Ami, were born in Morocco, as were Deputy Foreign Minister Eli Dayan, director-general Yossi Gal (who is now ambassador in Paris) and Jacques Raveh (who currently heads the African desk). And of course, there were many ambassadors of Moroccan birth or background.

As a child coming to Israel, he says, his raison d’etre was to serve the nation and defend its interests. He did this in one way by fighting during the Yom Kippur War, and on another front as a diplomat.

The general public does not realize the extent to which a diplomat risks his physical safety and that of his family, says Eldan. “They don’t know how many times we get pelted with rotten eggs, how often we get harassed by anti-Israel groups at public events, how many letter bombs arrive at Israeli embassies and consulates, and how many Israeli diplomats have been killed or injured in terrorist attacks.”

Eldan was instrumental in having the text of the public prayers said on Remembrance Day include a reference to envoys who were victims of terrorism while in service to the state.

A memorial plaque at the Foreign Ministry contains the names of 14 of its members who were murdered by terrorists. Eldan used to make a point of taking dignitaries to see the plaque, telling them: “It’s not just in the army that we defend Israel.”

Eldan also took advantage of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Theodor Herzl earlier this year to reintroduce visits to his tomb by foreign dignitaries.

There is a misperception in the world, he says, that Israel was founded as an outcome of the Holocaust, so all visiting presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and some defense ministers go to Yad Vashem. He sees nothing wrong with this, but notes that because Herzl envisaged a Jewish state long before 1948, history must be put in its correct perspective. Thus, several heads of state and various ministers have laid wreaths at Herzl’s tomb in addition to going to Yad Vashem, which is only a few minutes away and is also on Mount Herzl. When time permitted, Eldan also encouraged dignitaries to visit the Herzl Museum.

DEBONAIR AND with a gift of gab, Eldan took his role well beyond the usual diplomatic duties. He was usually the first person that any new ambassador met, and he became the “wailing wall” for many: Whenever they encountered a problem with the authorities, ambassadors would call Eldan, day or night.

There were diplomats who were mistreated at Ben-Gurion Airport, although they had special documents attesting to their status. There were diplomats whose facial features or skin color spurred the Immigration Police to detain them as supposedly illegal foreign workers. Sometimes they were stopped right outside their embassies, and because they did not have their ID cards with them, no amount of arguing would convince the Immigration Police to go inside to verify their stories.

Frequent break-ins at the residences of diplomats, especially those in Herzliya Pituah and Kfar Shmaryahu, meanwhile, caused uneasiness, unrest and fears for safety.

The wife of an ambassador allegedly was frequently assaulted by her husband and filed a complaint with the police, who could do nothing because he had diplomatic immunity.

In another case, police broke into the back garden of a diplomat, not realizing who lived there, but suspecting that the woman who had thrown out the garbage was an illegal worker.

Foreign employees at embassies have a different status than those employed by Israelis, so essentially they had no right to arrest her. When the police came after her, the woman scampered back into the garden in fear, and the ambassador’s wife, who was pruning a tree, came to her assistance because she thought she was under attack.

The police arrested both.

In yet another case, an ambassador who was having less than an ideal relationship with his wife, whom he had met while serving in another country of which she was a native, locked up the residence in her absence and returned to his home country after disposing of her possessions, including her pet cats. The woman returned to Israel to discover that not only had she been abandoned, but she also had nowhere to call home.

All these cases and more were referred to the chief of protocol.

With regard to mistreatment at the airport, he called the powers that be, gave them an ear-bashing and apologized profusely to the diplomats who had been humiliated. He was frequently in touch with the senior officers of the Immigration Police, asking them to be a little less rash in jumping to conclusions and to accompany people claiming to be diplomats to their embassies so that they could be identified as such.

With regard to the break-ins, he asked for more frequent police patrols in the area.

In the case of the battered wife, he called in the ambassador and told him that while the police could not charge him, the Foreign Ministry could declare him persona non grata and ask for his recall, thereby causing a diplomatic incident between his country and Israel. The ambassador agreed to control himself in future and there were no further complaints from his wife.

There were a lot of ruffled feathers to smooth over the arrest of the ambassador’s wife, but that affair was also settled.

As for the abandoned wife, Eldan called the person in charge of the embassy and explained that such behavior was unacceptable. He demanded that the woman be allowed to live in the residence until she could make other arrangements, and that’s what happened.

Eldan says he never imagined that a chief of protocol would also have to deal with domestic disputes and problems.

But he adds that there are fewer such problems today than in the past, partly due to the publication of the Foreign Ministry’s code of ethics on being a diplomat here. The booklet was initiated by Eldan and authored by one of his predecessors, Mordechai Palzur.

In the preface, Eldan explained that it was a guide book based on internationally accepted rules and local practice, to serve as a tool of reference in dealing with routine problems encountered daily.

The booklet also details the functions of the chief of protocol, which officially include responsibility for the organization and coordination of official ceremonies relating to dignitaries from foreign countries; the provision of advice to government institutions in regard to ceremonial matters; coordination with relevant offices and ministries; and direct ties with the heads of diplomatic and consular missions and their staff as well as the special missions of international organizations.

In addition the chief of protocol establishes coordination on matters relating to the functions of the diplomatic staff, their welfare, their special privileges and immunities on a basis of reciprocity. He welcomes incoming ambassadors, gives them briefings, organizes the ceremony for the presentation of their credentials to the president and receives ambassadors on the termination of their tour of duty.

He is responsible for the publication of the Diplomatic List and the issuing of identity cards for the diplomatic, consular and administrative staff of the foreign missions and international organizations. And he deals with every other matter relating to the Diplomatic Corps, too, even if it is not specified.

Moreover, he heads the internal Foreign Ministry committee that approves foreign honorary consular officers and the appointment of Israeli honorary consular officers in foreign countries.

BUT NOT everyone in the Prime Minister’s Office or the office of the president or the various government ministries is willing to accept his authority, Eldan notes.

While he had good relationships in general with the people he had to work with, there were those who usurped his authority, and others who fought him on matters of ego – for instance when organizing reception lines.

There is a special protocol on who stands next to whom, and there were some people without professional savvy who were not prepared to accept it and insisted on moving to where they wanted to stand.

There were also constant problems with security personnel – not just Israeli bodyguards, but also those accompanying dignitaries from abroad.

Aware that still photographers and television camera crews wanted to capture clear pictures of official visits, Eldan was forever beseeching security personnel to step out of the frame. He also had to arbitrate between Israeli and foreign security people because the Israelis didn’t want anyone interfering on their turf, and the foreigners felt duty-bound to protect their monarch, pope, president or prime minister.

There were also embarrassing moments when unions at the Foreign Ministry called a labor dispute and imposed work sanctions that precluded members of the Protocol Department from carrying out their duties.

This left several visiting dignitaries more or less high and dry, because Foreign Ministry drivers either didn’t pick them up from the airport or didn’t drive them to the next destination on their itinerary.

Eldan was torn between his mission as a civil servant and unity with his colleagues. In the final analysis, his duty to his country won over his duty to his fellow workers, and there were several occasions when he was the only Foreign Ministry representative at the airport.

There were other embarrassments that had nothing to do with sanctions, but with carelessness. He would bring a dignitary to an official reception only to discover that the flag of the visitor’s country was hanging upside down or that the wrong flag was in place.

OVER THE years, Eldan forged strong ties with the Jewish National Fund and with the Israel Olive Board. In 2007, UNESCO included Israel in its Olive Heritage Trail around the Middle East.

Eldan, when serving as ambassador to UNESCO, had previously been involved in promoting Masada and the old city of Acre as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and was anxious to include Israel in the olive trail route, which was a project of both UNESCO and the Council of Europe. He worked with the late Amin Salman Hassin, who had been head of the Israel Olive Board, and with the JNF. Hassin was a Druse from the Galilee, and Eldan, who still takes an active interest in promoting Israel’s olive trail, now works with Hassin’s son.

Eldan also initiated the JNF Ambassador’s Forest in the Negev, where all heads of foreign missions plant a tree.

Aside from helping to make the Negev green, this gives every ambassador a permanent link to the country, and those who come back to visit are often eager to see how their particular tree has developed.

For that matter, visiting heads of state also plant trees, usually in the Grove of Nations on the slopes of Yad Vashem.

Though out of office, Eldan is now preparing to further develop the Honorary Consuls’ Grove in the Aminadav Forest near Jerusalem, which was inaugurated earlier this year. At present there are some 180 honorary consuls representing approximately 120 countries, some of which do not have diplomatic ties to Israel, and some which do have diplomatic relations but no resident ambassador.

In many cases, the honorary consul helps to facilitate bilateral trade, and also comes to the aid of embassies when there are budgetary constraints, helping for instance to underwrite the cost of celebrating national days.

Some, in the absence of a diplomatic mission, also issue visas. Most are also active in binational chambers of commerce.

Not all of them are businesspeople.

Some are prominent in academia, the arts and entertainment – people like singer and actor Yehoram Gaon, who is the honorary consul for Chile in Jerusalem, or Ya’acov Pri-Gal, a retired diplomat, who is the honorary consul for Norway in Eilat. Another is filmmaker Amnon Matalon, honorary consul of the Dominican Republic, while journalists Tatiana Hoffman and Eitan Haber are honorary consuls of the Czech Republic and the Republic of Korea, respectively.

One of the first things that Eldan wants to do in the Honorary Consuls’ Grove is to erect a memorial to Eitan Naschitz, who was deputy dean of the Honorary Consuls Corps, which, for many years, has been headed by his father, Gad Naschitz, who is the honorary consul for Iceland. Eitan, who was also an honorary consul for Iceland, died suddenly this year while on a trip abroad.

AMONG HIS greatest satisfactions as chief of protocol, Eldan says, were to see the growing number of foreign diplomats who are learning Hebrew, his involvement in the handling of foreign dignitaries who came in 2005 to the inauguration of the new Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem, and to serve during the tenure of Shimon Peres as president.

Eldan has a long-standing relationship with Peres who, when he was foreign minister, presented him with the most outstanding employee award.

He is convinced that Peres is the country’s most outstanding asset in that every dignitary who comes here wants to meet him – which of course gives Peres the opportunity to convey Israel’s message.

Eldan also has a long and close relationship with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who, he thinks, is “doing a tremendous job,” although he doesn’t always agree with everything he says or does. For instance, he thinks Ayalon made a terrible mistake by insulting the Turkish ambassador.

Eldan also has a high opinion of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Here again, he doesn’t necessarily agree with him, but he admires the manner in which Lieberman unflinchingly defends Israel and is not afraid to say what’s on his mind.

NO ONE can be a successful chief of protocol or a good ambassador without a loyal and diligent team and without partners along the way.

Eldan is full of praise for the staff in the Protocol Department, saying they work night and day to ensure that each project operates as it should.

He also has only good things to say about Cameroon Ambassador Henri Etoundi Essomba, dean of the Diplomatic Corps in Israel, who is “very professional” and is present whenever and wherever needed. He is appreciative of the fact that the International Women’s Club, at least half of whose members are the wives of foreign diplomats, and the Diplomatic Spouses Club are sufficiently sensitive to Israel’s needs to hold fund-raising events, the proceeds of which are donated to various social welfare institutions.

In January, he will launch a club of his own – the Ambassadors Club of Israel, a nonprofit organization that will provide many of the services that diplomats already receive from the chief of protocol but in a much more informal setting and with greater frequency. The club will also have regular sporting events, such as the Diplomatic Table Tennis Tournament, initiated in March by Eldan and Korean Ambassador Young-sam Ma. In addition there will be frequent lectures by diplomats, businesspeople, academics and authors to expose diplomats to a smorgasbord of Israeli life.

To ensure this, Eldan will operate a website that is currently under construction and will also open membership in the club to honorary consuls, who are all Israelis, and to members of binational chambers of commerce.

Increased opportunities for networking, he believes, will benefit not only Israel, but all the countries with which it is diplomatically and commercially engaged.

He is a little concerned however, by the fact that some of the ambassadors speak little or no English, even though English is now the most common diplomatic language, or French, which used to be the language of diplomacy.

He’s not quite sure how those without a common language will fit into the club, yet they are the very ones who need the club most.

Because the club won’t be quite as demanding as his old job, and because he doesn’t want to rely solely on his pension for an income, he’s also going into business and will focus on alternative energies and mini-refineries.

ELDAN HAS always seen himself as a proactive diplomat, sometimes doing things that were not exactly diplomatic.

For instance, when he was serving as ambassador to Denmark, the Danish foreign minister publicly criticized the fact that Israel had elected Ariel Sharon as prime minister. Eldan retaliated publicly, to some initial shock in Denmark.

He explained that he was ready to take on anyone who was attacking Israel, and where or when was immaterial.

Said Eldan, “Israel is a proud state and I am a proud representative of the Jewish state.”

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