Viva Mexico!

Israeli President Shimon Peres made an official visit to Mexico.

Peres and Carlos Slim Mexico 370 (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Peres and Carlos Slim Mexico 370
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Mexico's ambassador to Israel Frederico Salas Lotfe has characterized the state visit to Mexico by President Shimon Peres as “excellent.”
Lotfe, who was in Mexico throughout the visit and attended all of the president’s official engagements, told The Jerusalem Post while flying from Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, to New York to take a connecting flight to Israel, that the visit had set a springboard for enhanced bilateral relations in many fields – especially economic cooperation.
The highlight of the visit, said Lotfe, was that it created an atmosphere of goodwill between the presidents of the two countries, and also strengthened the bonds of the Mexican Jewish community leadership with Israel.
Lotfe saw great significance in future economic relations between Mexico and Israel, through the links created between the members of Israel’s business delegation that accompanied Peres, and their Mexican counterparts. It was a very positive step, he said, because it will lead to new joint ventures.
As to Israel’s participation in the Guadalajara International Book Fair, this was important not only for Mexico, said Lotfe, but for the whole Spanish-speaking world – which can now perceive Israel in a different and positive light. People who were previously unaware of Israel’s contribution to culture and the arts, he said, will now perceive Israel differently.
While members of Mexico’s business community do speak English, it is difficult to get along in the country without Spanish – because so few people beyond hotel front desks speak English. Anyone who starts Spanish courses for Israel’s business community should be able to rake in a fortune.
Peres’s romance with Latin America is not confined to Mexico alone. In 2009, he visited Brazil and Argentina, and next week he will be host Otto Perez Molina, the president of Guatemala.
■ PERES, WHO was “farewelled” at a military air base at Guadalajara by a mariachi band and a group of flamenco dancers, returned to Israel on Monday afternoon after a week abroad. He spent the first day away in New York, ostensibly to present Elie Wiesel with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, but also took the opportunity to meet with New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, with whom he was very favorably impressed and who he described as “a wonderful man.”
Peres also met with Israel’s ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor and Israel Consul-General in New York Ido Aharoni, before flying to Mexico City. (There are no direct flights between Israel and Mexico.) On the way there and back, in a plane put at his disposal by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Peres made a point of walking through the section in which the media entourage from Israel was sitting, and greeting each person. On the way back to New York, he was understandably eager to get the journalists’ impressions of the visit, and to discover whether it had been tiring for them.
When asked whether it was tiring for him, Peres replied that he didn’t have time to be tired.
■ AT ONE of the business meetings in Mexico, Peres defended the tycoons, who he said are constantly criticized by the media. Without such magnates, he argued, there would be fewer jobs and less economically disadvantaged people would be able to extricate themselves from poverty.
He did not add that there would also be far fewer scholarships for people who cannot afford to pay for university studies.
Among the tycoons who support educational projects is shopping mall developer David Azrieli, who at a festive ceremony last month at the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv presented scholarships to 30 doctoral and post-doctoral students.
In his address, Azrieli stressed the importance of maintaining good minds in Israel and preventing brain drain, by creating better opportunities for employment. This is the seventh year that the Azrieli Foundation has distributed such scholarships. Altogether, it has contributed some NIS 30 million – enabling 100 students to continue their research.
■ SPECULATION ABOUT the president’s health followed the cancellation of his appearance at a business meeting at the Soumaya Museum owned by billionaire Carlos Slim, which he built in memory of his wife.
All fears proved to be groundless a few hours later, when at a state dinner hosted in his honor by Nieto, Peres discarded his prepared five-minute speech in Hebrew, saying that most of the people in the room understood English, and then proceeded to give a 45-minute address in English, touching on commonalities between Israel and Mexico, plus many of the subjects that are dear to his heart.
Peres delivered the address off the top of his head, in a fluid manner that had even the cynics among the Israeli journalists gasping with pride and admiration.
■ THE PRIDE also extended to the president’s spokeswoman Ayelet Frish, who had managed to secure invitations for the 17 journalists, other than the camera and sound crews, which comprised the Israeli media delegation. While it is customary all over the world to invite the most senior journalists accompanying a head of state to the state dinner in his or her honor, it is definitely unusual to invite the whole caboodle.
Frish somehow managed to sidestep protocol, and have all 17 invited.
The problem was that her counterpart had not been informed.
The journalists were always shuttled to places ahead of Peres. When they arrived at the dinner venue in the magnificent National Palace in Constitution Square, which is the seat of Mexico’s federal executive, they were told by Frish’s counterpart that they could sit and listen to the speeches, after which they would be taken to another room together with Mexican journalists, and would be served the same menu. When the Israeli journalists demurred and said Frish had told them they were invited to the state dinner, they were told in no uncertain terms that it has never happened before, it would not happen now, and it will not happen in the future. Frish was not the one who made the rules, the Mexican spokeswoman declared.
Frish, with her willowy figure, looks like a fashion model – but she’s a lioness of a fighter. When she learned that her group of journalists had been sidelined, she became furious to the extent that it almost led to a diplomatic incident. She emerged victorious.
The journalists were given seats at various tables, and all but hailed Frish as their Jewish Joan of Arc.
■ FRISH IS also angry with those journalists who are publishing material to the effect that Peres is plotting to get back into the political arena, or alternately contriving to have the law relating to the president reversed to what it was previously – namely, permitting the president to serve two fiveyear terms. The latter would give Peres another three years in office, but according to Frish, Peres is not interested in going back to politics, nor does he want to remain in office. He can do just as much good at the Peres Center for Peace, said Frish to all and sundry in Mexico.
Peres has likewise publicly indicated his willingness to step aside and make room for someone else.
■ APROPOS THE Peres Center for Peace, its director-general Ido Sharir, who was previously the president’s chief of staff, was in Mexico for Peres’s visit, but was not part of his entourage, and therefore took a commercial flight from Mexico City to Guadalajara last Friday.
Sharir, who had booked a morning flight, had to hang around Mexico City Airport for most of the day, because all flights to Guadalajara had been overbooked. He finally managed to get a seat on the third flight along with several members of the Jewish community, who in addition to having invitations to the book fair, had also been invited to a Shabbat dinner with Peres at the Westin hotel. The dinner had originally been scheduled for 60 people, but as more and more people associated with organizing Israel’s participation in the book fair clamored for dinner invitations, the number grew to close to 200.
Only two of the journalists traveling with Peres are religiously observant. The Israel Embassy in Mexico arranged for kosher food to be sent to them daily, and Frish yet again went to bat for the media, insisting on their being invited to the dinner.
The journalists had been accommodated at the Crowne Plaza hotel, which is a 45-minute walk from the Westin. When locals and their colleagues marveled that they had undertaken what was considered by others to be a strenuous walk, Ma’ariv’s Ze’ev Kam replied airily, “We’re Jerusalemites. We’re used to walking long distances for Shabbat dinners.”
There was a minor snag. The two journalists together with other visitors who observe Shabbat had thought to take the stairs to the second floor of the hotel where the dinner was being held, but Mexican security personnel would not allow them past the first floor. They all had to go downstairs again, and were nonplussed about how to get to their destination – when someone had the bright idea that if a non-Jew pressed the button in the elevator, it would be halachically acceptable for them to get to the dinner that way.
A Spanish-speaking, non-religious Israeli, overhearing the conversation, took the initiative, approached a bellboy and asked him to get inside the elevator and press button 2.
The bellboy looked a little incredulous, but did as he was asked – and thus yet another religious problem was solved.
Kiddush was recited by Mexican multimillionaire industrialist and philanthropist Marcos Katz, who was one of the key sponsors of the Israeli pavilion, and has grandchildren and great-grandchildren living in Jerusalem.
■ IF ALL the journalists in the delegation had been invited to the Shabbat dinner, there would have been no reason to ask anyone to press the button in the elevator.
Suhel Karram, CEO of Radio Ashams, is well acquainted with Jewish customs and traditions, and integrated so well with his Jewish colleagues that a stranger would not have realized that he is Arab.
He speaks Hebrew without a trace of an Arab accent, and is well-versed in all things Israeli.
Karram is a gentleman in the European sense of the word, and for that matter even looks European. He is also a staunch defender of Arab rights, and while he acknowledges that United Arab List-Ta’al MK Ahmed Tibi is a brilliant politician, it annoys him that the Israeli media has decided Tibi is the essential spokesman for Israel’s 1.6 million Arabs.
“We’ve got lots of other bright and knowledgeable spokespeople,” he says.
It was heartwarming to see how smoothly Karram fitted in with the rest of the group, especially bearing in mind the humiliation suffered in February 2004 by senior Arab journalist Lutfy Mashour, who had been scheduled to join the group of journalists traveling with president Moshe Katsav to France. It was the first state visit to France by a president of Israel in 16 years, and everyone was excited.
Mashour, who was the editor-in-chief of the Nazareth-based weekly Al-Sinnara, met up with the rest of the group at Ben-Gurion Airport and stood in line with them for the usual security check. People traveling with the president usually get a security clearance, without having to go through all the hassles to which other passengers are subjected. All the other journalists were waved through, but Mashour was taken aside, asked many probing questions and his luggage was stringently searched. Had he been traveling alone, this might not have bothered him. But because he was part of the president’s entourage, and the only member pulled out of line, he decided that his readers could live without a report on the presidential visit to France.
The experience had been humiliating both for him and for Katsav, who had an excellent relationship with the Arab community and who later called Mashour and apologized – although Katsav himself had not been at fault. Any journalist who had been on that trip with Katsav was delighted to see that Karram was on board with Peres. This time the journalists checked in independently, but their luggage had been marked by members of the president’s staff, and passed through without having to go through the X-ray machine.
If Karram was subjected to additional scrutiny, he didn’t say so. A gold mine of information on all things Arab, he was quizzed by colleagues during bus rides from one presidential event to another, and it was a great learning experience.
■ ALL OF the journalists, including the technicians as well as members of the Israeli business delegation, were invited for dinner to the palatial home of Mexico City textile and real estate tycoon Isaac Assa and his wife, Alice, where the large crystal chandeliers, marble floors and sweeping staircase exuded luxury. Some of the Mexican guests had sent exquisite, eye-catching floral arrangements, which were strategically placed on the marble stairs to prevent guests from entering the family’s private domain, while simultaneously adding to the beauty of the house.
The superbly presented kosher dinner was held on the evening prior to the official start of Peres’s visit. At the end of the evening, each guest received a large bottle of boxpacked, top-quality tequila. A card attached to the box read: “Home is where love resides, memories are created, friends and family always belong and laughter never ends.
Thank you for joining us this evening. It was an honor to have such distinguished guests.”
■ AMONG THE distinguished guests was Israel’s Ambassador to Mexico Rodica Radian Gordon, who said that for her, this was a really special occasion – because she had been a diplomatic cadet during the period when Peres served as foreign minister. She was now delighted to be the Israel ambassador who welcomed him to Mexico.
■ LATER IN the week at the huge Jewish country club in Mexico City, Peres was welcomed by more than 1,000 people who had been waiting for him in great anticipation, especially after it was announced that he was stuck in traffic and would be 20 minutes late. When Peres eventually arrived, the applause was deafening.
The entertainment line-up included Achinoam Nini, who paid tribute to Arik Einstein and sang one of his songs, Zeh Hastav (This is the Autumn). Nini, using her overseas stage name of Noa, also participated in the Israeli cultural happening in association with the International Book Fair in Guadalajara, where visitors got a taste of Israeli literature, cuisine, music, dance, arts and crafts, academia and fashion.
Leah Perez, head of the Fashion Design Department at Shenkar College, could be seen flitting around at the opening, ensuring that the striking gowns designed by Shenkar students and graduates – including Avshalom Rave, Mark Goldenberg, Lina Abas, Elinor Zino, Karin Liecvich, Gustavo Matias Franco, Adi Hakimian, Liat Baruch, Chen Arie Nachman, Ariel Taub, Aya Fleet and Liora Taragon – were all properly displayed.
■ THERE’S BEEN a glut of diplomatic candlelighting this Hanukka. It comes as no surprise that US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, who observes the Jewish holidays, would be lighting candles with his wife, Julie, and their three daughters.
Similarly, British Ambassador Matthew Gould, who is also Jewish, has in all probability been lighting Hanukka candles with his wife, Celia, and their two Sabra daughters – though the little girls are still too young to appreciate the significance of the holiday. However, this year, Gould had a very special guest for one of his candlelighting evenings: Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau. Although functions at the British Residence often include a kosher table, this time the entire catering was not only kosher, but mehadrin.
■ ROMANIAN AMBASSADOR-designate Andrea Pasternac, who is due to present her credentials in two weeks’ time, celebrated her country’s National Day with a Hanukka candlelighting ceremony and a promotion of Romanian wines at the Tel Aviv Museum, which is a popular venue for diplomatic events. The government was represented by Health Minister Yael German.
Romanian ambassadors to Israel tend to be very closely involved with the country’s large and close-knit Romanian community.
Pasternac, who previously served in Israel in another diplomatic capacity and who speaks fluent Hebrew, is no exception, and had known many of the guests in the huge crowd for years.
■ PHILIPPINES AMBASSADOR Generoso D. G. Calonge has developed a very special relationship with ZAKA, the search and rescue organization whose initial raison d’etre was to help identify the remains of victims of terror attacks and road accidents, but has branched out into wider aspects of humanitarian service. Calonge joined members of the ZAKA International delegation, which recently returned from a humanitarian mission in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, in the traditional Hanukka ceremony, lighting candles together with ZAKA chairman and founder Yehuda Meshi- Zahav at organizational headquarters in Jerusalem.
■ INTERNATIONAL DISABILITIES Day this year fell during the Hanukka festival period, adding an extra dimension to the candlelighting.
South African Ambassador Sisa Ngmonbane lit a Hanukka candle of hope at Beit Issie Shapiro with Yoav, a child with intellectual disabilities. The event afforded him the opportunity to see the work being done for adults and children with physical and/or mental disabilities.
The ambassador had warm praise for the Israeli therapeutic innovation he saw. “Beit Issie Shapiro represents the thing that we cherish most in South Africa: Ubuntu, an ancient African philosophy meaning human kindness, interconnectedness and collective responsibility – ‘I am because you are.’ Beit Issie Shapiro encompasses this value,” said Ngmonbane.
■ IRISH AMBASSADOR Eamonn McKee and his wife, Mary, got together with Irish expats at the Dublin Irish Pub in Herzliya Pituah for the annual Hanukka bash of the Ireland-Israel Friendship League.
For IIFL chairman Malcolm Gafson and his wife, Leah, it was a double celebration – in that they were marking their 35th wedding anniversary. The Gafsons were married on the fifth night of Hanukka.
For the McKees, experiencing their first Hanukka in Israel, the evening’s entertainment – which could be described as either a clash or a fusion of cultures – was something of an eye-opener. Belly dancer Abigail Klein exuded a sense of the exotic, whereas Yair Werdiger, who heads Irish Dance Israel, got everyone present into foot-stomping mode. Refreshments also held an element of fusion – jelly doughnuts washed down with Guiness.
The McKees went home with a new acquisition – a hanukkia presented to them by the Gafsons. It has become a tradition for the IIFL to present every Irish ambassador to Israel with a hanukkia as a keepsake.
Also present at the event was Gershon Kedar, senior policy adviser to Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin.[email protected]