Shimon Peres’s former aide Yona Bartal publishes a book on her career

The petite grandmother and mother of three, who looks nowhere near her 69 years, was with Peres during his most triumphant moments and during the lowest periods in his career.

 Yona Bartal (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
Yona Bartal
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

What do or did George Clooney, Hosni Mubarak, Mahmoud Abbas, King Felipe VI of Spain, Prince Charles of England, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Pope John Paul II, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Charles Aznavour, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jerry Seinfeld, Mark Zuckerberg, Amos Oz, Woody Allen, Madonna, Sharon Stone, Oprah Winfrey, Tony Blair, Bono, Vladimir Putin, Nicolas Sarkozy, Prince Albert of Monaco and Julie Andrews have in common?

They were all photographed with Yona Bartal – and that’s just a short list.

Who, you may ask, is Yona Bartal?

If you don’t read books in Hebrew, you would not have skimmed through Yona on the Red Carpet recently published by Yediot Aharonot Books and Chemed Books, and would still be at a loss to know who she is.

For more than 20 years, she was the right-hand aide of Shimon Peres, sharing and contributing to his vision, liaising with literally hundreds, possibly thousands of people whose names and contact details are all stored in her mobile phone, and traveling with Peres on state visits, working visits, secret visits for negotiations, and visits to international conferences.

She worked with him when he was prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, regional cooperation minister, president, and head of the Peres Center for Peace. Today she is executive director of the Peres Circle at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. The Friends Circle was established to forge social and professional partnerships in support of the Peres Center’s work in empowering the next generation of Israeli innovators and entrepreneurs, boosting Israel’s status as the “Start-up Nation” as well as in promoting people-to-people projects of co-existence in fields such as entrepreneurship, medicine and sports, inspired by the values of Shimon Peres.

 Bartal with Shimon Peres in a helicopter (private collection). (credit: YONA BARTAL) Bartal with Shimon Peres in a helicopter (private collection). (credit: YONA BARTAL)

The petite grandmother and mother of three, who looks nowhere near her 69 years, was with Peres during his most triumphant moments and during the lowest periods in his career.

She was with him when he lost to Benjamin Netanyahu in the general election, and was also with him the first time he was the leading candidate for president yet lost to Moshe Katsav. She was also with him the second time he ran for president, when he was notified at his home in Tel Aviv that this time the Knesset had voted in his favor. Thinking that this victory should be a family moment, Bartal went downstairs and saw that Peres’s driver had changed the number plates on the car to those with the presidential standard.

She pointed it out to Peres when he came downstairs, and he reacted with surprise, having not become accustomed to his new title – and with the inauguration ceremony still ahead.

After Peres died in September 2016, many people approached Bartal and asked her when she would write the book. At that time, it was too soon. She was too busy thinking about how to perpetuate Peres’s legacy. The Jaffa-based Peres Center for Peace and Innovation continued with projects that had been dear to his heart, and even expanded on them, but Bartal believed that there had to be something with a greater scope that would not only perpetuate his legacy, but would reflect the esteem in which Peres had been held.

So she founded the Peres Global Circle, with the aim of forging social and professional partnerships in support of the Peres Center’s work in empowering the next generation of Israeli innovators and entrepreneurs; and enhancing Israel’s status as a Start-Up Nation, while promoting innovation, optimism and peace that are the essentials of the Peres legacy.

Among the vital activities of the Peres Center are its people-to-people projects, in which people of different ethnic identities, faiths, nationalities, socio-economic backgrounds and professions come together to make a difference in sports, entrepreneurship, health, education and recognition of the qualities of the other.

The membership list is impressive, filled with the names of achievers in many fields.

“Life is short. Don’t waste time on the past. Invest in the future.”

Shimon Peres

All have absorbed some of the Peres watchwords such as “Life is short. Don’t waste time on the past. Invest in the future.” Or perhaps more importantly: “Don’t be afraid to dream, and dream big. Everyone has much greater potential than he or she is aware of. Open yourself up, discover your strengths and you’ll reach great heights.”

Once the Peres Circle was up and running, Bartal turned her attention to writing the book, but not at the expense of her other activities. A totally organized multitasker, she is also the president of the Commercial and Industrial Club, which holds frequent events where she often interviews diplomats, leading industrialists, academics, authors and entertainers. In addition, together with two other women from Ra’anana where she lives, she helped to establish the Ra’anana Foundation which honors the ‘stars of Ra’anana’ – relatively anonymous residents of the city who are contributing in different ways to its quality of life. They are given public recognition at an annual festive event, and are also presented with monetary awards.

The book is neither autobiographical nor biographical. It’s an episodic anthology, filled with vignettes assembled by a fly on the wall of history. Bartal wanted to honor her parents, who she says gave her the tools to be the person that she is; and to honor her husband, Dudi, and their children, Oren, Shiri and Dor, grandchildren Or, Adam and Omer, and her siblings, Ettie and David, for being the anchors in her life, supporting her and demonstrating understanding for her many and sometimes lengthy absences from home.

What gave her the final push was the realization that the vast majority of biographies and autobiographies are written by men. She wanted to encourage women to write about their life experiences, and hopes that her book will motivate other women to share their journeys.

From the start, she knew that she would not write an autobiography, because so many of them are boring and self-serving. But she also wanted readers to get some sense of what it means to work with a high-ranking public servant.

When delivering an address in either Hebrew or English in any of the positions he held, Peres was particularly emphatic about the role of a public servant, whose mandate, he said, was to serve the people not to rule them. This may well be the reason why so many members of his staff went with him to the Peres Center after he concluded his term as president. He had not tried to rule them, but had consulted with them and had given serious consideration to their ideas and opinions.

Before working with Peres, Bartal had worked with Yitzhak Rabin. Looking back, she says that she’s glad that she came to his office after he and Peres had settled their differences and ceased their mutual animosity.

Bartal’s job with Rabin was to organize all the letters that were written to him, to write replies, and to help in writing the speeches that he had to give on various occasions to diverse audiences.

As a school girl in Jerusalem, and on completion of her army service, Bartal had never dreamed that she would one day be working with the prime minister of Israel.

At school, she had been interested in life sciences and nature.

In the army she was assigned to work as a laboratory assistant in the hematology unit at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv. But then she met Dudi Bartal, fell head over heels in love, and put any career ambitions that she might have considered on hold.

The young couple moved from Jerusalem to Ra’anana, where they live to this day.

In addition to life sciences and nature, Bartal loves to write, and she’s also very much a people person. She managed to land a job writing a column in the local newspaper Rak Rega (Just a Moment), and eventually wound up as the editor. After that she wrote consumer columns for La’isha and Yediot Aharonot under the heading Consumer’s Eye. Next, she wrote and edited marketing supplements, after which she was hired by a major real estate development company with huge construction projects all over the country, to head its communications division with a specific focus on what was then the new Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, among the largest in the world and slated to be torn down sometime next year.

Today it’s the white elephant of Tel Aviv, but 30 years ago it was considered the showcase of the city.

Bartal invited Rabin to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony.

Once the bus station was operational Bartal’s services were no longer required, and she next found herself as spokesperson for the Kfar Saba municipality. She was thrilled because she had three young children at home, and Kfar Saba is very close to Ra’anana, which meant she could spend more time with her little ones.

Bartal had barely started that job when an offer came from Rabin’s office. She could hardly refuse. She called the mayor of Kfar Saba to apologize, and told him the reason she couldn’t stay on. “If I was offered a job by Rabin, I wouldn’t stay on either,” he responded.

In actual fact, Bartal did not have much to do with Rabin. She worked much more closely with Rabin’s bureau chief, Eitan Haber.

After Rabin was assassinated, Bartal thought she would be dismissed, because Peres was perfectly capable of writing his own speeches, and often did. But Peres called all the staff together and told them that no one was leaving. They were a team, and he wanted them to remain a team.

Born in Vilnius, Lithuania, as Tatiana Gilinsky, Bartal came to Israel with her parents when she was three years old. Both her mother and her father had lost their immediate families in the Holocaust, and had personally suffered antisemitism. They had no love for Lithuania, and wanted to leave. Lithuania was then part of the Soviet Union, and it was almost impossible to obtain an exit permit. Fortunately, her father was of Polish background, so they were permitted to travel to Poland where exit restrictions were less severe. From there, the Gilinsky family sailed via France to Israel.

In kindergarten, the teacher told Bartal’s mother that Tatiana was too difficult a name for the other children to pronounce. She suggested Yona, with all its connotations, and Bartal has been Yona ever since. Yona in Hebrew means dove, and the dove is the symbol of peace and vegetation. After all, it was the dove that brought the olive branch to Noah’s Ark after the flood.

Throughout her life, Bartal felt an innate sense of mission. It made no difference whether she was involved in something minimal or something of far-reaching significance. There was always just the sense of contributing to the state in some way.

Very health conscious, Bartal reorganized the menus at the President’s Residence during the seven years in which Peres served as president, first and foremost getting rid of the burekas, the small, flaky pastries that are an Israeli staple. Her rule was low carb and low fat and green tea – even at state dinners. Someone in the Prime Minister’s Office took note of the healthy menu that was mandatory in the President’s Residence, and decided that the menu in the Prime Minister’s Office could follow suit.

Bartal was invited to speak at a ministerial meeting to explain the importance of a healthy diet. One minister was aghast, and said he was leaving and would not return until the burekas were restored. A few months later, Bartal received a telephone call from the cabinet secretary who congratulated her on having won the battle. “Now they’re complaining if there’s not enough yogurt,” he said.

In January 2010, Bartal traveled with Peres to Berlin for the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Peres told his team that he intended to start his address to the Bundestag, the German parliament, by reciting kaddish, the prayer for the dead.

On the day prior to Peres’s address, Bartal received a call from her sister in Israel telling her that their father had died. She rushed home to attend the funeral, and while Peres was reciting kaddish in Germany, she and her siblings were reciting kaddish in Israel.

Only two weeks earlier, Bartal had been very excited when a relative, Isaac Gilinski, whose parents had migrated from Lithuania to Colombia in the 1920s, presented his credentials to Peres as Colombia’s ambassador to Israel. His brother Lazar had also served as Colombia’s ambassador to Israel, from 1986 to 1989.

Two years prior to her flight from Berlin, Bartal had flown home alone from Warsaw, where Peres was on a state visit participating in the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Bartal’s son was due to graduate from an officer’s course in the IDF during that week, and Bartal felt bad that she wouldn’t be there. But Peres insisted that she go home so as not to disappoint her son.

During one of Madonna’s visits to Israel, she wanted very much to meet with Peres but at the same time avoid the paparazzi. Bartal smuggled her into the President’s Residence around midnight. She gave Peres a complete set of Kabbala, and he gave her a Bible.

Peres and Bartal were part of each other’s extended families, attending celebrations and less happy events.

When Bartal’s daughter Shiri got married, the first person with whom she danced after completing the bridal tango with her husband was Peres.

Among Bartal’s duties as deputy director general at the President’s Residence was finding suitable gifts for heads of state. It is customary during state visits for heads of state to exchange gifts, and both Bartal and Peres put a lot of thought into what the gift should be – that it should signify not only some aspect of Israel, but also something symbolic of its recipient. Bartal was stumped when it came to Pope Benedict. She consulted with Peres, who after a moment’s thought commented that the pope is the shepherd of millions of Christians around the world. Bartal immediately thought of artist Menashe Kadishman, famous for his paintings and sculptures of sheep. In the end, Pope Benedict received a statue of a sheep.

For French President Nicola Sarkozy, Bartal and her husband, who often accompanied her on such missions, combed the streets of Jaffa looking for something suitable and came upon a Bonsai olive tree with branches that resembled an exquisite piece of sculpture. They placed the tree in a copper pot, and went through a lot of bureaucratic red tape with France’s Agriculture Ministry before they could bring it to the Elysee Palace. When Sarkozy left office, Bartal called on him in his new premises during a trip to Paris. After giving her a guided tour, he proudly showed her the Bonsai tree. He had taken it with him when he left the presidency.

Peres received honors from the heads of state of many countries. In 2008, he was notified that her majesty Queen Elizabeth II wanted to confer an honorary knighthood on him. Once this became known, many newspapers around the world carried the headline: Arise Sir Shimon. Bartal was in a quandary. What does one give to the queen of England? And what sort of gift would be of a personal nature?

Thinking out of the box, she approached the National Archives and asked if there was anything reminiscent of the queen’s father in their collection. Indeed there was: a letter signed by King George VI that he had given to Israel’s ambassador to the Court of St James, in which he wrote that he recognized the Jewish State. Bartal also wanted to give the queen something in the nature of Israeli arts and crafts, and found an old Yemenite silversmith in Jaffa who specialized in an antique technique with which he produced exquisite filigree silver. He created two candlesticks in the form of a crown.

The British are very gung ho about protocol, and when Peres and his close aides arrived at Buckingham Palace, the chief of protocol gave Peres a stern lecture about what he must not do. For instance, he could not speak until the queen addressed him. He could not take any of his staff with him to his audience with the queen, and he could not remain with her for more than the 20 minutes that had been allotted.

Very few heads of state when hosting Peres stuck to the timetable, and her majesty was no exception. Before he entered the royal chamber, his staff issued a jovial ultimatum: if the queen did not shake their hands, they would run away and leave him in the palace. While waiting for Peres to emerge, his team kept consulting their watches. The 20 minutes came and went, and Peres had not yet appeared. Bartal chatted to the chief of protocol, who simply could not understand this break from tradition. Bartal told him that from previous experience, she had no doubt that Peres had charmed the queen.

Another five minutes passed, and then 10, and beads of perspiration dotted the brow of the chief of protocol. After 40 minutes there was the tinkle of a bell to indicate that the meeting had concluded. Suddenly the door opened, and the queen, with a broad smile on her face, came out followed by Peres. “You see,” said Peres, “the queen did come out to meet you.” Bartal froze momentarily, and then curtsied. All that it had taken to breach protocol was for Peres to ask.

And what did the queen give to Peres? A framed photograph of herself.

In May 2015, Peres traveled to Moscow to join Putin celebrating Victory Day, the anniversary of the end of World War II. Bartal noticed that several of the retired officers of the Red Army sported red stars for bravery, such as the one that had been awarded to her father when he served in the Red Army and was known as Grisha Gilinsky, before he took on a Hebrew name. After the ceremony, Bartal told Putin that her father had served in the Red Army and had been awarded a Red Star. In response, Putin saluted her.

Lithuanian ambassadors to Israel, on learning that Bartal had been born in their country’s capital, invited her to visit as a guest of the state. Although her sister and brother had visited, she could not bring herself to do so. And then in 2013, when Peres was invited to Lithuania on a state visit, she told him that this one time she could not go with him. Her mother had always said that Lithuanian soil is soaked in blood. It was a thought that Bartal could not get out of her head. Peres knew her background and he understood her reluctance, but told her that present-day Lithuania was different, and that Lithuania supports Israel at the UN. “This is the world we live in, and we have to adapt to it and look forward,” he told her. Bartal agonized over the situation and finally gave in.

When they arrived, a tall, imposing woman approached her and said: “I know who you are.” The woman was Dalia Grybauskaitė , the president of Lithuania.

At the state dinner, there was another break with protocol. Bartal was seated at the head table, which is reserved for the two presidents, their spouses if there are any, and the most important guest other than the visiting president. But Bartal was given a seat at the presidential table.

During the course of the evening she was approached by Faina Kukliansky, president of the Jewish community of Lithuania, who presented her with her birth certificate and the marriage certificate of her parents. Bartal understood that this had all been arranged in advance, but appreciated the thought and the effort that had gone into it. Grybauskaitė rose from her seat, embraced Bartal, and said: “You are one of us.”

Toward the close of the visit, Grybauskaitė approached Bartal and offered Lithuanian citizenship to her and her children. Bartal did not know what to say, and realizing this, Grybauskaitė gave her a basket with a loaf of Lithuanian bread and fruit that she had picked from her garden.

Two years later, in October 2015, when Peres was no longer in office, Grybauskaitė came on a state visit to Israel and visited him at the Peres Center, and presented him with one of Lithuania’s high honors. Peres transferred it to Bartal, and instructed her to make the acceptance speech on his behalf and that of the people of Israel at a gala event hosted by the Lithuanian ambassador.

Bartal has enough anecdotes to fill a bookshelf and more, but for the time being she is concentrating on having her book translated into English, Chinese, French, Spanish and Arabic.

Foreign languages are important. When then-Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski visited Israel in November 2013, Bartal told him she knows only one sentence in Polish: “Ja cię kocham,” which means “I love you.”

“That’s the most important thing you can say,” he responded. ■