MAJOR CHANGES are taking place in Israel's diplomatic community. A large number of heads of mission are in the process of completing their periods of tenure, while others have already wound up their affairs and returned to their home countries.
This would explain why the traditional Israel Independence Day reception hosted by President Moshe Katsav for the diplomatic community and heads of churches was top heavy with charges d'affaires, honorary consuls and military attaches. The latter are always invited anyway, but on this occasion they seemed to dominate. Receiving the guests with the president and his wife, Gila, were Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Shimon Peres, who was still in the position of acting Knesset Speaker.
The long line of guests extended from the gardens at the entrance to the building through the whole length of the reception hall. First in line to offer congratulations was Diplomatic Corps Dean Henri Etoundi Essomba, the Ambassador of Cameroon, who has been in Israel since October, 1998 - a far longer period than is usually served by an ambassador. On average, ambassadors are posted for periods of two to three years.
Next was Papal Nuncio Antonio Franco, the successor to Pietro Sambi, the extremely popular Apostolic Delegate to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Franco, who arrived in Israel only a month ago, was delighted to be celebrating Independence Day with the Israelis. Then came the Egyptian ambassador and the Jordanian charge d'affaires, followed by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos, who has been ousted and replaced by the synod, but who is still recognized by Israel.
Some people are "more equal" than others, and each time another church leader entered, whoever was next in the regular line had to wait until he had greeted the president and other dignitaries. Inter alia, there were representatives from the Bahai movement, the Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Armenian, Ethiopian, Anglican, Scottish and Lutheran churches.
Most people murmured the usual perfunctory greetings, but Norwegian Ambassador Jakken Biorn Lian had a lot to say to Livni, while Russian ambassador Gennady Tarasov, who brought greetings from Russian President Vladimir Putin, heard from Katsav that the two presidents had spoken by phone, and that Putin had personally offered congratulations.
Non-resident ambassadors Le Tien Ba of Vietnam, who is headquartered in Cairo, and Marina Kaljurand of Estonia, who - because she is also the legal adviser to her country's foreign ministry - is headquartered in Tallin, made a special effort to come to Israel for the occasion. In Kaljurand's case, it was also a farewell visit, as she is completing her term.
AMONG THE guests mingling on the lawn at Beit Hanassi was Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was on his maiden visit to Israel as part of a Middle East tour. Prior to coming to Israel, Daley was in Jordan. His main purpose in visiting Israel was to meet with his Petah Tikva counterpart, Yitzhak Ohayon, because Chicago and Petah Tikva are twin cities.
He also met with Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski to discuss matters such as housing, jobs, economic development, safety and water conservation, issues common to all municipalities, and with Kiryat Gat Mayor Aviram Dahan, who introduced him to members of the town's Ethiopian community.
In Petah Tikva, Daley met not only with the mayor, but with Kellogg-Recanati alumni with whom he discussed business opportunities and possible joint ventures between Chicago and leading Israeli companies.
Accompanying Daley was a group of influential Chicago business leaders, who, in addition to wanting to learn first hand about Israel's economic structure, were keen to celebrate Israel Independence Day in Jerusalem.
The business delegation was also interested in helping Israeli start-up companies with good potential to become multinational players.
Daley, who came with his wife and daughter, admitted to The Jerusalem Post that he had never expected to see so much greenery in the hills of Jerusalem.
He said that he was also very impressed with the architecture and the remarkable manner in which the historic beauty of the city had been preserved with the use of Jerusalem stone on building facades.
The visit to Israel, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and Israel's Foreign Ministry, included an intensive tour of Yad Vashem's Holocaust History Museum in which Daley drew a parallel with current events.
"This is not really a museum, it's life," he said. "Even today, we've never learned the lesson because you have a president in Iran seeking to eliminate the Jews of the world. The rest of the world should be outraged by that statement alone," he added, noting that similar statements made in the 1930s and '40s did not resonate in the right quarters.
IT HAS become par for the course in several countries around the world to allow people to continue working for as long as they are able - and indeed The Jerusalem Post is a good example, with archival columnist Alexander Zvielli, 85, who still comes to work daily, and art editor, feature writer, book reviewer and cartoonist Meir Ronnen, who will celebrate his 80th birthday in December.
But Zvielli and Ronnen are simply continuing something that they've been doing for years, whereas government ministers Yaacov Ben Yizri, who turned 79 on January 1, and Rafi Eitan, who will be 80 in November, did not exactly envisage starting new careers at this period in their respective lives. What is even more amazing is that Ben Yizri, the eldest of 13 siblings, has a living mother who is 96.
IT DOESN'T matter what one has done in life or with whom one has rubbed shoulders, there's always something that has remained elusive. In the case of Eitan, it was an Independence Day invitation to the military ceremonies at Beit Hanassi. Eitan, initially walking around with the same sense of wonder as a child in a toy store, was very pleased to meet up with veteran commanders of the War of Independence and the Sinai Campaign. He was a lot more blas about the first meeting of the new government, explaining that in his capacity as an adviser to both Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, he had attended many cabinet meetings, so it was no big deal.
For the military ceremonies at Beit Hanassi, the president's aide-de-camp, Brigadier General Shimon Hefetz, had put up a photographic exhibition of the Sinai Campaign, the 50th anniversary of which will be marked in Latrun in October. Veterans and heroes of that war, some with relatives in tow, stood around the exhibition, reminiscing.
The exhibition included a large map of the Sinai, which enabled decorated hero Uzi Ben Tsur, accompanied by his granddaughter who is filming a documentary of his life, to show her the route of his wartime exploits.
THE NEW government ministers were sworn in in alphabetical order, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert first in line, because his name starts with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. But the ceremony did not start quite as smoothly as it should have. The souvenir pen which Olmert received from Knesset secretary Arye Hahan with which to sign his declaration of allegiance wouldn't write. Hahan handed him a second pen, which proved to be equally useless - as was the third. In the end, Olmert, who happens to be a collector of pens, decided to use his own.
Later in the evening, when members of the government came to Beit Hanassi to pose for the traditional photo with President Moshe Katsav, Olmert was asked by The Jerusalem Post when he anticipated moving into Smolenskin Street. Olmert looked momentarily nonplussed. Even though he's been inside the Prime Minister's official residence many times, in his mind - as in that of most people - it's on the somewhat grander Balfour Street. In actual fact, the front gate is on Smolenskin. Olmert replied that he didn't know exactly when he would be relocating, and would have to check it out. "But it will be soon," he said.
When that happens, no doubt his neighbors on Kaf Tet B'November Street will be delighted to regain their freedom of movement.
WHEN HE was a minister, Natan Sharansky, aware that some people made fun of him because of his below-average height, occasionally stood on a chair behind a speaker's podium so that his audience could see him.
The new government has two members who are approximately the same height as Sharansky: Eitan Cabel, the minister responsible for the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and Yitzhak Cohen, the minister responsible for the religious councils.
What many people may not be aware of, however, is that Defense Minister Amir Peretz is also below-average height and wears built-up shoes, as a result of a severe injury that he suffered when in the army.
Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, though also below-average height, was yet another proof that height and stature don't necessarily mean the same thing.
OLD HABITS die hard. Ronnie Bar-On, the new Minister of the Interior, who has been an MK for only three years but was a long-time Likud activist before joining Kadima, was speaking at the first meeting of the coalition government and listing its composition starting with... you guessed it - Likud. The first to catch the Freudian slip was the prime minister, who, with a good-natured grin on his face, put an admonishing hand on Bar-On's arm. Bar-On looked for a moment as if he had swallowed a tennis ball. Everyone was convulsed with laughter and Bar-On, after recovering from his embarrassment, joined in. In case anyone hasn't noticed, Bar-On is looking much sleeker these days than he used to. That's because he's shed 20 kilos. The secret? Acupuncture.
FOR THE information of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who may have angered the Russian-speaking community when he failed to give Marina Solodkin a ministerial portfolio, he might care to find something to compensate her at the end of the month when she celebrates her 54th birthday. Defense Minister Amir Peretz should also be aware that Matan Vilnai, one of the generals who challenged his authority to decide on the list of Labor ministers in the government, will celebrate his 62nd birthday on May 20.
IN THE days when David Levy and Meir Porush were in the government, they held the record for the largest number of children - 12 each. The statistic is slightly lower in the current government, with Yitzhak Cohen, the father of 10, having the largest brood.
MEMBERS OF the Argentinean community in Israel can barely control their excitement at the projected arrival of famed tango exponents Elina Roldan and Ramiro Gigliotti, who will be performing on stage and in master classes from May 18-25, culminating on Argentine Independence Day. While all Latin American dances are spirited and sexy, none of them can compare in drama with the tango.
THIS IS a busy period for Austrian Ambassador Kurt Hengl. The year began with Austria taking over the rotating presidency of the European Union; there were also worldwide celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart. Now, this week, Hengl is attending events marking the anniversaries of the birth of two prominent Viennese Jews, Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl, who, though born in Budapest, lived in Vienna from the age of 18 until his death in July, 1904 at age 44; and Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who was born in May, 1856, and died in England in 1939.
NOT THAT Sammy Ofer would have found himself short of a dollar or two to pay $40.3 million for Vincent van Gogh's portrait of Madame Ginoux at Christie's auction in New York last week had he not withdrawn his $20 million dollar gift to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art - because of all the bickering about whether or not to allow the museum to be named after him and his and wife. But veteran donors to the museum who blocked the renaming made it easier for Ofer to shell out, and thus add the van Gogh to his personal collection.
THEY MAY be on opposite sides of the political divide, but Meretz-Yahad leader Yossi Beilin and Likud MK and former government minister Limor Livnat have a lot in common. As youngsters they both belonged to Menachem Golan's Tillon Children's Theater, and Livnat went on tour all over the country playing in Lassie Come Home.
IT'S NOT only your sins that come to haunt you, it's also your exceptionally good deeds. A couple of years back, Katie Edelstein, who was then president of Hadassah's Pacific Northwest region, heard at a Hadassah national board meeting that fellow national board member Belle Simon, who was on dialysis, was desperately in need of a kidney. Edelstein figured that she could do fine on one kidney, and donated the other. Both she and Simon are now happy and healthy, but ever since, wherever Edelstein goes, despite anything else she says or does, she is introduced as the woman who gave away her kidney.
The same thing happened last Friday night in Jerusalem at a Hadassah Renaissance 24 dinner, which included several people who had not been part of the Renaissance mission to Israel. Everyone was asked to get up and introduce themselves, and although Edelstein made no mention of the kidney, Marlene Post, the president of Hadassah International, spoke of it in detail, stating that though Simon was one of her best friends, she couldn't help her because she had passed the age of 65, and could therefore not be a donor. People looking at Post had difficulty believing the detail about her age because her face is so smooth and unlined.
What was interesting about many of those who introduced themselves was that they prefaced their remarks by stating that their mothers, mothers-in-law, wives and daughters were all life members of Hadassah. One woman claimed to be a fifth generation member of Hadassah, but she was not the only one. Beth Spack, Hadassah's Jerusalem-based head of missions and special projects, is also a fifth generation member and said that her earliest memories from home were of stuffing Hadassah invitations and literature into envelopes.