(photo credit: AP)
There have been a number of firsts for President Shimon Peres since his inauguration two months ago. Monday was no exception, as Peres accepted the credentials of a new ambassador who arrived for the ceremony by rented helicopter.
Traffic congestion in Herzliya Pituah made it impossible for Ambassador Boris Sovic of Slovenia to get to Jerusalem in time for the 9:30 a.m. ceremony. A former mayor, Sovic did not lack resourcefulness. He hired a private helicopter and flew with his wife and three children to the helipad at Hadassah Medical Center, where they were picked up by a Foreign Ministry limousine and arrived at Beit Hanassi with just under five minutes to spare.
Besides Sovic, Peres accepted the credentials of three other new ambassadors: Tonin Gjuraj of Albania, Michiel Den Hond of the Netherlands and Per-Mikael Engberg of Finland.
Unsure of exactly where to stand as he waited for the envoys to arrive at half hour intervals to present their letters of credence along with the letters of recall of their predecessors, the president was literally put in his place by Beit Hanassi deputy director-general Yona Bartal.
Slovenia, even when it was part of Yugoslavia, was always eager to form ties with Israel, and signed several important agreements. Once it achieved independence, it was quick to establish diplomatic relations and to embark on an ever-growing volume of bilateral trade. There have also been high-level exchange visits of Slovenian and Israeli dignitaries, with three visits to Israel by the Slovenian foreign minister.
As yet, there is no permanent Israeli ambassador in Slovenia, but there will be one from January 2008, when Slovenia becomes the first of the new European Union member states to take on the rotating presidency of the EU.
Israelis long ago recognized Slovenia as a multifaceted tourist destination, and some 80,000 Israelis travel there each year.
For Albania's Gjuraj, the meeting with Peres was a particularly uplifting and emotional experience, which he noted in the guest book when he wrote: "It is a unique ceremony for me in the whole of my life to meet with Mr. Peres, the first foreign minister ever to visit Albania."
Peres, arguably the most widely traveled of all of Israel's public figures, visited the country some 13 years ago.
Before he was president, Peres, when invited to address national day receptions hosted by different ambassadors, would frequently quote a poem or a folk tale related to the country in question. Old habits die hard, and Peres took the opportunity to recite two stanzas from Lord Byron's "Child Harold's Pilgrimage" that extol Albania.
The country is a candidate for membership in both NATO and the EU, and is likely to be accepted after it implements several necessary reforms.
Although Albania is a Muslim country, it is essentially a secular state that can easily serve as a model for coexistence. It cooperates closely with the United States and the United Nations on issues such as global terrorism and organized crime.
Relations between Israel and Albania are so positive that Israel is currently in the process of canceling visa requirements for Albanians who wish to visit Israel. Moreover, Albanian academics will come to Israel in May 2008 to participate in a Tel Aviv University conference on the Holocaust.
Trade relations between the two countries leave much to be desired, but the situation may improve following the projected visit by an Israeli business delegation to Albania in November.
Peres, who discussed the upcoming international peace conference in November with all four ambassadors, also expressed appreciation to the ambassadors of the Netherlands and Finland for the military personnel their countries have sent to the UNIFIL contingent in Lebanon. Finland has sent 230 soldiers and Holland 170.
Peres and Hond discussed monetary contributions the Netherlands was giving the Palestinians, and Peres suggested that it would be more beneficial to invest rather than donate, thus creating job opportunities and sowing the seeds for future development. He also made the point that Holland could play an important role in helping solve regional water problems.
In greeting Engberg, Peres could not refrain from mentioning the company that has put Finland on the map: "With Nokia you have a knockout," he said.
Engberg was previously in Israel when he worked in his Foreign Ministry's legal department. His wife, who has worked for the Finnish Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry, has also been to Israel before.
Peres and Engberg discussed upgrading economic ties and voiced Israel's gratitude for the strong stand Finland has taken against Hamas.