Israel's busy protocol chief

Reuben served in the director general’s department in the Foreign Ministry and subsequently in the National Defense College and in the digital diplomacy department.

Meron Reuben joins Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in welcoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel on July 4. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Meron Reuben joins Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in welcoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel on July 4.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
News junkies, who avidly watch Israeli news videos on television, their computers or cell phones, may have noticed a dapper, somewhat portly man with receding gray hair, a short, well-trimmed gray-white beard and a benign, occasionally jovial, expression on his face, accompanying foreign dignitaries as they alight from their planes in Israel and in their meetings with President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He is Meron Reuben, the South African- born chief of state protocol of Israel’s Foreign Ministry whose responsibilities extend to the offices of both the president and prime minister.
Reuben, who turns 56 in September, is a Foreign Ministry veteran who has served as ambassador in several Latin American countries and was also interim ambassador to the United Nations immediately after the tenure of Gabriela Shalev, when then foreign minister Avigdor Liberman was looking for a suitable successor. It was Liberman who chose Reuben to hold the fort until a permanent representative was found. Reuben held the position for a year until Ron Prosor completed his tour of duty as Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and was transferred to New York.
A busy man who must be available 24/7 and says he often works up to 20 hours per day, Reuben was willing to be interviewed by The Jerusalem Report but had difficulty finding time on his schedule. The compromise was that his interviewer would travel in his car to a diplomatic event to which they were both invited and interview him on the way. Because the event was more than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, it seemed there would be ample opportunity for Reuben to explain the duties of a chief of protocol.
This was, however, yet another case of the best laid plans of mice and men going awry. For much of the ride, Reuben’s cell phone rang with calls from embassies and divisions from within his own department in the Foreign Ministry. With each call, he was forced to say he was not alone, meaning that callers had to be somewhat circumspect in their conversations. Nonetheless, he had to deal instantly with a variety of situations.
As a result of these interruptions, the interview was completed only on the ride back. Reuben explained that in the days when Israel did not enjoy as many bilateral diplomatic relationships as it has today, the chief of protocol traveled abroad with the president, prime minister and foreign minister. But, over the past two decades or so, there have been so many new diplomatic ties, followed by visits to Israel by numerous foreign dignitaries and so many visits abroad by the president and prime minister that it was impossible for the chief of protocol to deal simultaneously with outgoing and incoming visits, so he focuses on the latter and does not accompany Israel’s key dignitaries in their travels abroad.
The coordination that goes into incoming visits is mind boggling, entailing checking the schedules of the president and prime minister to ensure that at least one of them will be in the country and available to meet the guest. There’s also the traditional visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum, Mount Herzl, a tree-planting ceremony with the Jewish National Fund, a state dinner at the President’s Residence or more intimate dinner at the Prime Minister’s Residence, visits to places of special interest, such as start-up companies, the Volcani Institute, hospitals treating Syrian wounded, the Weizmann Institute, the Technion, universities, water-desalination plants, museums, meetings with expatriates from the visitor’s country, bilateral business seminars, visits to specific municipalities such as Sderot on the Gaza border or others that may have a twin-city arrangement with the city in which the visitor has his or her private home, and more depending on the duration of the visit and the areas of existing or desired cooperation between the visitor’s country and Israel.
All this must be coordinated by the Official Guests Department and the Protocol Department in the Bureau with the visitor’s embassy, the police, sometimes the Israel Defense Forces and, of course, with personnel at all the destinations on the visitor’s itinerary. It’s one big headache that often involves last-minute changes – and it’s little short of a miracle that it all seems to flow with ease.
Reuben attributes this to a small but dedicated group of backroom staff he says rarely get the credit and appreciation due to them. He refers to them as “unsung heroes.”
Aside from meeting and greeting foreign dignitaries, the chief of protocol is the first person to greet new ambassadors when they arrive in the country, and receives copies of their credentials so that they can start work immediately.
There are 88 resident ambassadors in Israel, 13 consuls general and more than 25 non-resident ambassadors who visit the country several times a year. The usual period of service determined by any given country is about two to four years, but there are ambassadors who stay for longer and shorter periods.
The chief of protocol must remember all their names, recognize their faces and be familiar with their backgrounds. The Protocol Department issues diplomatic ID cards to all diplomats, not just ambassadors, and helps with the setting up of new embassies in cases where none have previously existed or where relations were severed years ago and have only recently been renewed.
Reuben personally accompanies new ambassadors when they present their credentials to the president, and later in the day also attends the vin d’honneur, a diplomatic reception at which new ambassadors have the opportunity to meet their colleagues from other embassies, honorary consuls, heads of binational chambers of commerce, academics engaged in joint research with academics from the ambassador’s home country, expatriates who are only too happy to converse with the ambassador in their native tongue, and various Knesset members and people from government ministries with whom the ambassador will be dealing during his or her assignment in Israel.
The Bureau is divided into four different sections, Reuben tells The Report. The Protocol Department deals with the conferring of privileges and immunities on diplomats; another is the official guests’ department; a third prepares official correspondence, texts, speeches and citations; and the last comprises administration and budget.
Although there have been drastic cutbacks in the Foreign Ministry budget allocated to the Protocol Office, it remains relatively constant because the office deals with all official visits to the State of Israel by royalty, heads of state, heads of government, foreign ministers, the United Nations secretary general, US senators and congressmen, and the Pope. It also helps with private visits by any of these individuals. Israel’s honorary consuls abroad are due to get together for their tri-annual conference with their Israeli counterparts in November.
Honorary consuls play a significant role in promoting bilateral relations says Reuben, and the conference is a way to thank them. Although the President’s Office, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Knesset all have their own protocol departments, the Foreign Ministry liaises closely with the first two and occasionally with the Knesset when parliamentary speakers and delegations from abroad come into the country on official visits.
Last year, says Reuben, there were 19 parliamentary speakers and a total of 322 official visits by royalty, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and the UN secretary general.
The chief of state protocol is a hybrid of the Oracle of Delphi and the Western Wall, receiving questions about anything and everything to do with Israel. Likewise, he is the address for personal problems and misdemeanors of the diplomatic community.
“A large percentage of the personal problems of diplomats are brought to our door,” says Reuben. This includes drunk driving, traffic violations and accidents, family squabbles, sexual improprieties and smuggling among other situations that need to be resolved. This can sometimes be extremely nerve-racking when diplomatic immunity gets in the way of law enforcement as, for instance, in cases of drunk driving.
Police can stop a car that is being driven by a drunk diplomat, but they can’t enter the car, nor – unless he agrees to one – can the diplomat be given a sobriety test without the express permission of the Embassy, or in the case of a lower ranking diplomat than the ambassador, it is the ambassador who gives or denies permission to test the diplomat whom police believe to be inebriated. Unless this permission is forthcoming, the suspect can rely on diplomatic immunity.
However, immunity is too often the name of the game, and in rare instances, says Reuben, the host country will either expel a diplomat who is in serious violation of the law or ask the diplomat’s Foreign Ministry to recall him or her.
Reuben is particularly perturbed by the number of smuggling contraband incidents that have occurred in recent years, and without giving details, says he does his best to get personally involved when there is any suspicion of any violation of this kind.
It is important for the chief of protocol to have been in the Foreign Service for at least two to three decades, to have gained extensive experience abroad and have at least a basic knowledge of the cultures of other countries and their dominant religions, says Reuben.
He cites, as an example, ambassadors from Muslim countries. Although the faith forbids the consumption of alcohol, there are secular Muslims who ignore this tenet, but it is observed when a Muslim diplomat presents credentials. All such ceremonies conclude with a toast to the host country and to the new ambassador’s country, however, to respect the sensitivities of Muslim ambassadors they are always asked in advance whether they would prefer to toast with orange juice or water.
Reuben, who speaks English, Spanish and Hebrew with a smattering of French and Arabic, regrets his inability to speak Russian, which he says is a very useful language in Israel, but explains that lacuna in his linguistic talents by commenting that “my great-grandparents left Czarist Russia 130 years ago.”
As far as characteristics go, Reuben says that it is important to be amicable “even in difficult times” and that “you have to have a sense of humor.”
Even as a child, Reuben knew he would one day enter the Foreign Service. His parents were divorced in the mid-1960s when he was very young. He lived most of the time in Cape Town with his mother, Leonie, an accomplished piano teacher, but spent weekends with his father, Joselle, a doctor, who for over 20 years was involved in an amorous relationship with a divorced Muslim nurse of Indian background.
In apartheid South Africa, such a liaison was taboo, and Reuben’s father would bring her and her three children to his home hidden under a blanket in the back seat of his car. Only when they were inside the garage was it safe to emerge from beneath the blanket. Reuben used to play with her children, but was frustrated by the fact that they were always confined to the inside of the house because they didn’t dare go outside together. To keep them entertained, his father used to bring home endless reels of 36 mm films.
When he was ten, Reuben’s mother took him to London and enrolled him in a co-ed boarding school that was largely populated by the offspring of British diplomats. It was there that Reuben was truly bitten by the Foreign Service bug.
Three years later, in 1974, his mother brought him to Israel and they spent their first few months at an immigrant absorption center in the more challenging part of south Netanya.
“It was a jolt to the system,” recalls Reuben, who was still so British at the time that, unlike Israeli children of his age, he wore socks with his sandals. He still laughs at the memory.
His bar mitzva celebration a year after his arrival was arranged by relatives in Kfar Shmaryahu with the famed Rabbi Shmuel Avidor Hacohen officiating. Reuben and his mother subsequently moved to a more upscale environment in Ramat Hasharon where they lived for six years.
In the Israel Defense Forces, he served as an air traffic controller, and after completing his mandatory duty, Reuben went on a round the world trip, visiting the Far East, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, the United States and Canada before returning to Israel to embark on a course of International Relations and Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In 1987, he was tested for the Foreign Ministry’s cadet course and was accepted in 1988. In 1990, he was sent to Chile to serve as second secretary at the Israel Embassy and remained there until 1995. In Chile, he met Paola, his now ex-wife and mother of his two daughters, Jen and Liad. From Chile he continued to Mexico where Jen was born. He stayed in Mexico until 1997 and then returned to Jerusalem where Liad was born in 2000. When she was still a tiny baby, he was named ambassador to Paraguay. He closed the embassy in 2002, and was sent to Bolivia where, in 2004, he again closed an embassy.
Upon returning to Israel, he was appointed head of external relations at Mashav, the Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. In 2007, he was back in Latin America as ambassador to Colombia and, in 2010, he and Paola separated. The following day, he was offered the position of provisional ambassador to the United Nations.
The feeling of awe he experienced when sitting at the desk of Abba Eban, who was Israel’s first ambassador to the UN, remains with him to this day.
Back in Israel again in 2011, Reuben served in the director general’s department in the Foreign Ministry and subsequently in the National Defense College and in the digital diplomacy department. He took up his current position in 2015, and says he has family obligations which will keep him in the country for at least another two years. His older daughter is completing her army service and his younger daughter will enter the army next year, and he would prefer not to be out of the country while either of his daughters is in uniform.
Reuben’s mother, Leonie, met her current husband, Robert Klugman, 37 years ago, and they now live in the Protea Hills retirement village. His father died in South Africa last year.
Regarding the future, Reuben does hope to have another ambassadorial posting. He concedes that pinpointing a place in which to serve after the United Nations is somewhat difficult, but says that wherever it is he wants it to be challenging. “Saudi Arabia could be fascinating,” he says, adding that Cuba, Malaysia and Indonesia would also make him happy if diplomatic relations with all or any of the above are established in the interim.
He is wary, however, of voicing his preferences aloud regarding countries with which Israel already has diplomatic relations ‒ the first time he was sent abroad in 1990 he had fancied China, Australia or Singapore but was assigned to Chile, so he’s decided to stay mum about his preferences for future postings.
“The public doesn’t really understand what diplomats do. It’s a lot of hard work including the cocktail parties,” he says. To the outsider, the cocktail parties may appear to be just another social event, but for diplomats the informal exchange of views on political, civil rights and economic issues is of vital importance.
And, Reuben adds, it’s not only the general public that doesn’t get it. “Other ministries don’t understand the essentials of quid pro quo.”
The Foreign Ministry has been the most instrumental force in winning friends and allies for Israel, though recognition for this vital role has ebbed from the public consciousness, he says.
“We are the showcase for the ministry because it is partly through us that diplomats get to know Israel – and that’s why we need to have dedicated people on the job.”