Grapevine: Coronavirus intrudes on diplomacy

However, early on Thursday morning, the word went out that the presentation ceremonies had been suspended to a future date yet to be determined.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) sit in an empty hall in front of President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the swearing in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020 (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) sit in an empty hall in front of President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the swearing in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Work on the diplomatic front has all but halted. Until Wednesday of this week, the presentation of credentials to President Reuven Rivlin had not been canceled. While it was agreed that the ceremonies would be very low key compared to those of the past, it was considered unfair to leave the new envoys without their full status, even though there isn't too much they can do at present. While they continue to be ambassadors-designate, there are certain limitations placed on them that are immediately removed once they present their letters of credence.
However, early on Thursday morning, the word went out that the presentation ceremonies had been suspended to a future date yet to be determined.
Foreign Ministry Protocol Department Director Nitza Raz-Silbiger usually attends such ceremonies with Chief of Protocol Meron Reuben. Raz-Silbiger, who has been with the Foreign Ministry for 40-plus years, is due to retire on April 30. This was to have been her final time attending the presentation of credentials. However, even before the presentation was canceled, she learned that she would not be allowed to attend due to restrictions on the number of people permitted to be present. As it is, she will barely be in the office during the final weeks before her retirement due to the drastic reduction of staff permitted in the building.
As for the credentials ceremony, the original plan was for the full kaboodle. It then changed to a more modest plan with no military honor guard, which is an extreme departure from tradition. However, there was to have been a police band outside to play the national anthems of the countries of each of the new ambassadors. But it would be a much smaller band than usual, and it would have been scrapped in the event of rain.
Security would have been tighter than usual because the Health Ministry has provided a special form that must be signed by everyone entering the President's Residence declaring that they have not recently arrived from abroad, and have not been quarantined due to contact with anyone who has tested positive for coronavirus.
As it happens, Chinese Ambassador Du Wei was quarantined, but as he arrived in Israel in mid-February, he has already passed the isolation period, and would have been eligible to present his credentials.
The other new ambassadors are Colombia's Margarita Eliana Manjarrez Herrera, Greece's Panayotis N. Sarris and Denmark's Anne Dorte Riggelsen.
Ordinarily, a new ambassador is driven onto the grounds of the President's Residence and stands at attention as the band plays the national anthem of his or her country. The ambassador, accompanied by the chief of protocol and a senior member of the president's staff, walks up the long path, stops momentarily to bow to the honor guard, then continues into the main hall where the president and a reception committee, made up of senior Foreign Ministry personnel and senior members of the President's staff, are waiting.
The ambassador is then introduced to the president by the chief of protocol, after which the ambassador presents his or her letter of credence to the president together with the letter of recall of the ambassador's immediate predecessor. The new ambassador then gets introduced to the reception committee, after which the ambassador introduces senior members of the embassy and members of the ambassador's family to the president. The president then leads the ambassador and the ambassador's entourage into a smaller reception room where the president and the ambassador pose for photographs as they shake hands prior to their tête-à-tête.
Obviously, there would have been no handshakes at next week’s ceremonies, and it is not certain whether the elbow bumps would also have been eliminated. In order to maintain social distance, the conversations between Rivlin and each ambassador were to have taken place in the main reception hall. Such meetings traditionally end with a toast and a clinking of glasses. The ambassador signs the presidential guest book, then stands in the doorway leading to the grounds as Israel's national anthem is played. Depending on the country which the ambassador represents, the ambassador may walk back all the way to the gate where limousines are waiting, or in the case of an American, Egyptian, Jordanian or Russian ambassador, walks no further than the end of the pergola to a waiting cavalcade of cars.
This time, the ambassadors would not have walked along the path. Their cars would have been driven to the edge of the pergola leading to the reception hall, and waited at the same place as each ambassador emerged.
None of this happened but it illustrates how nothing can be taken for granted. To quote Scottish poet Robert Burns: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley."
A Russian Embassy spokesman published an announcement on WhatsApp saying the embassy would be closed until further notice.
As no one knows just how long the virtual lockdown in Israel will continue, Ruut Lea Zaban, the special advisor for culture and public diplomacy at the Embassy of Finland, had to advise young journalists who had enrolled in the foreign correspondents' “This is Finland” program that the program had been canceled to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The program, which introduces the journalists to many aspects of life in Finland, was due to take place in June.
THOUGH MOSTLY confined to home like the rest of the country, President Rivlin has not been idle. Among other things he did this week, Rivlin congratulated and empathized with bridal couples on his Facebook page because of drastic alterations in their wedding plans; sent out a message of comfort and solidarity to Diaspora communities; held a meeting with Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog, who briefed him on how the coronavirus is affecting Jewish communities abroad; and held a telephone conversation with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to impress upon him the importance of ensuring the continuation of parliamentary activity despite the coronavirus crisis.
Rivlin also spoke to relevant authorities in the Finance Ministry and the security establishment about coordinating various aspects of dealing with the crisis. But his most important conversation was arguably the one he held on the phone with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. During the call, Rivlin noted that the virus does not distinguish between people of different faiths and nationalities, and stressed that under the circumstances, cooperation between Israel and the PA is vital. He added that cooperation in times of crisis is also a testament to the future ability of the two sides to work together for the benefit of both.
SOCIAL EQUALITY triumphs over status in the face of the coronavirus. Wealth and rank offer no immunity. As far as rank goes, Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz and Foreign Ministry Director General Yuval Rotem are both in quarantine following contact with a person who had the virus. Hershkowitz gave a talk last week to a group of young people who are undertaking the ministry's cadet course for diplomats. Rotem was present as well. One of the cadets was subsequently diagnosed with coronavirus, so everyone who had been in the same room, including Hershkowitz and Rotem, was forced to go into isolation.
AT THE beginning of this week, the largely English-speaking Hazvi Yisrael congregation in Jerusalem, which holds three separate services regardless of how many congregants might be present at any one time, published a notice saying that daily services would be split in the event that more than 10 people attended any of them. On Tuesday night, the congregation's board of management, in conjunction with the synagogue's Rabbi Yosef Ote, amended the notice, stating that in light of the current situation and in accordance with Health Ministry directives, the board, regretfully, was closing the synagogue effective immediately until further notice. This follows the closure last Shabbat of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. Other synagogues in the capital are expected to follow suit.
NOW THAT a couple has married in an Osher Ad supermarket because supermarkets are among the few places in which more than 10 people can congregate (so long as they keep a suitable distance from each other), it may start a new trend. This couple was lucky because they managed to have their wedding when the attendance limit was still 100 people. But even with the new limit, there will always be more than 10 people in the supermarket. Many supermarkets have their own bakeries on the premises. They could also make platters in their deli sections to be served at check-out counters for wedding guests to snack on as they leave.
The wedding at Osher Ad prompted Nadia Levene to post on Facebook that she and her fiancé, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, had their first bust up because she wants to get married at Osher Ad and he wants to get married at Rami Levi.