Grapevine: The road to hell....

The movers and shakers in Israeli society.

By
October 2, 2019 11:38
CHINESE AMBASSADOR Zhan Yongxin with Meron Reuben, chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry

CHINESE AMBASSADOR Zhan Yongxin with Meron Reuben, chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry. (photo credit: STEVE LINDE)

No one in Israel receives more media attention than Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Over the past couple of weeks, his chief rival in this sphere was President Reuven Rivlin, who pledged to do all in his power to prevent a third round of elections. There was great media speculation as to which of the two main candidates Rivlin would give the mandate to form a government. According to law, it’s the candidate who has the best chance of so doing. But there was a slight problem. Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White, had won more seats in the Knesset than the Likud, headed by Netanyahu.

However, Netanyahu had more recommendations from other parties than did Gantz.

It was in some respects similar to the US elections in which Hillary Clinton, who was the Democratic candidate, received more votes than Republican candidate Donald Trump, but the Electoral College, which had the deciding vote, gave the presidency to Trump.

Here, in Israel, the smaller parties, though not unanimous in their recommendations, gave the vote to Netanyahu.

Rivlin’s gift on the Hebrew calendar date of his 80th birthday was the official outcome of the elections presented to him by chairman of the Central Elections Committee Justice Hanan Melcer. This in itself, gave Rivlin the green light to act, although he had already set the wheels in motion at a memorial service for Shimon Peres on September 19, and had since tried to find a modus vivendi whereby Netanyahu and Gantz could work together.

Rivlin’s efforts, though well intentioned, failed, and he gave the mandate to Netanyahu last Wednesday night, knowing that Netanyahu would find it no easier than on the previous occasion. But this time, at least, Netanyahu promised to return the mandate if he failed. In this case, Rivlin still has the option of giving it to Gantz, or going into another round of consultations with the political factions to see if they can propose another candidate.

With few exceptions during his presidency, which will end in July 2021, Rivlin has received very favorable media attention. But during this past week he has discovered, more than he ever realized before, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Determined to be the savior of the nation, Rivlin overstepped the bounds of his authority according to some publications.

Haaretz, in an editorial headlined “Rivlin it’s not your job,” took the president to task for interfering with the wishes of the electorate by urging the two parties to have either a national unity government or a rotating government. Either way, stated the editorial, it was a violation of democracy on Rivlin’s part, because it would force both parties to betray their voters, who had acted as they did on the basis of each party’s declared policy. Blue and White voters, for instance, had voted as they did, because they wanted a change of government and no longer wanted to see Netanyahu in office. Likud voters wanted to maintain a right-wing government, and were fearful that under Gantz the administration would veer to the Left. In order to be true to their voters, there was no way in which Netanyahu and Gantz could compromise.

Rivlin received similar flak in other publications, though perhaps not as harsh as that in Haaretz. But that was not the only criticism against him.

During the consultations with the delegation from the Democratic Union, Rivlin apologized to one of its members, Yair Golan, who as deputy chief of staff in the IDF had compared some IDF soldiers to Nazis when he said at a Holocaust Remembrance Day service in Tel Yitzhak: “It is frightening to be aware that among us there are those who are carrying out the pervasive processes that took place in German 70-80 years ago.”

Rivlin, after praising Golan’s army record, said: “As a second-generation Holocaust survivor, I really want to apologize on behalf of everyone who is a citizen of the State of Israel and knows about your work, things that have been implied and said about such things and others. You are one of our best, regardless of your political positions. We have a son like that....”

Rivlin is not a second-generation Holocaust survivor. Neither of his parents, who happened to be cousins, was born in Europe, and the Second World War erupted eight days before Rivlin’s birth in Jerusalem.

He has no right to call himself a Holocaust survivor of any kind, particularly when he goes to great pains to state over and over again that the State of Israel was not created as compensation for the Holocaust.

Ariel Kahane, writing in Israel Hayom, declared: “Mr. President, don’t apologize in my name.” Kahane, whose parents are both child Holocaust survivors who were appalled by Rivlin’s apology, emphasized: “You don’t need to be a Holocaust survivor or even a second-generation Holocaust survivor to understand that former IDF deputy chief of staff Yair Golan’s remarks comparing Israel to 1930s Germany deserve condemnation and not support....”

■ ONE OF the great phenomena of our times is the number of Holocaust survivors who live well into the third age. Quite a number, including those who emerged emaciated and ill from Nazi death camps, live into a triple-digit age group.

Dutch-born Helena Hertz van Spiegel, who resides in Modi’in, is among those Holocaust survivors in the triple-digit category. Like most Holocaust survivors who have spawned large families, when she looks around at her offspring, she says that this is her revenge on Hitler. When she celebrated her 100th birthday last week, she was surrounded by 110 of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Two of her great-grandsons who are serving in the army were unable to get leave to attend the family celebration, but sent warm greetings.

Hertz van Spiegel met her late husband, Sam, immediately after the war, and they married soon after. The whole of his immediate family had been murdered by the Nazis, but like plants that fade away one season and blossom the next, the Hertz van Spiegel family renewed itself and kept growing.

■ EMINENT HISTORIAN and intellectual iconoclast Prof. Yehuda Bauer, who does not hesitate to say what’s on his mind and does so with a wonderful command of language, was the keynote speaker last week at a conference titled “Israeli Diplomacy in the Age of Ascendant Authoritarianism.”

The conference, at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, was jointly sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, which is under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress.

Bauer, who prefers to refer to the Middle East as the “Muddle East,” said that he suspected that he had been invited in order to be provocative and controversial, thereby causing a lot of fury in the audience. “I hope not to disappoint you,” he commented – and indeed he didn’t. He was even critical of Germany, which caught recently arrived KAF representative Dr. Alexander Brakel off guard, and his surprise was instantly registered on his face.

Bauer does not believe in timeworn labels given to political entities, and noted: “We try to squeeze reality into definition instead of the other way around. Right and Left are becoming increasingly irrelevant. The old concepts of Left and Right don’t mean anything anymore.”

Socialist Democratic has replaced left-wing liberalism, he said.

He attributed the rise of nationalism and religious extremism to the fact that old ideologies did not work.

Although America is still a major power, he saw it being supplanted by China’s rise of capitalist imperialism. In addition to its huge economic investments around the globe, China is investing tremendous diplomatic pressure to penetrate and have a foothold in order to strategically and economically be a superpower, said Bauer, adding that the rise of authoritarianism in America is supported by China.
Then he came up with the surprise remark that “the enemy of Trump is Germany.”

Citing some authoritarian regimes such as Russia, Poland and Hungary, Bauer said that they are supported by free elected representation, which led to the question: “Where does authoritarianism become a dictatorship?”

Bauer saw liberalism as the opposite of authoritarianism. Whereas liberalism has freedom of expression, an independent judiciary and gender equality, authoritarian regimes do not have women in top leadership positions, he said.

Another essential difference is that “liberalism is an attempt to solve problems without force. A liberal regime will try not to use force when it can avoid force.”

Though never hesitant to be critical of Israel when he feels the need, Bauer was quite firm in stating that Israel is not an authoritarian regime, although there are authoritarian incidents such as the struggle against the Supreme Court.

But the Israeli leadership has entered into alliances with post-Holocaust authoritarian regimes, and in the case of Poland signed a distorted memory of the Holocaust, said Bauer, warning that “if Jews forget the Holocaust, non-Jews will remind them of it.”

As for America, in Bauer’s perception, it wasn’t democratic until the advent of Martin Luther King.

Now, under Trump, he continued, there is right-wing anarchism promoted by the radical Right. Noting that five million Evangelicals voted for Trump, “it’s they who moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem,” he said.

Respondent Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a former Israel ambassador to the United Nations and a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, questioned whether it was in Israel’s interests to enter into diplomatic relations with any state that practices genocide. While he personally believes that a state founded largely by Holocaust survivors should not forget that Jews were the victims of genocide, when he questioned colleagues, most replied that decisions should be based on what is currently in the best interests of the state. While understanding this, Gold remained insistent that “when we define ourselves, we must never forget the Holocaust. If Israel does not speak up when genocide occurs, Israel is not living up to what it was founded for.”

■ NOTHING IS forever, which is why the Jewish People Policy Institute is now searching for a new director. Avinoam Bar-Yosef, the founding president and director, has announced that he will be stepping down in 2020 after 18 years at the helm.

Bar-Yosef founded the Jerusalem-based institute in 2002 as an independent think tank aimed at strategically tackling challenges, threats and opportunities confronting the Jewish people worldwide.

“Founding JPPI represents the culmination of a 54-year impassioned journey that began with my service in the IDF, and included 12 years at the Voice of Israel, 17 years at Maariv as chief diplomatic correspondent in Jerusalem and later Washington bureau chief, and four years as a senior adviser to then-Jewish Agency chairman Sallai Meridor, who was critical to the launch of this venture,” says Bar-Yosef.

“As I have always felt Jewish first, the 18 years at JPPI were the opportunity of a lifetime to create this body in the service of my people. This initiative would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of a winning team. He is particularly appreciative of the organization’s cochairmen ambassadors Stuart Eizenstat and Dennis Ross.

■ THE BUZZWORD in diplomacy these days is cultural diplomacy, something that China practiced long before it became one of the world’s most powerful economic empires. Even now, when its main focus is in economic development, it continues to promote its culture.

The cultural treat provided for his 600-plus guests by Chinese Ambassador Zhan Yongxin was an extraordinary musical experience in East-West fusion, in which 11 Chinese musicians from the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra played Chinese and universal string, wind and percussion instruments in a marvelous concert of Chinese melodies and East-West fusion. The East-West fusion was also evident in the sumptuous buffet provided at Tel Aviv University’s Smolarz Auditorium in honor of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

A fascinating illustrated history of China emerging from suffering and starvation to become the master of its own destiny, and its growth to a global superpower, was displayed poster-style against one wall, and attracted not only Israeli guests and diplomats from other countries but also young Chinese men and women who are presently working in Chinese enterprises in Israel, and who grew up in a China different from that of their parents.

The importance that Israel attaches to China was evidenced by the fact that Aliyah and Integration Minister Yoav Gallant was present to represent the government, whereas there have been other important diplomatic events of late in which there was no government representative.

Zhan spoke mostly about the flourishing economic ties between China and Israel, recalling that in 1992, when diplomatic relations were established between the two countries, the bilateral volume of trade was $50 million.

When he took up his post in Israel in 2015, bilateral trade had increased to $10.9 billion. Last year it came to almost $14b. and is expected to increase even further this year. Since breaking the blockade of isolation, China has evolved into the world’s largest economy with total exports-imports reaching $0.6 trillion, said Zhan.

This has enabled the Chinese people to move up on the income ladder, he added, emphasizing that “a prosperous China serves the future of the world.”

Despite its economic progress, Zhan described China as a country that is still developing, but conceded that ongoing development is not possible without international peace.

China is committed to promoting a new model of international relations based on mutual respect, fairness, justice and win-win cooperation, he said. Possibly alluding to current developments in the United States, Zhan said that China will never interfere in any other country’s internal affairs and will oppose all efforts to do so.

Gallant earned applause for saying “Wanshang hao,” which is “Good evening” in Chinese.

In comparing similarities between Israel and China, he said that both are young, modern states representing thousands of years of civilization that contributed much to humanity, and have shared values of family, education and excellence.

Referring to the China-Israel Innovative Comprehensive Partnership established in 2017, Gallant said that it serves as a platform for innovation. China is Israel’s second-largest trading partner, and is the largest in Asia, he said, adding that both countries are looking forward to the signing of a free trade agreement as soon as possible, which will enhance the direct ties that have been growing between the two countries over the years.

■ FOR SOME 20 years, Jerusalem-born Tsolag Momjian and his wife, Allegra, have been hosting an annual reception in the capital to mark Armenia’s independence. Momjian is the honorary consul of the Republic of Armenia, and performs ambassadorial duties because Armenia’s ambassador resides in Cairo. However, it seems that the reception that Momjian hosted last week at Notre Dame in honor of Armenia’s 28th anniversary of independence was his swan song as an independence day host.

On September 19, the government of Armenia announced plans to open an embassy in Israel either by the end of 2019 or early in 2020. The embassy will be in Tel Aviv, and it’s possible that future Armenian Independence Day receptions will be held in Tel Aviv or Herzliya Pituah instead of in the capital.

Given the two months’ headache involved in overseeing arrangements for the event, Momjian was doubly pleased that the Armenian government is opening an embassy in Israel, and that the headache will no longer be his.

This is actually not a new or sudden move. Armenia, which entered into diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, had considered opening an embassy as far back as 1994, Momjian revealed, but did not have the funds to do so at the time.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz, on learning of the impending embassy, welcomed the Armenian government’s decision, saying that it marks an important development in the bilateral relations between Israel and Armenia, reflecting significant progress in relations between the two nations, and is indicative of Israel’s rising status in the world. “The opening of the Embassy of Armenia is an important new chapter in our relations,” he said.

Indeed there were several representatives of the Foreign Ministry at the reception, including Eli Belotserkovsky, the nonresident ambassador to Armenia, who took up his duties in July, after having previously served as ambassador to Ukraine. Some of the previous Israel ambassadors to Armenia were also present.

It’s rare for an ambassador or a deputy chief of mission to attend a national day reception hosted by an honorary consul, but Lasha Zhvania, the ambassador of Georgia, a neighboring country to Armenia, was there, as was Leonid Frolov, the deputy chief of mission at the Russian Embassy.

The majestic Notre Dame sits on the seam of east and west Jerusalem, and is a meeting point between Christians, Muslims and Jews, and tourists from all over the world. In fact, in addition to the many Armenians present, there was probably an equal number of Jews and Arabs, including Palestinian Arabs from Bethlehem and Ramallah. There were also individuals and delegations from the Armenian, Greek and Russian patriarchates, as well as from the office of the papal nuncio.

If political remarks are made by the host at such events, they are usually in the nature of wishing peace to the region and an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But Momjian allowed himself, as a native of Jerusalem, a citizen of Israel and a member of a demographic sector that has resided in the Holy Land for more than 2,000 years, to delve into local politics and to say something that no resident foreign diplomat would dare to say publicly.

Referring to the fact that Netanyahu had again been given the mandate to form a government, Momjian called him “a master of diplomacy and a consummate Machiavellian survivor of Israeli politics.” Presenting the options of Netanyahu once more extricating himself from a difficult situation or this being the end of the Netanyahu era, Momjian said that the next 28 days would be very interesting and urged Arabs and Israelis to be patient. But he was obviously focusing on Netanyahu’s ability to overcome, when he quoted the late prime minister Yitzhak Shamir as saying: “The peace process is not on my agenda.” The inference was that it isn’t on Netanyahu’s agenda either.

■ WHEN THEIR daughter Talia came on aliyah some two years ago, US Ambassador David Friedman and his wife, Tammy, were obviously delighted that they would see her more frequently than through back-and-forth visits between Israel and the United States. But the Friedmans were even more delighted toward the end of last month when their status was enhanced as parents of the bride when Talia married Sam Schubert, the son of Patti and Lee Scheer of Dayton, Ohio.

■ IN ACCORDANCE with Israel’s Open Skies policy, Virgin Atlantic last week launched its London-Tel Aviv maiden flight in a relatively low-key event. A much larger, splashier launch celebration of the London-Tel Aviv route will take place this month when the airline’s founder, well-known British entrepreneur Richard Branson, comes to Israel with a one 100-strong delegation of Virgin Atlantic executives, British celebrities, journalists and bloggers.

Virgin Atlantic’s CEO is Jerusalem-born Shai Weiss, 51, who has managed to turn the company into a leading low-cost travel enterprise. He is believed to be the only Israeli CEO of an international airline company other than El Al. His other claim to fame is that he is the brother of Dana Weiss, the chief political analyst at Channel 12, who is also known for her penetrating in-depth interviews, and is in high demand as a moderator for prestigious international conferences taking place in Israel.

■ ALTHOUGH ARABS and Druze are few and far between in Israel’s diplomatic corps, that is not to say that they don’t exist. Not only do they exist, but they also rise to significant ranks, such as the late Ali Yahya, a Muslim Arab, who was appointed ambassador to Finland in 1995, and after that ambassador to Greece. Assad Assad, a Druze army officer turned diplomat, served with the Israel delegation to the United Nations.

Now, a Christian Arab, George Deek, is about to be posted to Azerbaijan to take up the role of Israel’s ambassador. Deek hails from Jaffa, where his family has lived for centuries. A veteran diplomat with a law degree, Deek has served in a variety of position in the Foreign Ministry. In addition to speaking Arabic, Hebrew and English, he has a fairly good command of French, and speaks basic Norwegian.

Before he leaves for his new posting Deek will address the Herzliya Cultural Group at the Seven Stars Residence on Hanassi Street, Herzliya Pituah, on Thursday, October 3, at 10:30 a.m. He will speak in English. All things considered, the topic of his address is quite fascinating: “Representing the Jewish State as an Arab Israeli.”

greerfc@gmail.com


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