Reporter's Notebook: Flagging Diplomacy

Peres, Abbas and the saga of a missing national symbol in a comedy of errors at a hotel near the United Nations.

Israeli flag bottles 311 (photo credit: Asofta)
Israeli flag bottles 311
(photo credit: Asofta)
NEW YORK – Diplomacy sometimes most closely resembles a dance with particularly intricate choreography.
At other times, it can seem much more like a comedy of errors.
On Monday afternoon, reporters for Israeli media outlets were hurriedly invited to a meeting between President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas at a hotel near the United Nations. It’s the kind of call reporters don’t want to ignore.
And so, our motley crew make our way, through the various barricades that pockmark midtown Manhattan during the week of the General Assembly, to the hotel.
We are led together to the loading dock for bag inspection and security patdown, tor, up a few flights of backstairs and into the hallway of the hotel’s 34th floor, where we are told to wait. And wait.
Suddenly, there is a flurry of activity as phones are brought out from Israeli officials’ pockets and rapid dialing and texting ensue.
What is the problem? “There’s no flag,” someone working for media affairs from the Israeli consulate says.
While Peres and Abbas may be ready to see us, it turns out that the press might not be allowed in at all – because there is no Israeli flag to be found.
There is a Palestinian flag in the room, and how would it look to us, to the media, to the world, in the pictures, if there is no Israeli flag? “Sounds like a one-state solution,” one reporter wisecracks.
But where do you find an Israeli flag at a moment’s notice in New York City? Fortunately, the hotel is only a few blocks away from the Israeli Consulate on Second Avenue. And so, we wait some more.
“That flag’s going to have to go through security,” a member of the American security detail says to the Israelis. “I’m sorry, but if anyone knows how that is, it’s you guys.”
After a bit, we’re told we can move upstairs to the 35th floor.
We go upstairs and meet our Palestinian and Arabic-language- speaking counterparts, who have been waiting in that hallway as opposed to ours – perhaps to avoid a Sharks vs Jets “West Side Story” encounter? We peer at one another.
Finally, we’re told, yes, we can go into the room. The moment has come.
We all crowd into a small room, jostling for space. Abbas and Peres sit in overstuffed chairs diagonally facing each other, smiling, saying nothing.
There are no flags to be seen.
A light hanging inexplicably low from the ceiling hits a Palestinian cameraman in the head, and then an Israeli cameraman.
They glare at each other.
When we have all fitted into the room, much like circus clowns in a Volkswagen, we are told, summarily, “Okay, that’s it. You can all go.”
The journalists aren’t going to take this lying down (not that one could, in a room where one can barely move). Someone yells a question in Arabic.
Abbas answers it.
The Israeli journalists, for the most part, look at one another, clueless. Then an Israeli journalist yells in Hebrew. Peres answers in Hebrew.
The Arabic-speaking journalists look at one another and shrug. No one bothers to use English.
“Okay, that’s it. Time to go,” someone says. We are herded out of the room like disgruntled sheep.
As we exit the room, we see a woman from the Israeli Consulate in the hall, holding an 8- foot tall flagpole with an Israeli flag. She looks pretty ticked off.
“So who’s going to take the flag back to the consulate?” someone asks.
Everyone makes excuses – I’m not going back there now, I have to do this, I have to do that. Finally, someone volunteers.
The elevator comes. I get in with a representative from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. He asks what I thought. “Not much,” I reply. He laughs.
We reach the main floor of the hotel, our destination. The elevator door opens to reveal the permanent observer of Palestine to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour.
“Hello, sir,” my Foreign Ministry- elevator companion says to Mansour, as we disembark, introducing himself. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Mansour looks disconcerted.
“Hello. I’m Riyad Mansour...”
“I know who you are, sir,” my companion interjects with a smile. “I know who you are.
And I hope we have the opportunity to speak more in the future.”
Mansour seems agitated. “I have to go,” he says, stepping into the elevator. “Good-bye.”
“Good-bye,” my companion says. The elevator door closes.
My companion turns to me.
“Now that,” he says, raising a finger in the air, “was diplomacy.”