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(photo credit: GPO)
After a gruelling week and a half of back-to-back meetings, gala events and travel from state to state and country to country in South America, President Shimon Peres is due to return home today, but he won't have much time in which to rest up. He has three more overseas trips lined up between now and the end of January.
THE PRESIDENT'S son-in-law and personal physician, Prof. Raphael Walden, who travels with him, will barely have time to shower and change after landing, before making his way to the Jaffa residence of French Ambassador Chritophe Bigot, to receive the Legion of Honor that will also be conferred on Dr. Yossi Beilin.
IN THE plane en route to Argentina from Brazil, Walden came across a copy of Buenos Aires Economico, which ran a front page and inside story on Peres's impending arrival and an advertisement for the Argentina edition of Newsweek which had made Peres its cover story and described how he had turned a largely ceremonial role into an influential political and diplomatic role and had become an international symbol of peace. Walden was so excited that he felt the need to share the information with everyone on board.
FOR ARGENTINIAN born Channel 1 cameraman Eduardo Gordin, working hand-in-glove with veteran broadcaster Dalia Mazor, returning to Argentina with the president of Israel was the emotional closing a circle. Gordin was carrying a group photograph taken some 20 years ago when Peres previously visited Argentina, and Gordin was head of the umbrella Zionist youth movement, in which capacity he had greeted him. Shortly afterward, Gordin came on aliya. Returning to Argentina and then going back to Israel with new immigrants from Argentina and Brazil who joined Peres's entourage simply gave more impetus to his own decision to build his future in Israel.
GOVERNMENT PRESS office cameraman Itamar Bouton had to go back to Israel almost as soon as he arrived in Brazil. The reason: His wife had given birth prematurely to a boy.
IT WAS a matter of coincidence that among the bilateral agreements signed with Brazil was a memorandum of understanding pertaining to coproduction of movies. External Relations Minister Celso Amorim, who signed on behalf of Brazil, told Peres that his son is working in cinema and is crazy about Israeli films.
BY COINCIDENCE, Madonna happened to be in Brazil at the same time as Peres, and both were in the country during an electrical power failure that plunged much of the country into darkness. The Brazilian media had a field day speculating over what Peres and Madonna were doing during the blackout.
WHEN HE arrived in Brazil, Peres was whisked off to an air force base where a huge honor guard decked out in white pants and blue jackets with elaborate gold and red trimming awaited him. After he walked the long stretch of tarmac to the reception area, the honor guard that included a 32-member brass band marched around the whole parameter of the tarmac, while the music of the band was punctuated every few minutes by a cannon fire salute.
PERES AND his entourage had been flown on a special air force plane supplied by President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva from Sao Paulo to the capital Brasilia. A smartly dressed air force cabin crew served breakfast on board, and apparently no one had filled them in on Jewish dietary laws. Dominating each tray was a plate of ham and cheese surrounded by pork sausages. There were several religiously observant people in the entourage, including at least two members of the president's security detail.
While it was true that most of the members of the entourage couldn't care less and ate whatever was put in front of them, there is such a thing as Jewish pride when representing the Jewish state. Whatever anyone does in private is his own business, but on a state visit, it would have been appropriate for everyone to have left the plate untouched. The Brazilians would shortly have gotten the message for next time. As it was, the mistake was not repeated.
THERE IS however a difference between Jewish pride and Israeli pride as was demonstrated at the Brazilian Congress, where local journalists kept talking and using their cellphones after Peres had already entered the hall. In fact his entry was entirely without fanfare.The official proceedings were introduced by the national anthems of Israel and Brazil, and the Israeli journalists in a spontaneous gesture sang "Hatikva" at the top of their voices.
THE ALVARADO Tulip hotel where the presidential party was staying in Brasilia does not have a microwave oven in the kitchen. Thus frozen kosher meals that were sent from Sao Paulo could not be properly heated. Kitchen staff put the packages in a double-boiler, but this barely succeeded in defrosting them.
According to Giora Becher, Israel's ambassador in Brazil, there is no kosher food in Brasilia, just kosher style.
AT LEAST two of the 15 journalists travelling with Peres came armed with instructions not only from their editors but also from their kids. Yediot Aharonot's Itamar Eichner was told by his son not to come home without a genuine Brazil national soccer team uniform and Ma'ariv's Arik Bender was ordered by his son to bring home a soccer ball with the autograph of Brazilian all-time soccer champion Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima. Bender also came home with the signature of Shimon Peres.
WHILE THE Israeli media did eventually feature quite a lot of material about the tour, for some journalists it was initially difficult on the home front to get news editors to evince any interest. However it was a different story in Argentina, where there was literally a media stampede to cover the Peres visit. There was tremendous print and television coverage before his arrival, and enormous crowds of video crews, photographers and reporters at events in which Peres was met by leading officials.
ALL THE Israeli journalists were frustrated by the four-hour time difference between Brazil and Israel which made getting material back to home base in time to make the deadlines more than a little difficult. The frustration was compounded by difficulties in getting Internet access, and in the case of this columnist an inability to comprehend technical information. When her laptop suddenly became inoperable, she went into panic mode. The hotel technician spent a fruitless half hour trying to solve the problem, but gave up because he couldn't understand English. Going into the hotel corridor, she listened intently for someone speaking Hebrew, and when she heard two men chatting in the holy tongue, she waylaid them and asked in desperation if they knew anything about computers. "That's what we're here for," replied a benignly smiling man who turned out to be Elbit president and CEO Yossi Ackerman who was accompanied by Yuval Chaplin, who in 10 seconds flat had the laptop up and running.
AMONG THE people on the Peres trip to South America was Dov Litvinoff, the Argentina-born head of the Tamar Dead Sea Regional Council, who was promoting both tourism and recognition. The Dead Sea is considered one of the seven modern wonders of the world, which makes it a good selling point. In addition, Litvinoff is putting out the word that in June, opera loving visitors to Israel will be able to see a production of Nabuko on Masada.
BEFORE LEAVING Brazil, Peres was given a tour of the coastline of Rio de Janeiro, courtesy of Rio Governor Sergio Cabral. The original plan had been to take Peres on a city tour, but traffic congestion was so dense that Cabral decided that travel by water was easier and gave Peres, his security detail, staff and journalists a wide-ranging perspective of Rio from the decks of the luxury yacht Spirit of Brazil. Peres was dressed for the occasion in a bright turquoise Lacoste shirt and dark glasses. And almost everyone on board wanted to pose with him for a souvenir photo. Peres, who is used to such requests, readily obliged. Even GPO photographer Moshe Milner who has been on countless trips with Peres, gave someone his camera so that he too could be photographed with the president.
Now if those photos were to be published, the least Lacoste could do, would be to give the government of Israel the equivalent of the highest fee ever paid to Bar Rafaeli with the money to be earmarked for building extensions and improvements at Beit Hanassi. After all, it's not every day that a company can boast that a president of the State of Israel and a Nobel Prize laureate is wearing its brand.
GUESTS AT a luncheon hosted by Cabral in honor of Peres included Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Pais, who was celebrating his 40th birthday and who is very well disposed to Israel. He has good reason to be. He is a graduate of the Foreign Ministry's Mashav program in public administration.
THE POPULARITY that Peres is enjoying in his role of president has not eluded the top brass of Brazil, who compared it to that of Brazilian President da Silva who is also enjoying vast popularity. Peres told the Brazilian Houses of Congress that he and da Silva had been reared in the same cradle of socialism. Jose Sarney, who was Brazil's 31st president and who currently serves as president of the Senate, is widely considered to be the country's leading statesman. It takes one to know one. In welcoming Peres to the Congress, Sarney called him "the world's leading statesman."