THE DIPLOMATIC community is changing, as ambassadors, charges d'affaires, consuls general, military attaches and people of lower rank are winding up their assignments in Israel to return home or to move on to another posting.
Joining the exodus is Japanese Ambassador Jun Yokota, but not before the official visit to Israel in July of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Also due to visit in July is Crown Prince Felipe of Spain.
Among the ambassadors currently completing their tours of duty are: Belgian Ambassador Jean-Miguel Veranneman de Watervliet, who is going to London; Brazilian Ambassador Sergio Eduardo Moreira Lima; and Portuguese Ambassador Pedro Nuno Bartolo, who is being posted to Brussels.
Bartolo and his wife, Gloria, decided to combine their farewell party with Portugal's National Day reception, at which the government representative was Minister Rafi Eitan, the head of the Gil Pensioners Party. It was Eitan's maiden appearance as a representative of the government at such an event, and he was a little nonplussed about what was expected of him. Foreign Ministry Chief of Protocol Yitzhak Eldan tried to steer him in the right direction, but Eitan still seemed unsure. Whereupon another guest suggested that he do his own thing, and reminded him of the Frank Sinatra song, I did It My Way. To which Eitan responded: "I've been doing it my way all my life."
And indeed he did. The usual protocol at such events is for the ambassador to bid everyone welcome; briefly outline the history behind the occasion; talk about the warm relations between his country and Israel on various levels; affirm his country's interest in peace in the Middle East and in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and, during the past year to commend Israel's disengagement from Gaza.
Bartolo more or less adhered to this agenda, also noting that Israel and Portugal will soon celebrate 30 years of diplomatic ties, but Eitan, true to character, did it his way. After reading the brief address prepared for him by the Foreign Ministry, Eitan turned to Bartolo and declared: "There is no doubt that, with the present situation, there is no other alternative than a two-state solution - and the sooner the better. We should start separating ourselves as Sharon did in Gaza. We should do the same in Judea and Samaria, and should make every effort to come to terms with anyone among the Palestinians."
Though guests were inclined to linger around the pool after the official proceedings, most were sufficiently considerate to leave before 10 p.m. so that their host could watch the World Cup match between Portugal and Angola.
THE FOLLOWING day, Australian Ambassador Tim George and members of the Australian Embassy, along with members of the Japanese Embassy - sans Yokota, who backed out at the last minute - gathered at Molly Bloom's Pub in Tel Aviv to watch the match between Australia and Japan. The get-together was arranged by Paul Israel, the director of the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce, who shouted himself hoarse as he cheered on the victorious Australian team which was losing - until Murray Smith, the deputy secretary-general of the Baha'i International Community, wandered in. Smith is a New Zealander, and therefore a natural ally to Australia. All the Aussies present regarded him as a good-luck charm.
IT'S CUSTOMARY at national day celebrations for the ambassador of the specific country and the representative of the government of Israel to toast one another's heads of state with either wine or champagne. However, at the Russian National Day festivities, hosted by Ambassador Gennady Tarasov and his sparkling wife, Elena, the toasts exchanged between Tarasov and Shimon Peres were washed down with something more authentic - pure Russian vodka. Tarasov, who began his address with a couple of sentences in Hebrew, said that he wasn't sure how to introduce Peres, who, in addition to being the Minister for the Development of the Galilee and the Negev, was also acting prime minister during Ehud Olmert's absence abroad.
Beginning his own address with "Dobry Vyecher [good evening]," Peres observed that he was acting prime minister, acting foreign minister, "but the most important thing is that I'm acting myself."
Then, in the style that is so typical of his oratory, Peres said: "People can say that Russia is right or Russia is wrong, but you can't say that Russia is small. Russia is great in its size of land, drama of history, height of leadership - and most of all, Russia has a king-sized heart."
In more serious vein, Peres reminded the 1,300 guests assembled in the ballroom of Tel Aviv's Dan Panorama Hotel that notwithstanding other considerations, "We Jewish people should not forget that Russia brought an end to Hitler, and was the first to recognize the emerging Jewish state."
Despite media predictions to the contrary, Peres was convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin would never do anything that would help Iran's nuclear ambitions, nor would he bow to terrorism. Tarasov, straining against the loud buzz of conversation from the crowd, which overwhelmed the volume of the microphone, said that Russia was a country with a long history and a unique legacy. Remarkable changes in recent years had resulted in Russia becoming an important member of the international community under Putin, he said, noting that Russia currently holds the rotating presidency of the G8 and in July will host its annual summit in St Petersburg.
The Middle East remains very high on Russia's agenda, said Tarasov, noting that in October Russia and Israel will celebrate the 15th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, which have grown to be warm, friendly and mutually beneficial with increasing economic ties.
A strong factor in the relationship between the two countries, he said, was the million-strong community of native Russian-speakers in Israel, who still have a bond with their country of origin.
The clink of vodka glasses was accompanied not by "L'haim" but by "Nazdrovye!"
Most government representatives coming to such events arrive late and leave almost immediately after the formalities are over. Peres came right at the start and stayed for nearly an hour afterwards, holding court at a table he shared with Tarasov and Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim. They were also joined briefly by former foreign minister Silvan Shalom.
What was strange was that although there was a wonderful string ensemble of eight Russian immigrant musicians playing for most of the evening, they did not play the anthems - scratched, tinny versions of which were broadcast through the sound system.
It's no easy task to feed 1,300 people in one fell swoop. The banqueting department of the Dan Panorama has got it down to a fine art, and cleverly positioned a large variety of buffet tables around the room to reduce the length of queues. It worked perfectly. Almost everyone was walking around with a plate in hand, and the lines at the buffet tables were minimal.
ON SUNDAY of last week, Tel Aviv University issued a press release reminding journalists that US Ambassador Richard Jones was due to address political science students and English Speaking Friends of TAU on the following Wednesday. But a day later, Miriam Ben-Haim, the coordinator of the program, was notified by the US Embassy that Jones would not be coming, because President Moshe Katsav had invited him to attend the dinner he was hosting in honor of Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Seze.
To say that Ben-Haim was disappointed would be the understatement of the year. It was the second time that Jones was scheduled to speak, and the second time that another commitment had precluded him from doing so. The Embassy sent along a replacement in the person of Helena Finn, the public affairs counsellor, for whom the topic of the address, "US Public Diplomacy for a New Era," was tailor-made. Finn did such an excellent job that the students did not want to let her go, with the result that the event continued beyond its usual time limit.
ALSO AT the state dinner for Seze was Shimon Peres, who, when he returned to his home in Tel Aviv, discovered that the elevator wasn't working. Undaunted, he walked up the 12 flights of stairs to his apartment and reportedly accomplished this feat with greater ease than his much younger body guards. By the following morning, the elevator was still out of order, so Peres, whose boundless energy and clarity of mind and memory continue to confound experts in geriatrics, walked down the same 12 flights and was none the worse for wear. The former Labor leader, who left the party following his defeat at the hands of Amir Peretz, was asked last week by Israel Radio's Arye Golan whether he was happy about the ructions that are shaking the foundations of the Labor Party. "No sad sight gladdens me," replied Peres.
FORMER CABINET minister Moshe Shahal, who is still a powerful influence within the Labor Party, was being interviewed on Israel Radio by political correspondent and anchor Ayala Hasson, when veteran news monitor Mickey Gurdus broke in to announce the death in an air strike outside of Baghdad of arch-terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
"Nothing is coincidental with you guys," the Iraqi-born Shahal quipped. "You had it all timed."
IS IT becoming trendy for immigrant business tycoons from Russia who are suspected of money laundering to seek the legal services of former justice ministers? The question is based on the fact that Vladimir Gussinsky, whose file was closed last week for lack of evidence, is represented by former justice minister David Liba'i, and Arkady Gaydamak, who is currently under investigation, and who, like Gussinsky, has relentlessly proclaimed his innocence, is now represented by former justice minister Dan Meridor. Coincidentally, Meridor is also a lifelong supporter of Jerusalem Betar, the soccer team owned by Gaydamak.
BROUGHT TO Israel last week by Aleh, a nonprofit organization that provides high-level medical and rehabilitative care to some 500 mentally and physically disabled youngsters and adults throughout Israel, Sheila Kurtzer, wife of former US ambassador Dan Kurtzer, caught up with a few friends and was at the closing dinner of the International Council of the Israel Museum, where she bumped into numerous people who had befriended her and her husband.
At the cocktail reception in the plaza, people kept coming over to embrace her. For anyone who missed out on a kiss or a hug, both the Kurtzers are due in Israel this week for a brief summer vacation. It's doubtful that they're going to have much time to themselves.
ALSO PLANNING to vacation in Israel this summer are former Czech ambassador Daniel Kumermann and his wife, Jarmila, who will not have an accommodation problem, other than to decide whose offer of hospitality to accept. Friends they left behind when they returned to their country are vying to have them stay in their homes.
PARKED FOR a considerable period outside Jerusalem's No. 9 Smolenskin Street last Wednesday evening was a large truck belonging to Shabtai Movers.
The truck had transferred some of the personal possessions of Aliza and Ehud Olmert from their regular abode in the capital's Kaf Tet B'November Street to the official residence of the prime minister.
Asked on the same evening, albeit at an altogether different venue, when they were moving in, Aliza Olmert replied: "Within the next week or two."
Meanwhile, Dvora Ganani, the Israel director of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews who sold her home in nearby Cremieux Street to the Olmerts, has already had a housewarming in her new home in Armon Hanatziv. Indications that the PM will be moving into his official residence very soon were substantiated on Tuesday of this week when Balfour and Smolenskin Streets were sealed off for eight hours to both pedestrian and motorized traffic to facilitate a security drill.
WHILE CHATTING at a diplomatic reception, Austrian Ambassador Kurt Hengl turned to Haifa-based public relations consultant Wadie Abunassar - who pops up at events all over the country - and commented that the football frenzy which has overtaken Europe is not quite as pronounced in Israel.
"Yes it is," contradicted Abunassar. "We have more flags flying in Arab villages than they have in Germany."
"I suppose they're mostly Iranian," teased Hengl.
"Actually," retorted Abunassar, "they're Brazilian."
TWO AMERICAN brothers from New York who are great lovers of the arts, have divided their philanthropic interests in this direction between the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum. Stanley Batkin, the older brother, supports the Tel Aviv Museum, where he currently has a photo exhibition of his portraits of Israeli artists.
Sanford Batkin was last week made an Honorary Fellow of the Israel Museum, and Stanley Batkin and his wife, Donna, were on hand to witness the ceremony. It should be noted that Stanley Batkin is 91 and Sandford 82.
Stanley still drives a car, and enjoys driving around Israel during his twice-a-year visits.
Also among the awardees of a Fellowship of the Israel Museum was Ralph Goldman, 92, who has been involved with the state of Israel since before its establishment; assisted the Hagannah in its purchases of arms; and organized prime minister David Ben-Gurion's first official visit to the US in 1951.
Goldman is synonymous with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, to which he devoted a major part of his life. His relationship with the Israel Museum spans more than half a century.
In 1956, when he and Teddy Kollek were both on the staff of the Prime Minister's Office putting together a plan for American aid for the fledgling state, the first item that they placed on the aid agenda was a national museum. America acquiesced and provided $833,000, which was the first contribution toward the construction of what is now the Israel Museum.
IT'S FAIRLY common knowledge that International Women's Day is in March, and no, Helena Glaser, the president of World WIZO, did not mix up her dates when she invited women from across the political spectrum, women from the worlds of business, law and culture and women engaged in all spheres of social welfare work to join her at a reception in Tel Aviv later this month.
It was an opportunity that could not be allowed to be missed. Glaser will be hosting two important women who together represent the leadership and the social welfare of their country.
Leonor Calderon, Panama's Minister for Social Development, and a former minister for women, youth, family and children will be accompanying Vivian Torrijos, the wife of the president of Panama. A professional publicist, Torrijos is also very active in her country's social welfare programs and directed several projects for the benefit of socially and economically disadvantaged sectors of the population.
In 2001, she founded the Joint Help for Development Agency. Glaser believes that women from a broad cross-section of Israeli society will want to share experiences with them and to learn about what is happening in Panama in parallel areas.
THE CABINET on June 4 approved the visit to Bulgaria by President Moshe Katsav, who spent just over two days there this week. However, some time before the approval date, Katsav's political adviser, Avi Granot, and Foreign Ministry Chief of Protocol Yitzhak Eldan, went to Bulgaria to make all the arrangements - traveling at the cost of the public purse. That could have been money down the drain if the government had not rubber-stamped the visit. Just another example of the chicken and the egg syndrome.
Katsav was also scheduled to visit the Czech Republic, but that visit has been postponed until October, and may be combined with a state visit to Romania - in which case Romanian Ambassador Valeria Stoica may have to delay the completion of her tour of duty, which is scheduled for September.
AFTER SPENDING most of his life documenting the development of the country as well as archaeological finds, veteran Jerusalem-born photographer David Harris, 77, whose many books include Photography is my Life, is returning to his first love, which is painting oil landscapes.
"I should have been a painter," he says. "But someone gave me a box camera for my bar-mitzva."
More than six decades and a lot of history later, Harris is putting the camera aside in favor of the brush and easel.