Meet the ambassador: Croatia's Pjer Simunovic

Starting out reporting foreign affairs for a newspaper new envoy takes upon himself to make news strengthening ties with Israel.

PJER SIMUNOVIC (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Unlike most of his diplomatic colleagues from other countries, Croatian Ambassador Pjer Simunovic, 53, deliberately chose not to live in Herzliya Pituah or Kfar Shmaryahu that together form a diplomatic enclave, but opted instead for a relatively modest apartment in picturesque Neveh Tzedek, which he says reminds him of a Croatian village.
It also puts him close to the action of Tel Aviv, and within easy walking distance of the beach and places such as the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater and the old Jaffa railway station known as Hatahana and noted for its many attractive stores and dining options.
Like many of his colleagues from former Communist bloc countries, which gained independence between 1989 and 1991, Simunovic was a journalist before he was a diplomat.
After completing his BA in Italian language and comparative literature, he got a job in a major Croatian daily where he was assigned to covering foreign affairs with the focus on Central and Eastern Europe.
This was just when Communism was starting to unravel. There were free elections in Poland, a revolution in Romania and the fall of the Berlin Wall among other historic events.
“It was a fascinating time and full of optimism,” recalled Simunovic, a native of Split, the second-largest city in Croatia.
When Simunovic was born, Croatia was part of Yugoslavia, which in 1967 had followed the Moscow dictate and severed relations with Israel.
Following the death of president Josip Broz Tito in 1980, who was also a native of Croatia, a series of changes began that lead to the eventual break up of Yugoslavia.
During the period of change, while Yugoslavia still existed, diplomatic relations with Israel were renewed. Mirko Stefanovic was sent to Israel as charge d’affaires in 1992, and in 1997 was promoted to ambassador.
He remained in Israel until 2001, when he left the Foreign Service to go into business. When he resumed his diplomatic career in 2007, and rejoined the Foreign Ministry, it was as a Serbian diplomat. He is currently Serbia’s ambassador to Portugal.
Simunovic believes that the collapse of Yugoslavia was to Israel’s advantage. Yugoslavia, as a Communist country that was strongly allied to the Arab states was not well disposed to Israel, he said, whereas all the sovereign states that emerged from Yugoslavia have, with one exception, established diplomatic ties with Israel and have generally good relations.
The exception is Kosovo, which would like to have diplomatic relations with Israel, but which Israel, for political reasons, is avoiding.
Like Simunovic himself, nearly all his media friends who had been covering foreign affairs were invited to join Croatia’s Foreign Ministry.
“That’s because we didn’t have one before,” he explained, and the people with the greatest expertise were the journalists covering foreign affairs.
In the West, it was generally assumed that all citizens of Communist countries had been heavily indoctrinated.
Interviews with ambassadors from such countries indicate that this is not entirely true. Many like Simunovic, grew up in well educated, liberal minded families, so the problem of getting rid of a Communist mind-set did not really exist.
Before joining the Foreign Service, Simunovic spent five years with the BBC in London, broadcasting on the BBC’s now defunct Croatian language service. While in England he also earned a Master’s degree from King’s College London where he specialized in national security and Russian military history.
On joining the Foreign Ministry he was appointed deputy head of the analytical department. He was later sent to Paris where he was deputy chief of mission, but his heart was still in journalism, so after completing his tenure, he got a job with Vecernji List, the equivalent of the Evening Standard, which according to Simunovic used to be the biggest newspaper in Yugoslavia and is now the biggest newspaper in Croatia.
He was a member of the editorial board and responsible for content, but after six months the Foreign Ministry asked him to come back and to take on the role of chief negotiator with NATO.
Croatia entered NATO’s Partnership for Peace in 2000 and became the 28th and most recent member of the European Union on July 1, 2013.
While the majority of ambassadors come to Israel cold turkey, with no previous experience of the country, Simunovic was no stranger. He began visiting Israel in 2005, first as deputy foreign minister and subsequently as secretary of state for defense in which capacity he was involved in serious security discussions with the top brass of the IDF.
When the subject arose of the possibility of a diplomatic posting abroad, Israel was high on his list of preferences, and he was very happy to have been posted to Israel.
He is fascinated by Israel’s “mythical magic of history, its modernity and the biblical proportions of the land.”
Moreover he sees Israel as an important ally, and values Israel’s scientific, academic, economic and security cooperation.
The Jewish community of Croatia dates back nearly two millennia. Before the Second World War, it numbered something in the range of 20,000, but during the war, it was almost destroyed. Of those who survived, close to 3,000 settled in Israel, and approximately 2,500 remained in Croatia, but because of the prevailing Yugoslavian policy of atheism, they were very lax about preserving their Jewish heritage.
Now there appears to be some kind of revival, said Simunovic, who commented that even though Croatian Jews were mostly urban and did not conform to the shtetl stereotype, nor speak Yiddish, they are interested in the Jewish world that is no more. Today, the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer have become popular not only among Croatian Jews but among Croatians in general who are curious about the world that disappeared – the world that Bashevis Singer portrayed so well.
Split, where Simunovic was born, has “a small vibrant Jewish community” and a synagogue dating back to the early 16th century, but Jews are believed to have lived there since the early 1400s. The largest Jewish community in Croatia is in Zagreb where there are around 1,500 Jews who maintain a Jewish kindergarten and various organizations. Needless to say there is also a Chabad House in Zagreb headed by Rabbi Pinchas Zaklas and his wife Raizel.
During the war, the Jews of Croatia were subjected to the cruelest atrocities not only at the hands of the Nazis but also by the Ustase Croatian Liberation Movement that was heavily influenced both by Italian fascism and Nazism. Exiled from Yugoslavia before the war, they found shelter in Italy, but returned after the 1941 invasion of Yugoslavia by the Axis powers. The Ustase were exceedingly cruel and espoused the Nazi race laws. They set up concentration camps and, in addition to murdering Jews, they murdered thousands of Serbs and Romani.
Simunovic made no attempt to revise these dark chapters in his country’s history or to make excuses for them or the anti-Semitic regime that followed, but said that today’s Croatia is different to that of the past.
He loves to interact with Croatian expatriates living in Israel, and the older ones, he said, speak Croatian better than they speak Hebrew even though they have been in Israel for many more years than they spent in Croatia.
Simunovic is both personally and professionally enamored with Israel – “its economic success, its robust military forces and its security, its first class scientific and academic achievements,” which he perceives as not only an “admirable success” but a miracle.”
The whole atmosphere of Israel appeals to him and he enjoys working with his Israeli colleagues.
“The informality gets under your skin – and then we go home and start to behave like Israelis.”
One of the great things about Israel that most diplomats appreciate is the fact that Israeli individuals and organizations go out of their way to court them, to invite them and to show them the country. Many diplomats are so charmed by the amazing differences in so small a territory, that in addition to all the places that they are taken, they do a lot of touring themselves, and tend to see much more of Israel than do Israeli citizens. Simunovic is no exception.
He’s been north, south, east and west.
While from the outside looking in, it looks as if diplomats lead charmed lives rubbing shoulders with the who’s who of the country and going to the most glittering events; there’s also a downside – the separation of families.
For many years, diplomatic spouses tagged along, even at the cost of their own careers. These days, many are reluctant to give up their careers, because they want to remain individuals in their own right and not just the wife or husband of the ambassador. That’s what happened in Simunovic’s case. His wife is a journalist who works as the visual arts correspondent for National Radio, and his 23-yearold daughter is studying comparative art.
His wife and daughter come to Israel as often as they can – both separately and together – and they genuinely love the country, but because salaries are not high in Croatia, both Simunovic and his wife are forced to work. This also applies to people in high office. Although Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović has a presidential palace of far greater architectural grandeur than that of her Israeli counterpart, she earns roughly a quarter of his salary.
In some cases, the separations among diplomatic spouses cause families to break up. Happily this is not so where Simunovic and his wife are concerned.
“We cherish the time we have together,” he said. “It’s like being on honeymoon.”
His daughter is scheduled to spend two weeks in Israel in August.
Most ambassadors serving in Israel try to pick up a smattering of the language.
Simunovic did so for a year, but then developed a medical problem that caused him to spend a lot of time in hospital, and he lost the dynamic.
He looks quite healthy now. Well built, he attributes his fitness to a weekly workout at the Nakash Gym in Tel Aviv, where his favorite pastime is boxing. When he was younger, he liked judo, which he says he was very good at, but boxing has always been his No. 1 sport.
Although he used to read modern Italian poetry in his pre-ambassadorial days, he finds that he simply doesn’t have the time and his reading attention is captured by political analyses and strategic affairs as well as Israeli and Jewish history.
Reading Israeli or even biblical history in Israel is extremely interesting he said, because one can actually go to where anything of historical significance happened.
He is quietly proud of the fact that Fiddler on the Roof was filmed in Croatia, in a typically shtetl-type village discovered by leading Croatian-Jewish Academy award winning film producer Branko Lustig, who is also a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen- Belsen.
The mention of Lustig reminds Simunovic that one his own great uncles, Jaksa Kalogjera, has been recognized by Yad Vashem – Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority as Righteous among the Nations.
Our interview was interrupted by the arrival of a large group of high school students who were part of the Young Ambassadors program headed by Yitzhak Eldan, a former chief of protocol at Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
Every few months, Eldan takes a group like this to a different country where they meet ministers, parliamentarians and members of their own peer group, telling everyone who they meet something about Israel and in turn learning about their host country. It transpired that Simunovic was the only ambassador to date who had offered to host a reception for the young envoys before they visited his country. The youngsters had learned a lot about Croatia from the Internet, and what impressed them most were the expanses of greenery.
Simunovic gave them a piece of trivia about which they had not known in advance. The cravat, the elegantly tailored men’s necktie, did not originate in France as most people believe, but was in fact a Croatian neckband adopted and adapted by the French who acknowledged its origins, but distorted the pronunciation of Croat.
The youngsters thought that Simunovic was pulling their leg, and after seeing the incredulous expressions on their faces he said: “You don’t believe me? Google it.”