With the possible exception of Swedish Ambassador Robert Rydberg, it is doubtful that any resident non-Jewish diplomat is more overtly pro-Israel than Austrian Ambassador Kurt Hengl, who combined his country's national-day celebrations at the Austrian residence in Herzliya Pituah with those marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Austria and Israel.
More than that, during the playing of the anthems of both countries, he sang "Hatikva," then spoke of sharing Israel's grief over "murdered civilians" and soldiers who fell in battle during the Second War in Lebanon, expressing hope for the return of the three kidnapped Israeli soldiers.
He also spoke of Austria's role in the Holocaust, which he described as "the darkest period in Austrian history," and mentioned that along with milestone celebrations over the past year of the anniversaries of the births of two of Austria's great sons - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born 250 years ago and Sigmund Freud born 150 years ago - Hengl and his wife Jacqueline, who are on their third tour of duty in Israel, were celebrating the 35th anniversary of their arrival in the country.
A number of events related to the 50th anniversary of bilateral links have been held, and more are in the planning stage, most importantly an international symposium at the Hebrew University on December 3 under the patronage of the Israeli and Austrian foreign ministers - Tsipi Livni and Ursula Plassnik. Environment Minister Gideon Ezra, who represented the government, announced that he had come with a prepared speech but decided not to read it because the history of Austria and Israel, with its ups and downs, was known to everyone.
"We've reached a point where relations are very good," he said, commenting on the high-level visits of Austrians to Israel and vice versa.
Someone mentioned to Hengl afterwards that he really deserved a medal for what he had done to bring the two countries closer, to which Hengl quipped: "In Israel they only give medals to soldiers."
MEANWHILE IN Tel Aviv, Russian Ambassador Gennady Tarasov and his wife Elena held a reception at the Sheraton Hotel, which is directly across the road from the Russian Embassy, to mark the 15th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Russia and Israel.
Unlike the Austrian festivities, which included a large representation of the diplomatic corps, this one had few diplomats. Diplomatic invitees were primarily from countries of the former Soviet Union. Given the overwhelming presence of native Russian speakers, it was more a celebration for those who had moved from the Motherland to their spiritual homeland. As usual, veterans of the Red Army came, chests decorated with ribbons and medals. Tarasov chose to speak in Russian rather than English, and recalled that Russia (or rather the Soviet Union) had voted in favor of the UN resolution for the partition of Palestine in November 1947, thus paving the way for the creation of the State of Israel, and had been among the first countries to forge diplomatic ties with Israel.
Among the non-Russians present were Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who noted the good relations between the two countries during his term as prime minister, Ramat Gan Mayor Zvi Bar and Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni who pointedly remarked on the importance of focusing on the future rather than the past, especially since the future is fraught with the Iranian threat. Several Israeli political figures attended, but the one who aroused the most attention was Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who, though he comes from Moldova, is widely regarded by Israel's Russian community as one of their own.
IF HE charged for every time he agreed to pose for a photograph with someone, Vice Premier Shimon Peres would make a fortune. Peres, invariably the most popular guest at Republic Day receptions hosted by Turkish Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioglu, was not the representative of the government. That honor was given to Rafi Eitan, the minister responsible for the welfare of pensioners, but a well-photographed Peres was also asked to speak.
For Sinirlioglu and his wife Ayse, the occasion was also a farewell after a four-and-a-half year tour of duty scheduled to conclude in early December. Quoting from the address to the Knesset last June by Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Sinirlioglu said that having lived side-by-side in friendship and harmony throughout the centuries, Turks and Jews set an outstanding example of living in peace together.
Noting that it was the 83rd anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey, Peres asked: "How do I know that the Turkish Revolution of 1928 was a success?" Answering his own question he continued: "That was the year that I was born, and since I feel so well, I feel like a Turkish delight."
Peres lauded Turkey for showing the Muslim world that there is no contradiction between modernity and Islam.
National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer wandered in toward the end of the evening, following a stormy Labor Party meeting, and promptly sat down with a plate of food alongside Eitan. Also present was Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz, whose popularity seems to have been restored, if the number of people who pushed forward to shake his hand was any indication.
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