Grapevine: Partying with Putin

Notes on the lavish state dinner hosted by President Shimon Peres in honor of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Putin attends ceremony 370 (photo credit: POOL New / Reuters)
Russian President Putin attends ceremony 370
(photo credit: POOL New / Reuters)
There are state dinners and there are state dinners. The factors that influence their success are the speeches, the guests, the food and the entertainment – all of which are in some way related to the guest of honor. Among the guests at the state dinner hosted by President Shimon Peres in honor of Russian President Vladimir Putin were Russians and Israelis who did not always have a common language but managed to follow the speeches in Hebrew and Russian via simultaneous translations.
The food was tasty, but not necessarily the best that has ever been served at a state dinner.
The entertainment by members of the Gesher Theater ensemble, who sang in both Russian and Hebrew, was, as always, top-notch, but alas all too brief. Everyone assembled around tables in the garden of the President’s Residence joined in, including Putin himself during a rendition of Capitan, and everyone would have been happy to keep up the momentum.
Because there were so many people included in the guest list, spouses were generally excluded – with the exception of Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, who came with his wife Miri. Judy Shalom Nir Mozes was also there, but basically as a stand-in for her husband, Deputy Premier Silvan Shalom, who was unable to attend.
There was a relatively large representation of Russian Orthodox priests, as well as other religious figures, including Greek Patriarch Theophilus III, Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar, Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and his predecessor Yisrael Meir Lau, who is currently chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.
Among the ministers present were Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who probably saw more of Putin than anyone else did, from the moment of arrival till the moment of departure, Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, Interior Minister Eli Yishai with a bunch of his lackeys, Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz and MKs Fania Kirshenbaum, Roni Baron and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.
Other prominent guests included World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder and his Israeli representative Avi Balashnikov, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein, Russian Jewish Congress president Yury Kanner, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States Lev Leviev and his personal assistant, Shlomi Peles, Keren Hayesod world chairman Eliezer Sandberg, Limmud founder Chaim Chessler, chairman of the Steering Committee of the Presidential Conference Israel Maimon, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, Russia’s ambassador to Israel Sergey Yakovlev, Israel’s ambassador to Russia Dorit Golender, and editor-inchief of The Jerusalem Post, Steve Linde.
Although this was a working rather than a state visit, the subject of the dangers of nuclear Iran were repeated again and again. Also repeated several times both in Netanya and Jerusalem was the fact that without the defeat of the Nazis by the Red Army, there might not be a State of Israel. In this context, Putin reminded Peres that the Soviet Union had been among the foremost countries to support the creation of the State of Israel and to recognize it once it was established. When Peres spoke of more than a million former Soviet citizens forming a bridge between Israel and Russia, Putin replied that a door moves in two directions, and they could always come back to Russia and make a contribution there as others have already done.
This may have been in response to remarks made earlier in the day by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who also mentioned the human bridge between the two countries represented by Russian immigrants who have integrated into every walk of life in Israel. Netanyahu presented what could have easily been construed as an inyour= face list of achievers.
Although Putin is anything but humble, it was obviously meaningful to him that the Red Army, whose position in history seems to have been usurped by the Allied Forces of the West, was restored to its rightful place by Israel.
■ PERES AND Putin both made speeches when Putin arrived at the President’s Residence, and then went inside for a long working meeting. They were supposed to emerge in the garden at 8 p.m. so that their speeches there would lead the television news, but an electricity failure in the television sound system almost upset the apple cart. There was a 15-minute delay, but the sound was restored just in time to make the prime-time news.
In their private tête-à-tête, Peres emphasized the dangers posed not only to Israel but to the entire region if Syria is permitted to have chemical weapons, because at this stage no-one can predict the future of the Syrian leadership and the military. Peres warmed of a real danger that could erupt if nonconventional weapons from Syria reach the hands of terror organizations such as Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. “I turn to you with a request: please act with urgency to prevent this unacceptable situation,” he said to Putin. “Assad ceased to be an alternative the moment he shot at children. None of us can stand the sight of coffins with the bodies of children inside. It is beyond politics.”
■ ONE OF the most colorful figures at the dinner was bemedalled and beribboned Roman Yagil, who is a permanent fixture at events related to Russia, especially those that have anything to do with the Red Army. Yagil, who has been living in Israel for 55 years, is still as trim as he was when he was a soldier, first in the Red army, then the Polish Army and finally the Border Guard, and currently serves as president of the Red Army Veterans in Israel. He has met Putin on four separate occasions, he said, and on their third meeting asked Putin why Russia is selling arms to Syria that could be used against Israel. According to Yagil, Putin replied that Russia needs the money, but that Israel needn’t worry because “we would never turn on our brothers,” he said, alluding to the large number of Russians living in Israel. In Yagil’s view, Putin is the only world leader who can influence stability.
“He’s the only one who’s got the guts to do it,” he said.
■ AT THE end of the evening, Peres’s staff, after having gone through two hectic weeks with his trip to Washington followed by the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem and then the Putin visit, were ready to drop in their tracks, but the ever-energetic Peres invited them for a nightcap.
They can also anticipate accompanying him to Russia in the fall for the opening of the Museum of Tolerance in Moscow. Putin publicly issued the invitation to Peres, and judging by the importance that Israel attaches to its relations with Russia, it’s likely that Peres will go.
Meanwhile, tomorrow, Peres, who is a great advocate for equal opportunities for women, will have the pleasure of seeing two women among the graduates in the Israel Air Force pilot graduation ceremony. It’s been 17 years since Alice Miller successfully petitioned the High Court of Justice to be allowed to join the pilot course and was castigated by then-president Ezer Weizman, a former commander of the IAF, who told her to go home and knit socks.
Miller did not complete the course, but with the two women who are graduating tomorrow in the presence of Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen.
Benny Gantz and the new commander of the IAF Major General Amir Eshel, the total number of female graduates in the pilot course now stands at 29. The two women graduating tomorrow will be flight navigators, one in combat planes and the other in cargo planes.
■ NETANYAHU, WHO was supposed to speak at the closing plenary of the Presidential Conference, did not come and was replaced at the last minute by Liberman, who raised a laugh when he promised to live up to his reputation of not being politically correct. However, he surprised everyone, including Peres, with just how politically correct he was, even to the point of hoping that at next year’s Presidential Conference, which will open on June 18, 2013, there will be representatives from Egypt, Syria and Jordan, who will not discuss territorial issues, but issues of economics, education and science.
■ CONFERENCE PARTICIPANTS did not miss out on Netanyahu entirely. He addressed the conference via video and once again congratulated Peres for winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “You see,” he said, “people don’t know this, but now that Shimon has won the Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Peace Prize, there’s only one thing left: an Olympic Medal. And if anyone deserves to win the gold for tirelessly working to build peace, dreaming for peace, yearning for peace, Shimon definitely deserves the gold.”
Netanyahu explained the reason that he could not be with conference participants in person.
"Have you ever heard the expression ‘Break a leg?’” he asked. “I did. I’m definitely out of the competition for the Olympic Medal in soccer.” The broken leg, sustained a week earlier in a friendly Arab-Jewish soccer match in which Netanyahu participated, prevented Netanyahu from joining Putin in Netanya for the unveiling of the monument to the Red Army this week.
■ IN FACT, this past Monday could have been described as monumental in that while Putin was in Netanya, India’s Minister for Tourism, Subodh Kant Sahai, unveiled a bust of Rabindranath Tagore, India’s multi-talented artistic genius and master of poetry, prose, music and painting, at the Hebrew University, Mount Scopus.
Tagore, who was the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. He did not attend the awards ceremony but sent a telegram in which he wrote: “I beg to convey to the Swedish Academy my grateful appreciation of the breadth of understanding which has brought the distant near, and has made a stranger a brother.” In quoting the telegram, Prof. Ilan Sharon, vice dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the Hebrew University, commented that even though distance has become near, strangers have not yet become brothers.
■ BACK TO soccer. Jewish soccer fans who observe kashruth have been very appreciative of the opportunity to eat in Chabad houses across Poland and Ukraine. In fact, when someone asked at one of the sessions of the Presidential Conference what Chabad’s secret was in attracting so many people, several members of the audience declared in unison “free food.” But, of course, it’s much more than that. It’s a unique, warm, non-judgmental outreach program that touches the lives of millions of Jews around the world. This also proved to be the case at Chabad Rechavia, where, in company with Chabad communities around the world, congregants led by the dynamic Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg commemorated the 18th anniversary of the passing on the third of Tammuz of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Scheneerson, and celebrated his life and his teachings.
Immediately after the prayers, tables were instantly set up for women inside the building and for men on the patio, and somehow everyone, at some stage or another, was able to find a seat and something to eat and drink. As is generally the custom at a Chabad get-together, for which they use the Yiddish expression farbrengen, there were several bottles of vodka to add to the spirit of the occasion, to facilitate many a l’chaim – to life – and to get people in the mood for singing and dancing.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Groner, who heads the Chabad yeshiva in Kiryat Gat and who is the son of Rabbi Leibel Groner, who was for many years the chief secretary to the Rebbe, said that when the Rebbe first agreed to take on the leadership of Chabad, his house of prayer was roughly the size of the patio at Chabad Rechavia, and yet every Shabbat, some 800 people crowded into it. Despite the small area and the unbelievable congestion, there was somehow room for everyone, as there is in every Chabad congregation.
Groner noted that when the Rebbe first took up his position in January, 1951, life was not easy for people with beards in America. Beards and long hair did not really become socially accepted until the hippie era, he said. Nonetheless, the Rebbe sent out his bearded emissaries on an outreach mission that continues to this day. From a small group of people in New York, said Groner, Chabad became a world-wide movement.
Indeed, Chabad centers can be found in the most unlikely of places, such as Tokyo and Taipei.
A week prior to the anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing, members of the HaZvi Yisrael congregation Jerusalem went on a tour of Rachel’s Tomb, Kfar Etzion and Hebron.
Those who had not been there in a long time were amazed at the changes, particularly in the Shavei Hevron Yeshiva, located in Beit Romano, which in a sense could be described as the first Chabad House in the Holy Land, though it is now a Hesder yeshiva. In 1878, Chaim Yisrael Merikado Romano, a wealthy Turkish Jew, built a palatial home and guest house in Hebron, which was known as Beit Romano. In 1901 the great sage Rabbi Chaim Cheskia Medini, known as the Sde Chemed, arrived in Hebron and resided at Beit Romano, where he established a yeshiva.
At this stage, the Romano family had fallen on hard times and was interested in selling the premises. The Sde Chemed suggested to the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, Shalom Dov Ber Schneeron, that Chabad purchase the property. This was done and a group of highly intellectual dedicated students was sent to Hebron to infuse fresh blood and energy into the community. They were sent away during the Turkish Russian war, after which the Turks took over the building, which was later taken over by the British, then the Arabs, and after the 1967 Six Day War, Jews once again took possession of it.
In the interim it has been renovated and expanded and is about to undergo further expansion with the blessing of the government. Although Beit Romano is no longer a Chabad enclave, there is still a strong Chabad presence in Hebron and various facilities, including a community center with banquet hall, were provided by Australian mining millionaire Joseph Gutnick, who supports Chabad projects throughout Israel.
■ TOMORROW, ANOTHER great rabbi will be commemorated at the annual mega memorial conducted in Netivot by Rabbi Yaacov Israel Ifergen, otherwise known as “Rentgen” (X-ray), for his father, Rabbi Shalom Ifergen, who like the Lubavitcher rebbe, passed away 18 years ago. Tomorrow, all roads will lead to Netivot because so many business people and politicians depend on Rabbi Ifergen for guidance – and he has a reputation for seldom being wrong. His sister, Rabbanit Bruria Zvuluni, has a similar gift.
■ ALTHOUGH MANY people regarded him as a guru of sorts, in other circles Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an outspoken opponent of government policies regarding the territories, was persona non-grata. A brilliant philosopher, biochemist and neurophysiologist, Leibowitz sometimes couched his criticism in the most offensive of comparisons.
While even those who disagreed with him acknowledged his genius, two Jerusalem mayors, Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski, refused to name a street in Jerusalem in honor of Leibowitz, who died in August 1994 at age 91. It appears that current Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is not as rigid as his predecessors, as the city’s committee for memorials and the naming of streets has approved the naming of a street in the capital after Leibowitz. It has also approved the naming of part of an existing street in the southern part of the city after eminent historian Benzion Netanyahu, who was the father of the prime minister.
■ FAMOUS IN Israel and abroad long before his daughter Dafni took to the streets of Tel Aviv a year ago to lead the protest movement for social justice, Prof. Yinam Leef has been appointed president of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, succeeding Prof.
Ilan Schul, an internationally acclaimed clarinetist who also directs the academy’s Chamber Orchestra as well as The Jerusalem Strings Chamber Ensemble.
Prior to taking up his position as president of the academy nine years ago, Schul was for 13 years the principal clarinetist of the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, which is the house orchestra of the Israel Opera. He is also a conductor, and has conducted several of Israel’s leading orchestras. Prof.
Leef is a prize-winning Jerusalem-born composer who has twice been awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Composition as well as ACUM prizes.
He has been teaching at the academy since 1985. He is a graduate of the academy as well as of the University of Pennsylvania.
His compositions range from small solo pieces to full orchestral works, and he has a knack for combining different musical genres and East-West traditions in his creative output.
He serves at the academy as a professor of composition and as dean of the Faculty of Composition, Conducting and Music Education. He will take up his new appointment later this year.
■ NOT EVERONE is aware of TED, an international non-profit organization dedicated to ideas worth spreading. The main TEDx event was held on Monday in the Netherlands and also in several other countries in parallel in order to expose the Netherlands’ innovation and to encourage collaborations between Dutch companies and inventors and their counterparts around the world. Among the attendees at the event at the Academic College of Tel Aviv- Yaffo were Prof. Uzi de Haan, who started the Philips branch in Israel and now teaches entrepreneurship at the Technion, Israeli startup and world leader in innovative waste water treatment solutions Aqwise CEO Elad Frenkel, founder and director of the entrepreneurial center of Tel Aviv University, StarTau, Oren Simanian, CEO and chairman of the Trendlines Group Todd Dollinger, and Innovation Adviser of the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency in Israel Paul Jansen.
Also present was Dutch Ambassador Caspar Veldkamp, who discovered to his chagrin that he was the only person in attendance who was wearing a tie. Rather than ripping it off to hide his embarrassment, he deliberately drew attention to it by explaining that it was a limited edition Technion tie designed by Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Dan Shechtman and featuring the pattern of quasicrystals that helped to bring him worldwide recognition.
Veldkamp will be happy to know he’s in good company.
When Shechtman visited Prime Minister Netanyahu after the announcement of his win, he was wearing one of the Technion ties. Netanyahu admired it, whereupon Shechtman removed it from around his own neck and spontaneously gave it to the PM.
■ AN UNNAMED photographer presented Calacalist, the economic supplement of Yediot Aharonot, with a photograph of the controversial economics expert Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his wife, journalist Anne Sinclair, taken at Ben-Gurion Airport at the end of last week as they waited to board their plane.
According to the report accompanying the photograph, the couple spent the best part of a week in Israel.
They were previously in Israel last November, when it was rumored that Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, was going to take over from Stanley Fischer as governor of the Bank of Israel. Both Strauss- Kahn and Sinclair issued strong denials that they were planning to move to Israel.
Strauss-Kahn has been involved in a number of sex scandals and even if he had been interested in becoming governor of the Bank of Israel, in the event that Fischer would have been interested in vacating the post, it is doubtful after the Katsav scandal that the Israeli public would have permitted the appointment.
Fischer had applied earlier in the year for the position that had been vacated by Strauss-Kahn, but was rejected on the grounds that he was too old.
Calacalist also quoted French journalists Raphaelle Bacque and Ariane Chemin, who revealed that Strauss- Kahn had 10 years ago tried to seduce Valerie Trierweller, France’s current first lady. One can’t help wondering if there’s something in the air in France.
President Sarkozy was no innocent in this respect, nor is his successor, and the romantic liaisons of other French public figures turn Lady Chatterly’s Lover into less than a bedtime story.
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