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CONGREGANTS AT Hazvi Yisrael synagogue in Jerusalem were surprised to see President Shimon Peres two days in a row. Peres attended first night Rosh Hashana services and was present for almost the entire period. He then showed up again on the first day, arriving late and leaving early. Although there had been some trepidation on the part of congregants on the security issue, mainly because they would not walk through an electronically operated metal detector on a holy day, their concerns were groundless. Peres was accompanied by bodyguards, but there were no metal detectors. During his trips abroad, Peres has generally been careful not to publicly desecrate the Sabbath or other holy days, but he has never made a secret of the fact that he is not religiously observant, nor apparently was he schooled in the procedures for prayer. Prior to Rosh Hashana, he did take some coaching from Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Kotel, but that did not make him sufficiently au fait with the prayer book. Peres sat between Rabbi Avigdor Burstein and congregation chairman Stuart Dove, who took turns in showing him the place. At one point during the service when prayers are read silently by worshipers and then publicly repeated by whoever is leading the service, Michael Wreschner, whose task it was, looked in the direction of the president to see if he was ready, but Peres was still reading. Wreschner, who comes from England and is therefore somewhat conscious of courtesy, waited in deference for Peres to catch up with the rest of the congregation. But Peres who is known to be a voracious reader, had become absorbed in the text, and was already focused on another part of the prayer book. Although he had trouble in following the service, when it came to opening the curtain of the ark, he proved himself to be totally adept, and unlike some of the regular congregants, did not fumble with the string, but got it right at the first attempt.
WHEN SHE met with Peres at Beit Hanassi on Saturday night and the two, after spending some two hours discussing the history of Israel and the prospects of peace, toasted the New Year, Madonna reportedly exclaimed that she could not believe that her dream had come true and that she was in Israel, celebrating with Peres, whose career she had been avidly following for some years. She might have been a little less enthusiastic had she known the mildly disparaging insinuation that he had made about her only a few days earlier. On the day prior to Rosh Hashana, Peres hosted the annual New Year reception for the diplomatic corps, and received the greetings of the diplomatic community from Henri Etoundi Essomba, the ambassador of Cameroon who is dean of the diplomatic corps. In response, Peres remarked that to receive a blessing from the ambassador of Cameroon was very special because it reminded him of his visit to Cameroon where he had been welcomed with newspaper headlines in Hebrew. Moreover, he had discovered that President Paul Biya was an expert in Kabbala and Jewish history "long before Madonna."
IN HIS address to the diplomats Peres also noted the gradual disappearance of prejudice with regard to color, race and gender and the welcome change in global attitudes. When he visited the United States more than 50 years ago, he said, the black and white issue looked irreconcilable. Yet today, America's literary taste is influenced by Oprah Winfrey and its foreign policy by Condoleezza Rice, while the economy in America today is full of people who originate from Asia.
THE SOUNDS of the bugle resonated from Beit Hanassi across the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Talbiyeh and Rehavia early this week, in the Israel Police Orchestra's warm-up session before the arrival of new ambassadors who traveled to the capital to present their credentials to the president. However, the baton was not that of Menashe Lev Ran, the orchestra's long-term conductor, but that of Mikhail Gurevich, who has previously stood in for Lev Ran when he was unable to be present.
However, on this occasion, it was not because Lev Ran was abroad, but because he retired last month. Gurevich has his own style, as evidenced by the impressive drum roll, but he is unlikely to fill Lev Ran's shoes. The word on the police grapevine is that they're looking for a new conductor from outside the force. However Maj. Oded Nahari who has been commanding the IDF honor guard at ceremonies at Beit Hanassi, the prime minister's compound and elsewhere for the past nine years, was still on hand to order soldiers to look ahead and not to even blink.
IN MAY, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was included in Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people. The word coming out of the Protocol Department of the Foreign Ministry is that in addition to being among the most influential people in the world, she's also the most internationally kissed foreign minister.
Ever since Livni took office following the last elections, there has been a glut of visiting foreign ministers and special envoys and according to the protocol people, when they meet Livni, they all kiss her - and she reciprocates. It's what might be termed close encounters in diplomacy. There was a little less kissing on Sunday when Livni hosted Muslim ambassadors and representatives of the Muslim community at an Iftar meal at the King David Hotel. During Ramadan, observant Muslims fast during the day and have an Iftar meal to mark the end of the fast.
THE HEBREW papers were quick this week to quote a New York Times interview with business mogul and philanthropist Lev Leviev, whose diverse, multinational business and philanthropic interests, access to the corridors of power and untainted reputation have brought him to international attention. Leviev is featured on an almost daily basis on the financial pages of the local media and in newspapers abroad, but what the media found particularly interesting about the interview he gave to the Times was at the tail end, when he was asked whether he would like to be prime minister. Initially he denied that he had any such aspirations, but three days later, he mused that he might enjoy the challenge when he turns 60.
His spokespeople were quick in trying to douse the fire of speculation that Leviev might have political ambitions, and said that he was only joking. But he'd already been quoted in the Times, which meant it was too late to retract.
MOST OF the local papers that ran extracts from the Leviev story neglected to mention that it had been written by Ze'ev Chafets, who after graduating from the University of Michigan, moved to Jerusalem in 1967, served in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and was appointed director of the Government Press Office when Menachem Begin came to power.
Chafets, a celebrated author, columnist and lecturer, who now lives in New York, was one of the founding editors of The Jerusalem Report, which subsequently became a sister publication of The Jerusalem Post and has remained part of The Jerusalem Post Group of publications.
WHILE ON the subject of The Jerusalem Report, its founding editor in chief Hirsh Goodman (currently a senior fellow at the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies) and his wife, New York Times journalist Isabel Kershner who was previously senior Middle East editor at the Report, enhanced their New Year festivities with the celebration of the bar mitzva of their son Gabriel. Understandably many of the guests were members of the fourth estate and/or academics engaged in strategic studies. Among them were former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, who is now senior fellow and director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in the Foreign Policy Studies program at the Brookings Institute, Jerusalem Post Editor in Chief David Horovitz, who had succeeded Goodman at the Report in the late 1990s, New York Times bureau chief Steven Erlanger, and various editors and writers whose bylines have appeared in the Report, among them Alvin Hoffman, Stuart Schoffman and Ronnie Hope. Also present were Dry Bones cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen, James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, and Nahman Shai, a journalist by profession and former IDF spokesman who is currently senior vice president and director of UJC Israel. Snyder had just returned from the US and Indyk was returning to the US that night. Several of the out-of-town guests, who had not previously been to a reception at the capital's Beit Shmuel, marveled at the spectacular panoramic view of the city from the banquet hall that straddles the seam of east and west Jerusalem.
THOSE PEOPLE who get upset with government ministers who persistently refer to the diplomatic corps as if it were the diplomatic corpse had further cause for complaint when Environment Minister Gideon Ezra showed up at the Guatemalan Independence Day reception in casual garb instead of a suit and tie. Ezra's excuse was that he had come straight from the airport, but his critics, noting that he has an official car and driver, could not understand why there was no change of clothing in the car. Though national day events are generally emotional for the ambassadors concerned, this one was even more so for Ambassador Moises Russ and his wife Bella, because it was also their farewell. Russ is so enamored with Israel that when he presented his credentials in September 2004, he kissed the Israeli flag and sang "Hatikva." Russ and his wife have been very involved not only in the activities of the diplomatic community, but in those of Israel's South American community as a whole. Many of their friends are betting that they will follow the example of former Colombian ambassador David de la Rosa and his wife Grace, who after completing their term of office, returned here to live. Russ congratulated representatives of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, which like Guatemala celebrate their independence on September 15. He said that he and his wife and been made very welcome here and had formed friendships that will last a lifetime. He was also happy that Israeli tourists have discovered Guatemala and have become his country's "best advertisers." In his concluding remarks in which he thanked his staff and others who had helped him along the way, Russ said: "Thanks to Israel for such a marvelous experience in every sense of the word."
Ezra said that he was sorry that Russ is leaving because he was so cooperative and had done so much to advance relations with Guatemala.
KOREAN AMBASSADOR Shin Kak-Soo is determined to upgrade people-to-people contacts in every possible field. He notes that last year 28,000 Koreans visited and predicts that the number will be around 40,000 this year because there were 22,000 Korean visitors in the first six months of 2007. In addition, there are some 500 Koreans studying here, mostly at the Hebrew University, Bezalel, Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute.
The ambassador is also expecting to see exchanges between the Technion and KAIST, its Korean counterpart. On the cultural level, Israelis have been exposed to Korean art, music and dance and next week will have the opportunity to see the Seoul Ballet Theater which is performing in Tel Aviv.
JERUSALEM BUSINESSMAN, real estate investor and restaurateur Amir Turgeman, who came to public attention through his torrid, much reported romance with then deputy agriculture minister Gila Gamliel, lost little time in finding a new love when their affair broke up two years ago. He squired Yarden Assif for several months before popping the question and then had a relatively long engagement by local standards before tying the knot a few days before Rosh Hashana. It wasn't just another stylish wedding, but a weekend of pleasure for the bride and groom and all their guests in an Eilat resort hotel. Though Gamliel, a former Likud MK, who captured many newspaper headlines, has more or less disappeared from the public eye, Turgeman is frequently mentioned in the gossip columns and on the financial pages.
FEMINISTS WHO are annoyed by the fact that so few streets here are named after women will be happy to know that someone from the Prime Minister's Office is on the case. Vered Pear Swid, a special projects adviser to the prime minister, has been in contact with the Union of Local Authorities and is gradually getting in touch with municipalities throughout the country to suggest that their street-naming committees give more consideration to those women who made important contributions while alive, but who were forgotten after they died.
The ULA was quite amenable to the idea, and its chairman Adi Eldar has endorsed Swid's effort by writing to mayors and telling them that fewer streets across the country are named after Golda Meir than after other prime ministers. Swid is hoping to attend street naming ceremonies that will immortalize the names of Ofra Haza, Yona Wallach, Shoshana Damari and Naomi Shemer and other lesser known women.
THE AMERICAN Friends of Tel Aviv University has circulated a letter asking whether the provision of quality education for economically disadvantaged Arab students can help towards the creation of an integrated and peaceful society. Martin and Lois Whitman of the US believe that it can and to back up that conviction have established a a $2.2 million endowment at Tel Aviv University which is earmarked for scholarships for needy Arab students. The first of these scholarships will be awarded in October. The Whitmans previously set up a similar program for African-American and Latino students in the US, and hope to replicate the positive results already visible there with this new initiative.