The world will never be the same again, declare the doomsayers in relation to COVID-19, the virus which affects almost everything in our daily lives.
Its effects can be seen in significant demographic changes, in collapsing world economies, in the growing increase in communication via social media, in challenges faced by armies whose soldiers cannot conform to social distancing, in grocery shopping via the Internet, in limitations placed on public transportation, in the steep downturn in tourism due to the grounding of planes and the closure of international airports, the extreme downsizing of wedding celebrations and other social gatherings the isolation of grandparents from grandchildren – and even in diplomatic protocol.
However, there seems to be consensus about ongoing precautions such as wearing of masks and social distancing, though the latter is not always possible in public transport or at mass protest demonstrations.
Where both wearing of masks and social distancing are possible is in the area of diplomacy, which has undergone a radical change – even in the presentation by new ambassadors of their letters of credence.
Early in the second week of July, Colombia’s Margarita Eliana Mannjarrez Herrera, Greece’s Panayotis Sarris, Denmark’s Anne Dorte Riggelson, Romania’s Radu Ioanid and Argentina’s Sergio Daniel Urribarri presented their credentials to President Reuven Rivlin – the first ambassadors to do so since January.
The first three had actually been scheduled to present their credentials in March, but were prevented from doing so by Israel’s national lockdown.
There’s a certain tradition involved in the ceremony of presenting credentials. As far as Israel is concerned, it’s a tradition that has been punctuated by minimal changes in the space of more than half a century - until July of this year when everything changed in response to Health Ministry requirements based on efforts to prevent coronavirus infections.
Rivlin had both attended and hosted events at which at least one other person present had tested positive for coronavirus, in addition to which one of the employees at the President’s Residence had also tested positive. Since Rivlin, who will turn 81 in September, is in the high-risk age group, every possible precaution must be taken, even though Rivlin himself appears to be running around a lot to attend scaled-down events all over the country, although in some cases he is sending video recordings of his speeches, instead of attending in person.
Under pre-coronavirus conditions the usual thing in relation to new ambassadors presenting their credentials to the president was for four or five of them to congregate with their respective entourages in the lobby of the King David Hotel, which traditionally is the home-away-from-home for visiting heads of state and government, senior government ministers and ambassadors.
Each of the new ambassadors was then separately escorted in a Foreign Ministry limousine to the President’s Residence, where together with senior members of the Protocol Department of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, they entered the compound and stood to attention as a police or army band plays the national anthem of the ambassador’s country.
They were then escorted by the Foreign Ministry’s Chief of Protocol Meron Reuben and Lt.-Col. Oded Nahari, who is IDF chief of protocol and ceremonies, the ambassador walked along the red carpet to halfway past the honor guard, turned and bowed and continued on his or her way beneath the pergola, past the police or army band to inside the building where Rivlin was waiting together with a small reception group comprising members of his senior staff and Foreign Ministry officials dealing with the region and country of each individual ambassador.
The ambassador walked along another red carpet and veered to the left along a shorter carpet to stop approximately half a meter away from the president.
Reuben, standing slightly to the side on the ambassador’s right, would formally introduce the ambassador to the president, after which the ambassador would present his/her letter of credence together with the letter of recall of his or her predecessor. Sometimes the ambassador would get nervous when making the short presentation speech and would forget what to say, until cued by Reuben. The ambassador would then move to the side to introduce the members of his or her delegation to the president, starting with senior embassy staff followed by family members.
After that the ambassador would be introduced to members of the reception committee as would members of the delegation, after which they would move from the main hall to as smaller hall with Rivlin and the ambassador sitting on either side of a coffee table on the far side of the room, with members of the entourage seated on sofas on the left and presidential and Foreign Ministry officials on the right. The president and the ambassador would then exchange pleasantries. The ambassador often came with an invitation from his or her head of state for Rivlin to visit. In some cases, Rivlin had already been to that country in one of his previous roles as Communications Minister or Knesset Speaker and was happy to recall the highlights of his visit.
The two would then raise a toast, Rivlin would escort the ambassador back to the main hall where the ambassador would sign the presidential guest book as Rivlin looked on. Rivlin would then wish the ambassador well and the ambassador together with Foreign Ministry personnel and entourage would then stand to attention in the doorway as the band played the Israeli national anthem, and afterwards walk beneath the pergola to the waiting limousine and exit.
But during the coronavirus crisis, there was no chitchat in the small hall. Everything took place in the main hall other than the walk past the honor guard and the band. This time, the Foreign Ministry limousine, instead of stopping by the main gate, drove all the way to the edge of the pergola. The honor guard had been reduced from 40 soldiers to eight, who instead of standing in the forecourt, stood at the side of the pergola, with each soldier bearing a large pennant to give a more ceremonial aura to the occasion. The police band which had also been reduced in size stood behind some bushes instead of its usual spot which had been taken by the honor guard.
Inside the main hall, there were exactly enough lounge chairs for the number of people attending. Not every ambassador had the same size delegation, and presidential maintenance staff kept bringing in and taking out chairs and coffee tables. If it wasn’t so serious, it would have been hilariously funny. The reason for the musical chairs was that Rivlin doesn’t like to see empty seats. The chairs were placed at quite a distance from each other with two rows on either side. Different chairs with wooden arm rests were placed on either side of a coffee table for Rivlin and whichever ambassador he was meeting. Their chairs were sanitized after each session.
Rivlin was not waiting to greet each ambassador. On the contrary, each ambassador was waiting for Rivlin who did not emerge immediately, thereby creating a somewhat awkward situation, though he was effusive in his greetings when he eventually did arrive. Here and there, the president dropped his mask and invited the ambassador to do the same, but for the most part, everyone was masked.
There was no reception committee in the traditional sense. Instead they were all seated in the front row on the president’s left, and the ambassador’s entourage sat on the ambassador’s right. There was no shaking of hands, and Reuben, who ordinarily would have sat on the Israeli side of the room, stood two meters behind each ambassador to perform introductions, and then sat on the non-Israeli side of the room.
The conversation between the president and each of the ambassadors was brief – certainly more so than in the past, after which Rivlin walked each of the ambassadors to the stand on which they signed the guest book. The signing had always been done in the main hall, with the entourage filing out behind Rivlin and the ambassador. This time, Rivlin beckoned them from across the hall to come and be photographed.
After the last ambassador had left to return to the King David, Rivlin came out to tell the honor guard what had transpired at the meetings with each of the ambassadors. That particular aspect of tradition did not change.
The vin d’honneur, a joint getting to know you reception in which all the new ambassadors participate and which is attended by diplomats, business people, Knesset members and academics did not take place due to restrictions on the number of participants, but the ambassador of Colombia, who is her country’s first woman ambassador to Israel in 63 years of bilateral diplomatic relations decided that she had something important to celebrate, so she hosted a small vin d’honneur of her own at the King David. When the next group of new ambassadors present credentials in a few months, there will hopefully be a return to pomp and ceremony, and there will be no need for anyone to wear a mask.
On the other hand, the coronavirus era could mark the end of diplomacy as we have known it.