Grapevine: Diplomats and diplomacy

For a change, Shimon Peres, Israel’s elder statesman and its ninth president, was not the oldest person in the room.

By
December 11, 2014 21:18
Shimon Peres

Shimon Peres speaks at JPost Diplomatic Conference. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

For a change, Shimon Peres, Israel’s elder statesman and its ninth president, was not the oldest person in the room.

At The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, that honor belonged to the paper’s most veteran employee, Alexander Zvielli – who at 93, still going strong and walking without a cane, is a couple of years older than Peres.

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And they weren’t the only nonagenarians in attendance. Lia van Leer, Israel’s grand lady of cinema, who happens to be 90, came early and stayed until the very end, absorbing every word that was said.

All three live up to Peres’s philosophy for staying young. “If you have more dreams than achievements, you are young,” he told Post Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde. “But if you have more achievements than dreams, you are old.” Peres continues to be a dreamer, and so presumably do Zvielli and van Leer.

Also in more or less the same age group and continuing to take an interest in things new is book publisher Murray Greenfield, who was also present.

It was interesting to see how various ambassadors reacted to what was being said throughout the morning. The most industrious was Swedish Ambassador Carl Magnus Nesser, who instantly translated from English to Swedish on his iPad; and used his iPhone to send emails and texts, and his digital camera to photograph what was happening on stage. Ethiopian Ambassador Halawe Yosef Mengistu, who preferred the old-fashioned method of writing by hand, was also industrious.

Some of the other ambassadors simply used their smartphones to record whatever they deemed necessary, and Ireland’s Eamon McKee was very keen to photograph President Reuven Rivlin. Some were seen at the breakfast reception and in the halls of Jerusalem’s David Citadel Hotel, including Kenyan Ambassador Augostino SK Njoroge, who is entering into an irrigation arrangement with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and NGOs from other countries; Nepali Ambassador Prahlad Kumar Prasai; Edminas Bagdonas, the new ambassador of Lithuania; Ivo Schwarz, the new ambassador of the Czech Republic, Australia’s Dave Sharma; Austria’s Franz Josef Kuglitsch; and Caspar Veldkamp of the Netherlands, among many others.

When Linde politely asked Peres: “How are you?” Peres elicited a laugh when he replied: “In good shape.” And indeed, for a 91-year-old, he certainly is.

■ DECEMBER COULD well be regarded as Asian month in Israel.

It started with the king’s birthday reception hosted by Thai Ambassador Jukr Boon-Long. Then, a few days later, Japanese Ambassador Shigeo Matsutomi hosted a reception in honor of the emperor’s birthday. Next came a Korean National Day reception hosted by recently arrived ambassador Lee Gun-Tae.

Coming up on December 23 is yet another Asian affair, this time a farewell party that will enable Chinese Ambassador Gao Yanping to say goodbye to the many friends she has made in Israel. On the same date, Kazakhstan’s new Ambassador Doulat Kuanyshev will host a National Day reception; Kazakhstan sits on the crossroads between Asia and Europe.

■ THE KOREAN National Day is actually in October, but as Lee explained, he wasn’t here to host it, so it was delayed.

It is customary for Korean women who are part of embassy staff or the wives of embassy staff to wear the traditional longsleeved, high-necked, empire-line hanbok, which is more in the nature of a caftan than a kimono. This time, every Korean woman present, including those who live in Jerusalem, wore a hanbok.

Lee drew parallels between Korea and Israel, noting that both were established in 1948 and face constant challenges. Despite security concerns and lack of natural resources, each country has a developed economy and mature democracy, he said.

Lee also highlighted the extensive bilateral cooperation between the two nations, commenting that almost every Israeli family uses a Korean product – be it a Korean Hyundai car or a Samsung smartphone or home electronic product. While Korea excels in constructing power plants, Israel is highly regarded in Korea for having a modern, creative economy, said Lee. The Jewish state’s hi-tech achievements are also greatly admired, he added.

On the security front, Lee noted that both Israel and Korea have struggled for decades in the pursuit of peace, and know how elusive it is and how difficult confidence-building with their interlocutors can be. Last year, he said, his predecessor, Kim Il Soo, announced that construction of South Korea’s new embassy in Herzliya had commenced.

Lee was happy to report that construction was well under way, and was optimistic that next year’s National Day reception would be held in the new premises.

Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, who represented the government, was in high spirits – and to his credit, stayed long after delivering his address. Generally speaking, the ministerial presence is a hit-and-run affair, and Shamir would not have been blamed had he followed suit – given the noise factor during his address. The acoustics in the Dan Hotel’s King David Hall magnify noise to an almost intolerable extent, and the buzz when Shamir started talking was almost deafening. “It will be short if it’s less noisy; otherwise I’ll speak forever,” he said, but might as well have saved his breath.

Both countries, said Shamir, are in complex geographic spaces, and because both lack natural resources, there is heightened investment in human resources.

Although diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Seoul were established in 1962, the relationship goes back to the Korean War, he said, citing the involvement of Abba Eban, then Israel’s representative to the UN, in the drafting of the UN resolution of principles aimed at bringing an end to the conflict. Israel also sent food and medical supplies to South Korea; today, the Jewish state is training Korean psychologists in treatment of those suffering from post-traumatic stress.

Relating to the tens of thousands of Korean Christian pilgrims who visit Israel each year, Shamir pointed out that Korea is the only Asian country with regularly scheduled flights to Tel Aviv. Currently, there are three flights per week.

■ JUST AS President Rivlin never misses an opportunity to bring Jerusalem into the conversation, he is equally gung-ho when it comes to soccer – especially if the visitor happens to be an ambassador who once played as a member of his country’s national team.

Thus it was with special warmth that he greeted South Sudan’s first ambassador to Israel Ruben Marial Benjamin, telling him he had once cherished the idea of being a soccer player himself. He wasn’t good enough, so he became president of the club. “If you can’t play, you become president,” said Rivlin.

In soccer, Rivlin continued, “Winning is the only important thing, but there are rules to the game and we have boundaries.”

The inference was clearly in relation to some of the dirty politics that will permeate the country until elections on March 17.

During his meeting with Nathaniel G.

Imperial, the new ambassador for the Philippines, Rivlin remarked on the rarity of receiving an ambassador who is also a poet, and how happy he was “to have a poet among us.” He also voiced the wish that Imperial’s works would be translated into Hebrew.

“I’m only a minor poet,” protested Imperial.

To which Rivlin shot back: “Among diplomats, you’re one of the greats.”

■ TRAGEDY AND misfortune often bring out the greatness of people. Many of the social welfare services that exist would not have come into being but for the fact that a family was deeply affected by a life-changing event or a premature death, and wanted to prevent others from similar suffering or to help those who had been stricken with the same illness or disabilities as their loved ones.

Examples include Keren Malki, in memory of teenager Malki Roth, who was killed in a terrorist attack and who in her short life was devoted to the care of a severely disabled sister; Zichron Menachem, which helps children with cancer and was founded by the parents of teenage cancer victim Menachem Ehrental; Meir Panim, an organization dispensing food to the poor that was founded by the parents of another deceased child, Meir Zilberschlag; the Koby Mandell Foundation, dedicated to helping bereaved families heal from terror and other tragedies, established by the family of the 13-year-old murdered by terrorists; and Shalva, the association for mentally and physically challenged children established by Kalman and Malki Samuels, based on their own challenges of raising a special- needs son.

Indeed, when the Samuels’s 11-monthold son Yossi was inoculated with a faulty vaccine in 1977, he was transformed from a perfectly healthy, happy child to one who was blind, deaf and hyperactive. Difficult though it was to raise him at home, his parents refused to have him institutionalized.

For eight years, Yossi lived in his own impenetrable world, until Shoshana Weinstock began finger-spelling on his hand.

The upshot was that Yossi Samuels became an Israeli, male version of Helen Keller, and in a sense has achieved more than she did.

The initial success with Yossi inspired his parents to give hope to other severely challenged children and their families, and so Shalva – which combines professionalism with loving care – got off the ground.

One of Shalva’s units is called Beit Nachshon, in memory of Nachshon Wachsman, a 19-year-old soldier in the Golani Brigade who was kidnapped and killed by terrorists in 1994. Nachshon was very attached to his younger brother, Raphael, who has Down syndrome and often accompanied him to Shalva for therapy. It was only natural, after Nachshon’s tragic death, to perpetuate his memory there.

The Wachsman family tragedy also brought to light the amazing oratory and writing talent of Nachshon’s American-born mother, Esther, who moved not only Israelis but UN delegates and people in many parts of the world. Esther Wachsman, who is also the daughter of Holocaust survivors and has therefore experienced both firstand second-hand tragedy, was among the speakers this week at the annual gala Shalva fund-raiser at The Avenue in Airport City, and was as eloquent as ever.

Another eloquent speaker was First Lady Nechama Rivlin, who attended together with her husband. The Rivlins have long been associated with Shalva, and Nechama Rivlin has taken on the portfolio vis-à-vis children at the President’s Residence, having already hosted several groups of youngsters. On this occasion, she spoke movingly of special-needs children, and the importance of providing the tools for them to reach their full potential.

The event was moderated by Channel 10 weatherman Danny Roup; the catering was by celebrity chef Meir Adoni; and the entertainment was by Shlomi Shabat and the Shalva choir. Among the guests was Gilad Schalit, the soldier kidnapped by Hamas and released after five years. Schalit has become one Shalva’s supporters, reading to the children and playing with them, also running on Shalva’s behalf in the Jerusalem Marathon.

■ WHERE GREATNESS in the face of tragedy is best-demonstrated in Israel is in the Paralympic achievements of Israeli athletes, whose wide range of physical disabilities have simply posed challenges to overcome.

Members of Israeli Paralympic teams have come home with gold, silver and bronze medals.

One of the best-known gold medalists is Noam Gershoni, a former helicopter pilot in the Israel Air Force. Now a wheelchair tennis champion, he began playing tennis only 18 months before the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. Another is Zipora Rubin-Rosenbaum, who competed in athletics, swimming and table tennis, winning a total of 21 medals from 1964 to 1988, including 11 gold, four silver and six bronze. Swimmer Keren Leibovitch, who suffered serious back and leg injuries as a result of an accident while serving in an IDF officers training course in 1992, has also done well and has so far won four gold, two silver and one bronze; she has set world records and also distinguished herself at European championships.

Among the athletes with disabilities who have brought pride and glory to Israel are injured IDF veterans, victims of terrorism victims of accidents and those born with disabilities.

Rivlin met some of them Tuesday morning, when he attended the first day of recognition for injured IDF veterans and victims of terrorist attacks, held at Tel Aviv’s Beit Halochem. The event is intended to be an annual feature on the national calendar.

Rivlin toured the center, was briefed on activities and rehabilitation programs, and watched a game of wheelchair basketball and a performance by a wheelchair dance troupe of disabled veterans. “If I had been chosen to serve as president of Israel for the sole purpose of being here today, then for me, it would have sufficed,” he told them.

“When the clouds of smoke have dispersed and the bloodstains washed from the streets, so begins your journey. This is the battle after the war, the battle after the terrorism; a battle not limited to time and place, and with no medals or awards; a battle you fight with an injured body and often, with an aching soul; a battle to breathe, to get up, to stand, to eat unassisted, to speak, to read and to write, to do up laces and buttons, to hold a cup without it falling, to hold a child in your arms, to sleep one night in peace and tranquility, free from nightmares and pain. This is a war of independence. This is your war.”

Demonstrating an acute sensitivity for what most of his audience had experienced, Rivlin continued: “Heroism, as our sages taught us, is found specifically in the ongoing daily struggle, facing moments of despair and difficulty with patience. This heroism is demanded of you each day. Each day, you need to conquer afresh that which was already yours.

“But you do not stand alone. Israeli society needs to learn from you not only what it means to be a hero, but also – and perhaps more important – what it means to cope, constantly and persistently, with challenges and obstacles. In the heat of the moment, we know how to be creative, to be surprising, and to reinvent ourselves.

But we do not always know how to deal with a process, to deal with long-term challenges.

We don’t always know how to navigate the winding road, when each step is slow, measured and cautious.”

Also present at the ceremony were IDF Disabled Veterans Organization chairman Haim Bar; Victims of Terrorism chairman Yehoshua Cohen; Friends of the IDF Disabled Veterans Organization chairman Maj.- Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant; and Prime Minister’s Office director-general Harel Locker.

greerfc@gmail.com


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