Embassies in Israel adjust to coronavirus reality

Embassies and consulates in Israel make accommodations to avoid COVID-19 but their work goes on.

A worker hangs a road sign directing to the U.S. embassy, in the area of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
A worker hangs a road sign directing to the U.S. embassy, in the area of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
The coronavirus outbreak is disrupting diplomatic activities at the 86 embassies in Israel while also increasing opportunities for international collaboration with the Startup Nation for solutions to the pandemic.
Take, for example, the Embassy of Switzerland in Tel Aviv. Ambassador Jean-Daniel Ruch told The Media Line via email that a 10-week exchange program between Swiss and Israeli start-ups in the field of life sciences had to be postponed.
But while one door shut, another opened.
“We have spread in Switzerland a call for innovative ideas launched by the Sheba hospital [near Tel Aviv]. Over 30 Swiss companies have responded,” said Ruch.
Travel restrictions are forcing the cancellation or postponement of events in Israel, including The Connector conference, which was scheduled for last month in Tel Aviv.
The conference would have linked Swedish and Israeli innovation players, according to the Swedish ambassador to Israel, Magnus Hellgren. However, Hellgren said that organizers were looking at new dates later in the year or possibly organizing it as a virtual conference.
Cyprus is close geographically and culturally to Israel, and is increasing bilateral collaboration during the COVID-19 crisis, Ambassador Thessalia Salina Shambos told The Media Line via email.
While Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva is donating millions of tablets of potential COVID-19 treatment hydroxychloroquine sulfate to US hospitals, Cyprus has been supplying Israel with large numbers of generic chloroquine manufactured by Cypriot pharmaceuticals, according to Shambos.
Other examples of coordination, she said, include direct contact between Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; relationships established through the Cyprus-Israel nexus of prolific synergies; and the sharing of knowledge and best practices between Cypriot medical professionals and the Sheba team working on COVID-19 cases.
“It goes without saying that Cyprus, as a close neighbor, but also as a close ally of Israel, continues and shall continue to stand ready to reciprocate assistance in tackling this pandemic, with every possible means, in the known spirit of unwavering solidarity that connects our two countries and our peoples,” said Shambos.
To Stay or Go
Are ambassadors and embassy staff and their families staying in Israel or repatriating to their home countries during the coronavirus outbreak?
The US Embassy in Jerusalem told The Media Line via email that Ambassador David Friedman had not left the country due to the coronavirus outbreak. Most of the embassy staff and their families have stayed in Israel despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s approval of a new policy allowing diplomats and their families to depart if they are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
The Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv told The Media Line by phone that Ambassador Hazem Khairat had not returned to Cairo.
In fact, all the embassies responding to The Media Line’s request for comments by press time said their ambassadors were still in Israel (except for Argentina, whose ambassador-designate, Sergio Urribarri, is waiting until after the pandemic passes to begin serving his term). They include Greece, Switzerland, Sweden, Angola, Albania, Uruguay, Belgium, Cyprus, Austria, Canada, Poland, Denmark, Bulgaria, Finland, Slovenia and Romania.
Working Remotely
“Right now, we are all working from our homes. We only go to the embassy when it’s necessary – either for official communications or to do things we cannot do from home,” Lucila Caviglia, chargé d’affaires at the Embassy of the Argentine Republic in Israel, told The Media Line in a phone interview.
Caviglia said that embassy employees had been told to stay home as soon as Netanyahu gave the directive. Since then they have been videoconferencing and are in contact with Argentina’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship. Email and WhatsApp are being used for visa communications.
Spokespersons for the embassies of Greece, Sweden and Albania told The Media Line via email that they were working with a “skeleton” staff.
Hellgren said the Swedish Embassy “continues to be fully operational,” with diplomats and local staff working on-site while the rest of the staff is working at home on a rotational basis.
Embassy representatives told The Media Line that they were practicing social distancing measures being enforced by the Israeli government.
Dimitra Mazaraki, from the public diplomacy office at the Embassy of Greece, told The Media Line via email that the consular section had postponed all public activities except for emergency situations and was communicating by phone and email.
While there have been no reports of embassies in Israel closing because of the pandemic, Israeli embassies in five countries were temporarily closed in March. Those in Germany, Spain, Greece, the Netherlands and Cyprus were shuttered after positive COVID-19 tests, including that for Jeremy Issacharoff, Israel’s ambassador to Germany.
There are no reports of foreign ambassadors in Israel testing positive.
Coming Together
Shambos said the Cypriot Embassy quickly put together a contingency plan for communicating within Israel and with Nicosia that included videoconferencing and teleconferencing.
Comparing coronavirus to a war, the ambassador said the crisis had strengthened the ties between Israel and Cyprus, with coordination across multiple fronts.
Said Shambos: “Together, we can prevail and shall overcome through this crisis more resilient than ever before.”
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