Diplomatically speaking

Israel's diplomats can find answers to their pressing questions in a new guidebook written by Yitzhak Eldan, chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry.

Yitzhak Eldan  248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yitzhak Eldan 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Chiefs of protocol in foreign ministries wear several hats. They are diplomats, social workers, policemen and lawyers, depending on the circumstances in which they have to rescue foreign diplomats from their own folly, from misunderstandings, from unpleasant brushes with the legal authorities, from charlatans, from domestic violence and from sheer ignorance. When a foreign diplomat is in any kind of trouble, the first person he or she is likely to call is the Foreign Ministry's chief of protocol or the director of its Protocol Department. Yitzhak Eldan, the chief of protocol, has more than once been woken at some ungodly hour by a desperate and often angry diplomat, and Nitza Raz-Silbiger, the director of the Protocol Department, can frequently be heard on the phone soothing ruffled feathers. Eldan and Raz-Silbiger are perfect foils for each other. While both are extremely good natured, his personality is volatile, while hers exudes calm. After a year or two in the job, Eldan began to realize the growing need here for a guide book on being a diplomat. There were just too many rules, regulations, prohibitions and privileges that had not been set down. Eldan was too busy to do something about it himself, but he wanted to be sure that whoever he assigned to the task would be fully conversant with diplomatic routine, how diplomats are treated in other countries, internationally accepted rules and those that apply specifically to this country. With this in mind, he turned to one of his predecessors, Mordechai Paltzur, now chairman of the board of the World Jewish Congress Research Institute. Both Eldan and Paltzur emphasize that the guide is a tool of reference, not a legal document, and that its purpose is to simplify the lives of members of the diplomatic community by answering some of the most frequently asked questions. It explains the workings of protocol, the functions of the various departments that deal with diplomats and official guests; recommendations about when to hold or not hold national day receptions; order of precedence - who sits or stands next to whom - at state events; accreditation to heads of diplomatic missions; rules applying to ambassadors-designate prior to their presentation of credentials; calls on dignitaries; termination of duty; the status of mission personnel dependent on their duties and whether they are foreign or local; and employment of family members. One of the reasons behind the guide, explains Eldan, is a widespread misunderstanding of diplomatic immunity. Many diplomats are under the erroneous impression that laws in the host country do not apply to them. While this is true on some levels, their immunity is not carte blanche. But even where immunity does exist, there are ways around it if it is being abused. Eldan cites the instance of an ambassador who beat his wife. He did it so often and with such force that she eventually complained to the police. Prevented from violating the ambassador's immunity, the police referred the matter to Eldan, who called in the ambassador, told him that the way he treated his wife was considered a crime here and threatened that if he persisted he would have no choice but to send a letter to the Foreign Ministry of the ambassador's home country stating that he was persona non grata and asking for his recall. WHEN PALTZUR started working at the Foreign Ministry in 1950, a friend presented him with a definition of diplomacy: "to say the nastiest things in the nicest way." "At that time diplomacy was still considered an art, but during the last 50-60 years it has become more of a craft," he says. "Diplomacy is part of daily life and everyone must be a diplomat. You have to compromise in daily life, and everyone who wants to progress must understand that." Eldan agrees. "The art of diplomacy is the capacity to be able to discuss and negotiate in a manner that will enable the two sides to work in harmony so that each will feel that the interests of his country have been taken into account." Israeli diplomats, he says, face far greater challenges than diplomats from most other countries, because they have to defend the very existence of their country. While the rest of the world deals with political, economic and cultural issues, they are constantly concerned with existential problems, security and peace. Eldan, who was born in Morocco, has been with the ministry since 1970 and has served in a number of overseas and local positions, most recently as ambassador to UNESCO and to the Council of Europe. He has been chief of protocol since December 2003. When his tenure concludes at the end of 2010, he will have been the longest serving chief of protocol in the ministry's history. "We have to be the bridge between the diplomats and the legal authorities. We have to be available 24 hours around the clock," he says. His responsibilities include the organization and coordination of official ceremonies relating to foreign dignitaries, including heads of state and prime ministers; advising government ministries and institutions on ceremonial matters; maintaining direct contact with heads of missions and diplomatic and consular staff as well as heads of international organizations operating in Israel, attending to their well-being and coordinating their special privileges and immunities; welcoming and briefing incoming ambassadors and accompanying them when they present their credentials to the president; overseeing the issuing by the Protocol Department of special licenses; resolving problems with customs authorities; accrediting ambassadors and military attaches; ensuring security provisions for diplomatic missions and the ambassador's residence; and coordinating government representation at national day and other important events hosted by the various embassies and consulates. THE PROTOCOL Department approves (or disapproves) the appointment of honorary consuls, the preparation of letters of accreditation for Israeli ambassadors posted abroad, briefings to Foreign Ministry employees on the ceremonial aspects of a diplomat's work, organizing meetings and tours around the country for foreign diplomats and assisting government institutions, municipalities and other bodies in organizing ceremonial events. When he took up his present role, it was clear to Eldan that the attitude and work of the Protocol Department had to be updated in relation to today's realities. It was necessary to examine all the procedures and to see if they were still applicable, he says. The last time any document had been published on the subject was some time in the 1980s - and then, unlike the new guide compiled by Paltzur, it comprised only a few pages. One of the changes in attitude applies to gay couples. Although there may have been diplomats with homosexual orientation, previous norms in any country did not allow for the openness that exists today. For instance, former Danish ambassador Anders Carsten Damsgaard made it very clear that he would not attend any function unless his significant other, Dr. Esban Karmark, was invited as well. When Damsgaard, the first openly homosexual ambassador to Israel, presented his credentials to president Moshe Katsav in February 2003, Karmark was also there and was treated with respect. There are also several homosexuals among Israeli diplomats, one of whom was caught in an embarrassing incident in a South American country a few years back. There are no rules that exclude homosexuals from the Foreign Service, but they are expected to be circumspect in their behavior. One of the changes made by Eldan was to introduce a rule that there would be no official airport welcome for visiting dignitaries who arrive on Shabbat. On other days of the week Eldan, Raz-Silbiger or another senior staff member of the Protocol Department will be at the airport to greet the visitor and to smooth his path. Heads of foreign missions have demonstrated understanding for the Foreign Ministry's position, knowing that contact will be made immediately after Shabbat is over. Meanwhile the ambassador of the visiting dignitary's country escorts him or her from the airport to the hotel. When Eldan was thinking about a guide book for foreign diplomats, he knew that it would involve tremendous research, which was one of the reasons that he turned to Paltzur. who has proven ability in the field. "Anyone working full time in the Foreign Ministry couldn't possibly find the time to do this," acknowledges Paltzur, who studied the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961; the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1963; the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations adopted by the General Assembly in February 1946; and the rules, regulations and procedures of 15 democratic countries, including treaties that they have with Israel. "The world has changed a lot since the conventions were adopted, but the conventions are still in force," says Paltzur, who notes that to change them requires a meeting of representatives of all the countries that were signatories to the conventions, after which all of the proposed changes have to be approved by the parliaments of each of those countries. The treaties have a lot of gray areas, he says, explaining that not everything is precisely defined, and because certain clauses in conventions either contravene laws of certain countries or are not included in the laws of certain countries. In researching the material for the guide, Paltzur also had to find solutions to problems that had no precedent or for which there were no specific regulations. Aside from that of gay diplomatic couples, there was also the marriage of foreign diplomats to Israelis or to citizens of other countries. Another was related to security. ELDAN IS very satisfied with the end result. "We sent it to chiefs of protocol in all the countries with which Israel has relations as well as to foreign ambassadors and consuls serving in Israel. It has everything. It's a user-friendly guide. It's a diplomatic bible without being a legal document, and if there's anything that a diplomat does not understand, we're always ready to help." Citing some of the changes that might be of little significance in regular society, but have important implications for diplomats, Paltzur says that in the past, if a diplomat wanted to meet a member of government, the meeting was arranged through the Protocol Department. Today, diplomats are free to arrange their meetings themselves, and may refer to the Protocol Department only if they require assistance in reaching the person they want to meet. In many countries the appointment of an ambassador designate is a secret process which remains so until the country to which the diplomat has been assigned, signifies its approval, and then coordinates a date on which both countries publish the appointment. One can tell how meaningful this is when an ambassador announces that his or tenure will soon come to an end but refuses to divulge the next appointment, even though he may be fully aware of who it is. In Israel, there's the invariable leak, and appointments are published before being ratified by the receiving country. In the past an ambassador could not function prior to the presentation of credentials. Sometimes ambassadors waited for more than a month without status before they could begin to operate. "Today we try to shorten the waiting period by having several ambassadors present credentials on the same day," says Eldan. "An ambassador designate can function as a full ambassador from the moment of arrival but cannot meet privately with the president or the speaker of the Knesset until credentials are presented. However, the ambassador designate can attend functions at Beit Hanassi or at the Knesset prior to the presentation of credentials." Security at the airport is tougher now than it was in Paltzur's time, but even then, many diplomats complained because security considerations often tend to override diplomatic immunity. "There's always tension between diplomats and security personnel at the airport," concedes Eldan. "Sometimes security ignores immunity and then we have to investigate and interfere." This happens mostly at Ben-Gurion Airport, but there have also been similar occurrences at other border crossings. In the guide, he writes in relation to immunity: "The term is in many cases misunderstood, not only by the general public and law enforcement personnel, but also by the diplomatic community itself." Quoting from the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Paltzur adds that privileges and immunities are not to benefit the individual, but to assure the efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions as representing states. Moreover the immunity belongs to the state that sent the diplomat and not to the individual diplomatic agent who acts a representative of his or her country. He recounts the story of a diplomat who was absolutely convinced that his immunity entitled him to exemptions from utility bills as well as rent. Although some countries own the premises which house the residence of the ambassador, most do not, and this particular diplomat who lived in rented premises just refused to pay anything. It took a long time to convince him that he should. The best way to resolve this kind of problem, advises Eldan, is to send the bills to the Foreign Ministry of such a person's country. Either the ministry will pay, or the diplomat will get rapped on the knuckles for unacceptable behavior. Without prejudice to privileges and immunities, he continues, it is the duty of anyone who enjoys them to respect the laws and regulations of the countries to which they have been sent. "They don't understand that traffic violations are not included in immunities and privileges," chimes in Eldan. "They think they are above the law - and this is not the case."