MEET THE AMBASSADORS • By GREER FAY CASHMAN Over the summer months there was a large exodus of heads of foreign diplomatic missions who had completed their tenure in Israel and left the country. As a result, there have been many changes in the diplomatic community. In some cases there were instant replacements, in others, replacements are yet to come.
In countries in which there were elections resulting in a change of government and policy, appointments of new ambassadors are likely to be deferred to early next year, and the burden of running the embassy falls on the deputy chief of mission or on the chargé d’affaires, who in smaller embassies is also the DCM. Sometimes, the departing ambassador is asked to stay on till a replacement is appointed.
Meanwhile, ambassadors Olivier Belle of Belgium, Elita Gavele of Latvia, Jean-Daniel Ruch of Switzerland, Konstantinos Bikas of Greece and Anu Saarela of Finland last Monday presented their credentials to President Reuven Rivlin in separate ceremonies at the President’s Residence.
Next month it will be the turn of the ambassadors of France, Canada, Peru and Guatemala, and possibly of one other country yet to be decided.
Ambassadors present credentials and the letter of recall of their predecessors in chronological order, namely in accordance with the date on which they arrived in Israel.
According to the Protocol Division of the Foreign Ministry, at least 15 new ambassadors will have presented their credentials by mid-February 2017.
In his meetings with each of the five envoys, Rivlin emphasized the need for the free world to unite in the fight against terrorism. He underscored that this is not a battle against Islam or any particular state. “Terror is terror is terror whether in Brussels, Tel Aviv or London,” he said, emphasizing that “the burden of security is now on the whole of Europe.”
In speaking to the Belgian ambassador, Rivlin remarked on the thousand- year history between Antwerp and the Jews, as a continuation of which there is a special relationship between Antwerp and Tel Aviv. He said he was looking forward to the visit of Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and the government to government meeting between Israel and Belgium.
Although he will write a formal letter to King Philippe of Belgium whom he met during his visit to Belgium in June this year, Rivlin asked the ambassador to convey his personal invitation for the monarch to visit Israel.
Belgium and Israel have an old friendship, said Belle, “but it is necessary every day to consolidate this relationship.” He listed as priorities getting rid of terrorism and fighting against any sign of anti-Semitism.
Belle’s mother, Yvonne Jeanmart, a Supreme Court judge, and his aunt Nicky Jeanmart, a university professor, specially came to Israel to accompany Belle as he presented his credentials.
Rivlin congratulated the Latvian ambassador on her country’s accession to the OECD and told her that next year their two countries will celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations, adding that he plans to visit Latvia in 2018 for its 100th anniversary. He also expressed Israel’s appreciation for the way that Latvia had voted at UNESCO against the resolution attempting to deny the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount and to Jerusalem.
The Jewish people had done much for Latvia, said Gavele, and the 4,000 Latvian Jews living in Israel are still very attached and active, and serve as a bridge between the two countries. Going through the archives of Latvia’s Foreign Ministry, she said, she had found a letter, written by Shimon Peres in 1992 authorizing Naomi Ben-Ami to open an Israel Embassy in Riga.
Switzerland has a specially emotional place in the hearts of Israelis, Rivlin informed the Swiss ambassador, reminding him that next year, Israel and Zionists around the world will mark the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress that was held in Basel, where Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl subsequently wrote in his diary: “At Basel I founded the Jewish state.”
For Zionists, said Rivlin, Basel symbolizes the Jewish renaissance.
Ruch was well versed in Zionist Congress history, but in addition spoke of his country’s experience as a mediator.
Ruch came to Israel after serving as the Swiss ambassador in Serbia, and Rivlin congratulated him on the commendable job he had done toward reconciling countries of the former Yugoslavia.
In various conversations that he has had since arriving in Israel, Ruch has spoken of what an extraordinary experience it was to work on reconciling the peoples of the former Yugoslavia after the wars of the ’90s. He accompanied the Serbian anti-Milosevic revolution of October 2000. “Switzerland was at the forefront of helping reintegrate this country into the international community thereafter, by welcoming it in our group in the IMF and World Bank and designing a substantial cooperation program that has lasted to this day,” he said.
The most gratifying work experience he ever had, he said, was with the UN Yugoslavia War Crimes Tribunal, where he assisted prosecutor Carla Del Ponte in bringing justice to the 130,000-plus victims of these conflicts. “As a result, almost all the most senior officials responsible for war crimes, against humanity and genocide were tried and most of them sentenced. This work of justice was not perfect, but it has been indispensable to move the region toward reconciliation. “With hindsight Ruch said that he now realizes how much the establishment by the tribunal of indisputable facts and narratives about the crimes is helping heal the wounds and prevent the return of aggressive nationalist discourses based on biased manipulations of history.”
Between his work with the International Criminal Tribunal and his period as ambassador to Serbia, Ruch, from 2008 to 2012 was the Swiss Foreign Ministry’s ambassador and special representative for the Middle East, and is therefore well acquainted with the problems of the region.
Aware of this, and of Switzerland’s relations with the Palestinian Authority, Rivlin told Ruch that Switzerland has an important role to play in confidence-building measures between Israel and the Palestinians. Ruch replied that he would happy to use his experience in international law and in facilitating reconciliation “to do anything possible to bring peace to the Jewish people.” He also reiterated Switzerland’s commitment to Israel’s security and to a just and lasting peace for both the Israelis and the Palestinians, adding that he would always be available for anything that would advance this process.
Ruch revealed that Israel has the largest Swiss population east of Europe, and the ninth-largest Swiss population abroad. There are 20,000 Swiss citizens living in Israel.
Rivlin observed that Switzerland is now facing the same refugee problems as the rest of Europe, but Ruch begged to differ, pointing out that Switzerland had a massive inflow of immigrants during the Balkan wars, “and we managed to integrate these people.” In Basel, he said, 61% of the population has at least one parent who was not born in Switzerland.
The best sign of the successful integration of immigrants, he said, was in the Swiss national soccer team.
He noted that south Tel Aviv has a similar situation with Eritreans to that which existed in Switzerland.
In recognizing this, Switzerland is helping these people with humanitarian aid, and will also help in trying to solve their problems.
Rivlin was delighted to greet the Greek ambassador, whose country, he said, was the fount of democracy, and continues to handle all its problems in a democratic fashion.
He drew a parallel between common knowledge that Greece is the cradle of democracy and that Jews have lived in Jerusalem for three thousand years.
Bikas noting the development of the strategic importance of relations between Greece and Israel, said, “History for Greeks and Jews is something that no one can take away.” He pledged that he would work assiduously to enhance the bilateral relationship, adding that he is working on a trilateral meeting scheduled to take place in Israel in early December with the participation of the prime ministers of Israel, Greece and Cyprus.
Finland and Israel, though sharing common values, do not see eye to eye, on many issues. Rivlin alluded to this by saying that friends can agree to disagree. He commended Finland for its policies on education and innovation. “Israel is a start-up nation with many good universities, but yours are better,” he stated.
Saarela, while appreciative of Rivlin’s diplomacy, said that she would prefer to focus on the things that unite the two countries rather than those that divide them, and listed values relating to human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
There are 400 Finnish peacekeepers in UNIFIL in Lebanon, she said, and the Finnish troop is the largest in UNTSO, which operates in Jerusalem and is based the capital’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood.