On the face of things, relations between President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are cordial. On average they meet privately every four to six weeks so that the prime minister can update the president on certain issues, and of course there is more frequent communication between their two offices. Depending on the guest of honor and the importance of Israel’s relations with the country that is led by that guest, Netanyahu and his wife occasionally attend state dinners hosted by Rivlin and his wife.
Even though Netanyahu is also foreign minister, unlike his predecessor in that position, Avigdor Liberman, he rarely attends the national day celebrations hosted by resident heads of foreign diplomatic missions. The annual exception is the American Independence Day reception, which is attended by both the president and the prime minister, along with other ministers and members of Knesset.
Some diplomatic receptions are attended by the president but not the prime minister.
Both Shimon Peres, when he was president, and Rivlin made a point of attending the Chinese, German and Jordanian national day receptions hosted by the ambassadors of those countries. Peres, the Francophile, also attended the Bastille Day reception hosted by the French ambassador. He also attended a queen’s birthday reception hosted by the British ambassador. Rivlin attended the Europe Day reception this year; and several years ago when he was prime minister, Ehud Olmert attended the Russian Federation national day reception, the Japanese reception in honor of the emperor’s birthday, and the Korean reception.
Other than the American reception, the only one attended by both the president and the prime minister is that which is hosted by the Egyptian ambassador, and the last time that happened before Thursday of last week was in 2009, when then-president Peres and Netanyahu were the guests of honor at a reception hosted by Yasser Reda, who was celebrating not only his country’s national day but also the launch of the Egyptian residence, which comprised two adjacent luxury houses on a large, single plot of land. One house was for ambassador Reda and his family, and the other for embassy employees.
The house that current Egyptian Ambassador Hazem Khairat and his wife, Manal, live in is not quite as grandiose but is nonetheless quite large. The Egyptian National Day reception had been listed on Rivlin’s schedule, but for many of the guests Netanyahu’s arrival with his wife, Sara, was a surprise. They should have anticipated it when they saw the elaborate security precautions, but most people did not imagine that there would be more than one guest of honor. The Egyptian Embassy had only 24 hours warning that Netanyahu had decided to attend.
Rivlin arrived at 7:30 p.m. and like nearly all the men present was wearing a suit, which was not the ideal attire for humidity-heavy Herzliya Pituah. Escorted into the garden by Khairat, he was immediately surrounded by people who wanted to shake his hand and pose with him for a selfie.
Generally, the niceties and the small talk take five or 10 minutes, and the formal part of the ceremony begins. But time dragged on, and there were beads of perspiration on every brow. People were trying to guess the identity of the important person who had not yet arrived.
Then, at 8:20, second secretary Heba Allah-Ismail Fawzy rushed toward the dais and asked the man in charge of the sound system to turn on the fanfare. Netanyahu and his wife came into the garden area, surrounded by their bodyguards, and it was not quite as easy for guests to get close to them as it had been with Rivlin.
Dressed in a slim-fitting white gown with a diaphanous turquoise shawl, a wide gold belt, gold sandals and a Nefertiti necklace that was almost like a breastplate, Fawzy, who was the moderator, looked as though she had stepped out of a time machine that came from ancient Egypt. The eye makeup was also in keeping with the rest of the outfit.
■ KHAIRAT REFERRED to Egypt’s various revolutions, saying that the revolution of July 1952 was different from others in that it represented freedom, dignity, equality and democracy.
Egypt’s vision, he said, is to restore regional and international peace, especially between Israel and the Palestinians as two neighboring states living in peace and harmony. Egypt, as a leader in the Middle East, is looking for peace and stability in the region, said Khairat, and it is a goal of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this context, Khairat referred to the recent visit to Israel by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, saying that he hoped it would create a basis for constructive dialogue.
Egypt remains committed to peace with Israel, “but the peace would be warmer if we could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Khairat said, adding that it would have an overall impact on the Middle East.
■ RIVLIN IS the first to admit that he’s far from fluent in Arabic, but that doesn’t stop him from making his opening remarks in Arabic when hosted by diplomats whose native tongue is Arabic. He did so at two consecutive national day events hosted by Jordanian Ambassador Walid Obeidat, and he must have a practiced a little more over the last couple of months in order to be able to say a lot more in Arabic at the Egyptian reception.
Rivlin said that it was an honor for him to join in celebrating Egypt’s independence. He referred to Egypt as “Om El Donya,” Mother of the World, and offered the congratulations of all the citizens of Israel to Sisi and the Egyptian people. Switching to English, Rivlin said that human culture as we know it would not be the same without Egypt, whose greatness is not only in the past, but remains a leading and positive force in the region. While other countries in the region are torn by internal war and jihadi terrorism, Egypt stands out as a pillar of stability, said Rivlin, emphasizing that “now more than ever, Egypt’s leadership is indispensable in the Middle East.”
Rivlin also underscored the importance of standing together in the face of the threat of terrorism, saying that Israel stands shoulder to shoulder with Egypt in its fight against terrorism. “It is a struggle for the benefit of our entire region and for the benefit of humanity itself.” Rivlin noted that the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt has so far endured for 37 years, and that Egypt has been a strategic partner: in security, commerce and regional cooperation. “These past 37 years are the proof of the importance and benefits of peace,” he declared.
■ COMMENTING THAT Egypt and Israel both have ancient histories, Netanyahu said that both peoples had laid the most important foundations for civilization, and today, together with the rest of the world, are engaged in a constant struggle against those who are trying to destroy civilization. “Egypt and Israel have shown the world that peace is possible and sustainable,” he said. “We have remained in peace and we shall remain in peace. Our peace treaty is an anchor of stability in our region.”
Netanyahu voiced his appreciation to Sisi for his leadership and his efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the whole of the Middle East.
“We have so much that we can accomplish together,” he said. “We can work, and are working together, in agriculture, and we can work in water, in energy, in every field of human endeavor, to make the lives of our peoples and the lives of peoples in the Middle East as a whole better, more secure, richer.”
Netanyahu spoke in glowing terms of “a future of hope, a future of prosperity, and a future of peace.” He reiterated that Israel welcomes Sisi’s efforts to advance peace as well as the effort to incorporate other Arab states in this larger effort of a broader peace between all the peoples of the Middle East.
■ THERE WAS a good Israel Defense Forces representation at the ambassador’s residence, but Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was not on the guest list. There was some speculation that this was due to comments he made some years ago about Israel bombing the Aswan Dam, but Defense Ministry officials dismissed such suppositions.
Seen among the guests were opposition leader Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal, Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni, Deputy Minister for Regional Cooperation Ayoub Kara, who is one of the most frequently seen government representatives on the diplomatic social circuit, former government ministers Ephraim Sneh and Rabbi Michael Melchior, Netanyahu’s personal envoy attorney Yitzhak Molcho and several ambassadors.
These days it isn’t wise to say something negative in Hebrew in the presence of an ambassador.
Many of them have tackled the challenge of learning the language, and some are quiet fluent. Bulgarian Ambassador Mihaylov Dimitar speaks Hebrew with the fluency of a Sabra and almost sounds like one, and most of the conversations that he conducted at the Egyptian reception were in Hebrew.
■ AT LEAST one representative, if not more, from the Foreign Ministry’s protocol department is present at national day receptions hosted by foreign diplomats resident in Israel.
Chief of Protocol Meron Reuben was at the Egyptian Ambassador’s Residence, and so was Nitza Raz Silbiger, the director of the protocol department, who came with her husband, Zvika. Strangely none of the former Israel ambassadors to Egypt were in attendance.
A large section of the street outside the ambassador’s residence had been sealed off for security reasons, and anyone approaching from the corner that had been sealed off was not permitted to proceed further, but was directed by security personnel to go down one of the side streets, then turn at the next two corners to approach from the other side.
Raz Silbiger thought she was running late and prevailed upon the security men to let her through. She was carrying her Foreign Ministry ID, which ordinarily would have sufficed to let her pass through most security barriers, but this time she had to argue her way in.
Once the formalities were over, she and her husband wanted to leave because they had to pick up their daughter, who was visiting friends in Kfar Hayarok. However, because the prime minister was having a private tête-à-tête with the ambassador, the security people were tougher on the way out than on the way in.
Although their car was parked just across the road within the security zone, the Silbigers were not permitted to take that route and were told that they would have to walk to the end of the street and keep turning corners until they came from the other side.
The walk took nearly half an hour. The security barriers were still up, and Waze kept bringing them back to their starting point.
Eventually, they dispensed with Waze and found their own way out.
But when they reached the moshav where their daughter was staying, they discovered that the house numbers were helter-skelter and, contrary to customary practice, there weren’t odd numbers on one side of the street and even numbers on the other. They parked where they assumed they were at the address closest to their daughter and phoned her and asked her to come out into the street. It transpired that they had been a very long way from where they thought she would be.
Returning to Jerusalem, they were caught in traffic congestion because someone’s car had stalled on the highway. Seeking to escape the chaos and moving at a snail’s pace, they took the nearest turnoff and found themselves on the road to Beit Shemesh. The problem was that road works were in progress, and driving to Jerusalem on this route was a total nightmare.
Eventually, they reached the civilization of Jerusalem, where the roads were blissfully bare of traffic. By the time they actually got home, it was well past midnight.
■ BORN IN Israel, of Yemenite stock and raised in New York, Achinoam Nini, or Noa as she is known professionally, has the distinction of being the first Israeli to sing for a pope.
That was well over 20 years ago when she sang “Ave Maria” for pope John Paul II. More recently she sang for pope Benedict, and this week in Krakow, Poland, she sang for Pope Francis.
She is arguably the only Israeli who has sung for three popes.
■ ORDINARILY THE media reports the news, but in Israel the media also makes news. There was the failed effort to do away with the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom owned by American billionaire and Netanyahu patron Sheldon Adelson, and there is the ongoing saga of public broadcasting, in which category there are four main outlets: the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Army Radio, Educational Television and the yet-to-be-launched public broadcasting entity.
Army Radio changed direction from that of a messages-from-home facility to a proper, full-fledged radio station with news, current affairs, features, music and more. Many politicians accosted by Ilana Dayan when she was in the IDF assigned to Army Radio objected strongly to her questions, which were no less probing than they are now, as did various defense ministers and chiefs of staff, who wanted to close the station down. It’s still broadcasting.
Educational Television, which initially broadcast educational programs for children and youth, branched out to include adults with programs that are not exactly geared to children. This “radicalization” began in the first half of the 1980s during Operation Peace for Galilee with the introduction of current affairs talk shows. Some politicians thought that ETV was becoming too much like the IBA and that there was no need for both.
Attempts to eliminate ETV have thus far been unsuccessful.
But then along came Gilad Erdan, who thought that both ETV and IBA were superfluous and that what Israelis need is a new, streamlined, cost-effective public broadcasting service with far fewer staff and thereby fewer costs. During the period March 2013 to November 2014 in which he served as communications minister, and backed by Yair Lapid, who was then finance minister, Erdan established the Landes Committee which recommended the dismantling of the IBA and the setting up of another public broadcasting service in its place.
Erdan then appointed a special Knesset committee headed by Yesh Atid’s Karin Elharar, which after a number of stormy sessions more or less concurred with the recommendations of the Landes Committee, and the Knesset duly voted for the dissolution of the IBA. The vote was apparently so important to Erdan and Lapid that it was held while Operation Protective Edge was at its peak and IBA military reporters along with camera and sound crews were embedded with the troops.
The new law stipulated that the public broadcasting service be headquartered in Jerusalem.
The date of the demise of the IBA was to be March 31, 2015. Any professional could have foretold that there was no way that the replacement service would be ready by that time. An extension was requested and granted, and the new launch date also came and went. Another request for an extension was also granted, and still there was insufficient progress for a launch that was due to take place on October 1 of this year.
The Communications Ministry, headed by Netanyahu, reached an agreement for yet another postponement, initially for early 2018, but when Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon strenuously objected to such a long delay, he and Netanyahu reached agreement for a compromise date of May 1, 2017. However, if Ehud Koblentz, who was given the task of setting up the new broadcasting service, feels that it is ready before that date, he can ask for the launch date to be moved forward.
Koblentz, who originally proposed 2018 for the launch date, was howled down, but he knew why was asking for that date. He had not found suitable premises in Jerusalem and had eventually settled for a building under construction in the capital’s Givat Shaul industrial zone as the permanent home of the new public broadcasting venture. The target date for completion of the building is March 2018.
The repeated delays and an obvious improvement in IBA broadcasts caused some ministers to question the advisability of going ahead with what had been known as the Israel Broadcasting Corporation. Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis, who was briefly responsible for the IBA as minister- without-portfolio in the Communications Ministry, in an interview on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet on Monday, stated that public broadcasting should reflect all sectors of society, but so far this is not the case with the new public broadcasting entity. Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev had made a similar comment to journalists the previous day.
During his short tenure in the Communications Ministry, Akunis insisted that the word “Israel” be in the title of the new enterprise, but on Sunday, when it unveiled its new name and new logo, there was no sign of any patriotism.
The new call sign is “Kan,” meaning “here.” But here is not necessarily Jerusalem.
Koblentz and Kan chairman Gil Omer have been playing their cards close to their chests, and very few people know exactly what is going on, beyond the fact that 200 people, including some of the leading IBA radio broadcasters, have been recruited. No approaches have been made to the people at ETV, who do not know if and when they will be unemployed.
Meanwhile, coalition chairman MK David Bitan (Likud) is formulating a bill that calls for annulling the new enterprise and allowing the IBA to continue, with certain reforms.
Bitan points out that ever since Erdan set the wheels in motion, a lot of people have left the IBA, which means that budgetary expenses have been considerably reduced. Bitan is confident that he can persuade a Knesset majority to reverse the edict on the IBA.
Referring to the new enterprise Bitan said: “It’s not a public broadcasting service in the true sense of what a PBS should be. Everyone can see that. Everyone knows that.”
■ ONE OF the most painful things for Israel at the start of the Olympic Games every four years is the consistent refusal by the International Olympic Committee to have a moment of silence in memory of the Israeli athletes who were the victims of the Munich massacre in the 1972 Olympic Games.
Danny Danon, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, has had quite a number of firsts to his credit since taking up his position last year. Last week, before leading a group of 12 UN ambassadors to Israel, which is possibly another first, he added to the list of his accomplishments in advance of the Olympic Games set to open in Rio de Janeiro this week. Danon and his team at the Israel mission to the UN organized a memorial event honoring the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Black September during the Munich Olympics.
Danon was not the only speaker at the event, which was the first of its kind to be held at the UN. The other speaker was Michal Shahar, the daughter of slain Olympic shooting coach Kehat Shorr. “The evil and terrorism that killed my father and the other Israeli athletes have only increased since that terrible day 44 years ago. The UN, like the Olympics, represents the hope that the nations of the world will work together for a better future. I see the terrible attacks in Israel and around the world, like in Germany recently, and I hope that my words today will encourage all countries to put politics aside and unite against terrorism.”
In his own speech Danon said that the Olympic games should represent hope and peace and a world without war and hatred. This hope was shattered during the Munich Olympics, when terrorists infiltrated the Olympic village and struck at one of the world’s few sources of world unity – athletics. Danon also noted that “today we are lighting the torch that was extinguished in Munich: a torch of hope, which will shine brightly against those who incite to terrorism and violence. We will never let terrorism win.”
The memorial event included the screening of the Academy Award-winning film One Day in September, which was viewed by numerous ambassadors, senior UN officials and Jewish community leaders.
■ HOW THE winds of politics change. As Israel’s immediate past ambassador to the United States, the American-born and raised MK Michael Oren, is frequently interviewed on developments in the US presidential race.
Interviewed last Friday morning and asked about Hillary Clinton’s nomination acceptance speech, he pronounced it to be “strong and meaningful,” whereas earlier in the week he said that she had no message, no slogan.