UAE Ambassador Mahmoud al-Khaja is scheduled to present his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin next week in a historic move that will put the final seal on diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Rivlin received the credentials of six new ambassadors, four of whom had initially been told that their individual presentation ceremonies would take place a month ago.
However, the intensification of COVID restrictions prompted a postponement, allowing the envoys to see something they would not have seen, had their presentations been made in January.
In the spirit of Purim, the entrance to the presidential compound is temporarily guarded by a mammoth orange-colored monster with enormous gold claws, inspired by the playground sculpture of a monster which for decades has been an iconic feature of the capital’s Kiryat Hayovel.
The new envoys, some of whom have been in the country since December, are Yevgen Korniychuk of Ukraine, Gerson Menandro Garcia de Freitas of Brazil, Jorge Tito de Vasconcelos Nogueira Dias Cabral of Portugal, Macairog S. Alberto of the Philippines, Ernesto Torres-Pereyra of the Dominican Republic, and Mireya del Carmen Muñoz Mera of Ecuador.
In individual meetings with each of the envoys, Rivlin urged them to move their embassies to Jerusalem. He told Pereyra that the Dominican Republic had set up its embassy in Jerusalem when Rivlin was still a young boy. The embassy moved out of Jerusalem in 1980, and Rivlin said that it was time for it to move back.
In extolling the benefits of Jerusalem, Rivlin emphasized that all the government offices are in the capital and there is also a rich culture.
“Tel Aviv is nice,” he said, “but the road to Jerusalem is better.”
In nearly all his conversations Rivlin raised issues such as rising antisemitism and the significance of accepting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism; supporting Israel in international forums such as the United Nations, International Criminal Court, EU and the European Council, of which Portugal has assumed the presidency; the need to educate against hatred, incitement, fascism, fundamentalism and radicalism; the upcoming elections in Israel; the importance of the Abraham Accords; and the urgency of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and building confidence between the two sides.
Rivlin told Korniychuk that his late wife, Nechama’s ancestors had come from Ukraine a hundred years ago to fulfill the dream of rebuilding the Jewish homeland. He himself had twice been to Ukraine, the president said. On the second visit, he had planned to go to Babi Yar, but had not done so because he unexpectedly had to return to Israel for the funeral of Shimon Peres.
Korniychuk, who was recently appointed as a member of the supervisory board of Babi Yar, said that he would be willing to accompany Rivlin there on a third visit. He also invited Rivlin to visit Ukraine in December to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Ukraine-Israel diplomatic relations.
Rivlin replied that he would no longer be in office, and that he would pass the invitation on to Israel’s 11th president.
Korniychuk responded that even as an ex-president, Rivlin would always be welcome in Ukraine.
For his own part, he said, he felt very much at home in Israel because the majority of the Russian-speaking Israelis come from Ukraine. There are approximately 600,000 Israelis of Ukrainian origin, he said.
Responding to Rivlin’s comment that Odessa had been a place of great Jewish culture, Korniychuk said that it still is, and that the Jewish community is “very strong” in terms of business and culture.
He thanked Rivlin for Israel’s assistance in coping with COVID. Korniychuk had met with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein in December, and Israel had also facilitated Ukraine’s direct contact with Pfizer, for which he is very grateful.
In his conversations with the ambassadors of Brazil and Portugal, Rivlin could not resist talking about soccer. Menandro had a big grin on his face as Rivlin told him that during a meeting with the pope, who is also a soccer fan, the pope had asked him who he thought was the better player – Maradona or Pelé. As Maradona and the pope were both from Argentina, it might have been more diplomatic to choose Maradona, but Rivlin chose Pelé, whom he considered to have been a better team player, reeled off the places in the world where he had seen each of them play, and then gave a play-by-play description of a game in which Pelé had propelled the ball with his chest instead of his feet. With Vasconcelos, Rivlin tossed Christiano Ronaldo into the conversation.
In his enthusiasm about soccer, he did not forget to commiserate with Menandro over the devastation that COVID has caused in Brazil.
COVID was also a topic in the exchange between Rivlin and Vasconcelos, who, contrary to general opinion in Israel, said that the way Israel handled the corona crisis was “very impressive” and that Israel is ahead of the rest of the world in the fight against the virus.
Explaining why Israel is heading for its fourth election, Rivlin told the Portuguese envoy that “people don’t change their minds. They keep voting for the same parties.”
Rivlin voiced special appreciation to the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador for what representatives of their countries had done to rescue Jews fleeing from the Nazis during the Holocaust period.
Referring to Palestinians as “neighbors” and “cousins” with whom Israel shares land, and convinced that the two can live amicably side by side, Rivlin, aware that both the Dominican Republic and Ecuador have diplomatic missions in the Palestinian Authority, and noting that both countries are friends to both Israel and the Palestinians, asked them to use whatever influence they have to enable the two sides in the conflict to reach an understanding.
“You can count on the Dominican Republic in any way possible to advance the [peace] process,” said Pereyra. “We have always supported Israel’s existence and we will continue to do so.”