Grapvine: A diplomatic snafu

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May 17, 2016 21:51
Netanyahu, Ayrault and Abbas

Netanyahu, Ayrault and Abbas. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO,REUTERS)

 
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A diplomatic snafu At the annual Independence Day reception held at the President’s Residence for heads of foreign diplomatic missions, military attachés, honorary consuls and heads of religious communities, there is usually a good sprinkling of high-ranking Foreign Ministry officials plus several retired ambassadors and their spouses. This year, they were not invited – not even Jeremy Issacharoff, the deputy director-general of the ministry, who is second only to Dore Gold, who was invited, together with Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who is on maternity leave and did not come. Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who co-hosted the event, was there with his wife, Sara, Gold was there with his wife, Ofra, and there were a couple of people from the ministry’s Protocol Department who were not there as guests. For them, it was a regular working day, and it was their job to network with the diplomats.

Every organization or institution that has an event at the President’s Residence contributes toward the cost. According to a source in the ministry, when the event was held on President Reuven Rivlin’s watch for the first time last year, there was still fallout from the frequency with which his predecessor Shimon Peres had gone over budget. Rivlin’s people were keen on proving how thrifty they could be, even though there is an expenditure on Rivlin’s budget that Peres never had.

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Rivlin refuses to travel abroad without his wife, Nechama, and while he may not travel out of Israel as often as Peres, including his wife in his trips is part of the cost factor.

Last year, his office asked for NIS 70,000 for the reception, a request to which the ministry acceded with great reluctance, having budgetary problems of its own. It also made it clear, according to a ministry source who spoke on condition of anonymity, that this was a onetime participation fee of such proportions.

However, when arrangements were being made for this year’s reception, the request for NIS 70,000 came yet again, and the ministry dug in its heels and refused to shell out such a sum.

This did not go over well with Harel Tubi, the director-general of the President’s Bureau, who contacted the director-general of the Finance Ministry to ask whether it would make the necessary funds available to the Foreign Ministry. Tubi was reportedly told that if the Foreign Ministry put in an application, such a request would be treated favorably.

However, the Foreign Ministry opted not to put in a request and resisted all pressure to the contrary. As a result, people who for years had been invited to this reception were struck off the guest list.

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It’s hard to tell what would have been more insulting – no invitation at all, or an email invitation on the day prior to the event had the funds been forthcoming in the last minute.

As it was, the refreshments did not measure up to what they had been in previous years, to the extent that they were barely touched. Asked about the absence of Foreign Ministry personnel, a source within the President’s Office replied briefly: “Tit for tat.” Earlier in the day, there must have also been a budgetary problem with the Israel Defense Forces, which likewise reduced the standard of refreshments, which in the past had included a variety of salads, pitot, lafas, hummus, kebabs and so forth, as well as cakes, cookies, fruit and ice cream. This year the fare was limited to sandwiches and pastries.

■ At the reception for diplomats, Rivlin, like Peres, preferred not to observe the traditional protocol practiced in other countries in which the hosts stand in a receiving line and greet all the guests as they file past. Although Peres had no trouble staying on his feet for a long time when he was a guest at other people’s receptions, his overprotective staff thought it was too much for him at his age to stand for over an hour and shake hands with more than 200 people. When nearly all the guests had arrived and were mingling on the lawns of the presidential complex, Peres would come out and circulate among them, shaking hands here and there, exchanging greetings and posing for photographs with whoever wanted a souvenir of a close-up meeting with the president of Israel. Rivlin has followed suit, and posed for a joint photograph with Egyptian Ambassador Hazem Khairat and Jordanian Ambassador Walid Obeidat, who will next week celebrate the 70th anniversary of the independence from Britain of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the centennial of the Great Arab Revolt led by Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the emir of Mecca and king of the Arabs, who was the great-great-grandfather of King Abdullah.

Strangely, enough protocol was eventually observed toward the end of the function last Thursday, as Rivlin and Netanyahu were waiting for the guests to assemble on stage for a group photo opportunity. Though seated, the two of them ended up shaking hands with everyone, because each person stopped, as they filed past, to say something to the president and the prime minister. It was interesting to hear how different accents can affect the pronunciation of two simple words such as “Hag sameah.” Ordinarily, the prime minister does not come to this function, but because Netanyahu is also wearing the hat of the foreign minister, among his various ministerial hats, he had no choice but to attend. The envoys were of course thrilled to be able to instantly shake the hand of the prime minister after shaking that of the president.

■ EVEN THOUGH Foreign Ministry personnel were not invited to the President’s Residence, they were very much in evidence at the reception hosted by Austrian Ambassador Martin Weiss at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

There were past and present ambassadors to Austria, deputy directors-general and past and present chiefs of protocol, including Yitzhak Eldan, who since his retirement from the ministry has been busier than ever with a number of projects, with participants in the most rewarding one accompanying him to the reception. They were 15-year-old students from the Alliance High School in Ramat Aviv, where extracurricular studies include the Young Ambassadors project run by Eldan, in which he teaches diplomacy and how to counter anti-Israel activists, and takes the students on trips abroad. They recently returned from Vienna, where they happened to run across former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Viennese-born Ari Rath, 90, who divides his time between Vienna and Jerusalem.

The purpose of the reception was in celebration of 60 years of diplomatic relations between Austria and Israel. A video depicting Austrian and Israeli dignitaries photographed in Jerusalem and Vienna included among the Israeli dignitaries Ezer Weizman, Peres, Ehud Barak, Netanyahu, Amir Peretz, Moshe Ya’alon, Naftali Bennett, Tzipi Livni, Shevah Weiss, Yuli Edelstein and Ze’ev Elkin.

Aside from their meetings with Israeli officials, nearly all the Austrian dignitaries make it their business to visit the famed Austrian Hospice on the Via Dolorosa, which was also featured in the video.

At the reception on the balcony of the museum, there were also many Austrian expatriates, plus leaders of the Austrian Jewish community headed by president Oskar Deutsch, who had specially come to Israel for the occasion.

Weiss said that when the event was being planned, it was decided that there must be a high-level visit from Austria, preferably the foreign minister, in view of the fact that it was a celebration of diplomatic ties. The next challenge was to find the right location, and it was decided that because of the close association with Austria of Jerusalem’s legendary mayor Teddy Kollek, who grew up in Vienna and was the driving force behind the concept and establishment of the Israel Museum, it would be the ideal venue.

Israel Museum director James Snyder said that Kollek had envisaged something like the great museums of the West. While the Israel Museum is not exactly like Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, Snyder acknowledged, the two museums have an excellent relationship, he said, and share values, information and works of art. Looking out at the heads of diplomatic missions who had accepted the invitation to celebrate with Austria and Israel, Snyder said that political demarcations do not exist in museums. “You can enjoy all the culture and beauty from around the world.”

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who at age 29 (he will turn 30 in August) is one of the world’s youngest foreign ministers, said that he was pleased to be in Israel again and noted that the large delegation that he had brought with him comprised not only the Jewish leadership but also 30 young Austrian leaders in the fields of economics, culture, education and more. Earlier in the day, he had a very good meeting with Netanyahu, he said, in which the two had signed a work and holiday visa agreement that will make it easier for young people from both countries to work in each other’s countries while vacationing.

They also signed a memorandum of understanding on education and cultural issues.

Reflecting on the long period of relations between Austria and Israel, Kurz drew a laugh from the crowd when he said, “Sixty years is a long time. It’s twice my age.” Although he had come to Israel in his official capacity, he emphasized that he is also the representative of a young, modern Austrian generation.

Having visited Yad Vashem that day, Kurz said that Austria had taken too long to accept responsibility for its role in the Third Reich.

Austria must fight all forms of anti-Semitism, not just through Yad Vashem but in daily political life, he said. “This means that we have to have strong, solid relations with Israel.”

Referring to the Israeli presence in Austria, Kurz said that there are “more and more delicious Israeli restaurants,” and that “the Tel Aviv beach on the Danube is the most popular place for young people.”

■ IN THE game of ministerial musical chairs that will be played in the event of an enlarged coalition or a national unity government, it’s possible that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked may be appointed foreign minister. Because Netanyahu was busy with other affairs of state, and Hotovely is on maternity leave, Shaked was the minister who represented the government at the Austrian reception.

After voicing the government’s appreciation for the participation of Austrian dignitaries in Independence Day celebrations hosted by Ambassador Talya Lador-Fresher, and commenting on the fact that over the years there have been ups and downs in the relationship between the two countries, Shaked said that today relations are good and stable and she hoped that they would continue to flourish.

Departing momentarily from her prepared speech, Shaked declared spontaneously that when she was younger, her favorite film was The Sound of Music, which she watched “a hundred times” and which she now gets her children to watch on television. She then admitted that she’s never been to Austria, and that all her impressions of Austria are based on the film. Weiss immediately stepped in and announced that “we’ll have to do something about that,” so it’s in the cards that Shaked will soon receive an invitation to pay an official visit to Austria, where she will discover that there is much more to the music and other aspects of Austrian culture and scenery than that conveyed by the von Trapp family.

Shaked was pleased that Kurz had visited the grave of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl, who had spent most of his life in Austria. She urged the Austrian government to continue to raise its voice against anti-Semitism, and commented that while it is not politically correct to be anti-Semitic, “it is super in to be anti-Israel.

■ COINCIDENTALLY , TODAY is Herzl Day in which schools around Israel will celebrate the anniversary of Herzl’s birth in Budapest in 1860. Considering that he was only 44 when he died in July 1904, Herzl left quite a remarkable legacy. While his vision of the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland has by and large been realized, his vision for Jewish unity has yet to be implemented.

■ MEANWHILE, IN Rome, while Italian Ambassador Francesco Maria Talo was chatting at the Austrian reception with Snyder about a forthcoming Italian art exhibition at the Israel Museum, outgoing Ambassador to Italy Naor Gilon was hosting an Independence Day reception at the Rome Hilton hotel, which was attended by Italy’s political who’s who, including Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as well as members of the opposition.

Gilon’s ex would-be successor as ambassador designate, journalist and former Italian parliamentarian Fiamma Nirenstein, last week withdrew her candidacy as ambassador designate to Italy following months of pressure from the Italian government, which opposed her appointment. In addition to all the other worries that he has on his head, Netanyahu will now have to look for a suitable alternative who will meet with the approval of the Italians.

It is not uncommon for Israel to send former citizens of any country back to that country to serve as ambassador. Among outstanding examples are Moshe Arens, Michael Oren and Ron Dermer, all former US citizens who were appointed as ambassadors to the United States; Yehuda Avner and Daniel Taub, who were born in England and were sent as ambassadors to the Court of St. James; Ambassador to Russia Zvi Heifetz, who was born in Tomsk; and Zvi Magen, a former ambassador to Russia and Ukraine, was born in Ukraine.

■ “UNBELIEVABLE!” EXCLAIMED Aryeh Golan incredulously on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet, in response to a report by Asaf Pozailov that brothers Gilad and Omri Sharon were against the establishment of a monument in memory of three female Palmahniks who were killed by bombs fired from an Egyptian plane in the War of Independence. Initiators of the project originally wanted to erect the monument adjacent to Sycamore Farm. The three combatants were killed on Anemone Hill, which is the grave site of former prime minister Ariel Sharon and his wife, Lily. Sharon, who was regarded as a great military hero, was a member of the Palmah, and in all probability, had the project been conceived during the period prior to his collapse and long-term coma, he would have supported it. Yet even though the land outside the Sycamore Farm is public land over which the Sharon brothers should have no say, their objections were so forceful, according to the report, that the project was moved from its initially designated site to one across the road, in a compromise decision that comes within the category of near enough is good enough.

The monument bearing the names of Laila Naomi Yosef, Tamar Baumgarten and Miriam Ossiya was inaugurated this week with the participation of a few Palmah survivors. The item was broadcast several times with the comment that there had been no response from the Sharon family. But later in the day there was an update stating that the family claimed that it had never been approached and would never think of objecting to a memorial of this kind.

■ IT IS customary for Paul Israel, the executive director of the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce, to organize a traditional Friday night dinner for trade, academic and other missions that come to Israel from Australia under the auspices of the IACC’s sister chamber, the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce.

The delegations usually include a few members of the Australian Jewish community, but by and large are made up of non-Jews.

At the Friday dinner, the host or the guest of honor is usually an Orthodox rabbi, or an influential member of the Orthodox sector.

Although the missions travel to many parts of Israel and stay overnight in two, three or even more different places, the Friday night dinners are always held in Jerusalem, and sometimes the whole delegation is taken to Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue to experience the Sabbath service and to learn that although Israel per se operates in accordance with the Gregorian calendar, anything to do time-wise with the Jewish or Muslim faiths is in accordance with a lunar calendar.

Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma and his wife, Rachel Lord, usually host a reception for these delegations but don’t come to the Friday night dinners. Last Friday night was an exception, possibly because the delegation of high-powered women executives from diverse fields who were brought together by Jillian Segal, the director of the AICC, was led by Lucy Turnbull, the wife of Australia’s prime minister and a prominent figure in her own right.

As this was a women’s mission, Israel decided to bring in a woman rabbi and he chose Rabbi Noa Sattath, one of the relatively few Reform rabbis who were ordained in Israel.

Sattath, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, is a lesbian and the mother of twins. She is also active in reconciliation efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. To her credit, when explaining religious tradition with regard to the Sabbath, she did not talk about the different streams of Judaism but presented the modern-Orthodox version of tradition. She explained the blessing of the children, recited kiddush, did the ritual hand-washing before reciting the blessing over the halla and demonstrated that Reform Jews are no less committed to Jewish principles and values than their brothers and sisters in any other stream of Judaism.

Sharma told the gathering that neither he nor his wife had ever been to Israel prior to his posting, and they were somewhat concerned about safety for their three small daughters.

But then they discovered that, contrary to what appears in the media, “Israel is a normal country” despite the challenges surrounding it. Whereas Australia is a geographic island, Israel is a geopolitical island surrounded by enemies, explained Sharma. Nonetheless, Israelis are just a little more casual and informal than Australians and very “up-front.” He also mentioned that Israeli drivers are somewhat more aggressive than Australian drivers, but in general what he had to say was so positive that if someone had entered the dining room of the King David hotel after Sharma had started speaking and didn’t know who he was, they would have been certain that he was an Israeli doing a little patriotic propaganda.

Although the mission had not yet done much in the way of touring, what they had seen in Jerusalem had impressed everyone to the extent that Turnbull called it “the experience of a lifetime.” She waxed even more enthusiastic on Monday night at a reception hosted by Sharma and his wife at the Australian Residence in Herzliya Pituah.

■ VENTURE PHILANTHROP IST Mem Bernstein, who divides her time between Jerusalem and the US and is the chairwoman of the Avi Chai Foundation, a hands-on activist in Jewish education, an author and a trustee of Keren Keshet – The Rainbow Foundation, whose signature project, Nextbook, promotes Jewish literature, culture and ideas through the Jewish Encounters book series and its website, www.tabletmag.com, is one of those individuals who know how to laugh at their own shortcomings. Bernstein admits that she has a terrible memory for names and faces, but at the same time if someone greets her, she responds politely and returns the greeting.

On one occasion, she recalls, a man greeted her with great enthusiasm, and as usual she played along as if she knew him well. But after he was out of earshot, she asked a good friend who was with her who he was. The friend was flabbergasted. “Don’t you remember? You used to date him!”

■ FANS OF IBA News, who were upset when it temporarily went off the air, may not be aware that it is back on a daily basis from Sunday through to Thursday at 4 p.m. and on the Internet 24 hours a day at www.iba.org.il/world. The IBA News team includes Jerusalem Post columnist Calev Ben-David as diplomatic reporter, anchors Arieh O’Sullivan, Eylon Aslan- Levy and Laura Cornfield and reporter Margot Dudkevitch. O’Sullivan also doubles as a reporter, and has a great instinct for finding a story where one didn’t seem to exist. Senior editor is Efrat Battat. Aslan-Levy, who is chief anchor, is the newest addition, hails from London and has a string of degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. There’s a vast difference between his accent and those of the rest of the team, but all in all, the English-speaking world is not too badly represented.

greerfc@gmail.com

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