Behind the scenes of a half-century of public service

From whispering into Shamir’s ear, to lobbying Papandreou on Israel’s behalf.

Mike Tyson (left), prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and boxing promoter Don King pose for a rare photo opportunity, organized by then-chief diplomatic adviser Arye Mekel. (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Mike Tyson (left), prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and boxing promoter Don King pose for a rare photo opportunity, organized by then-chief diplomatic adviser Arye Mekel.
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
On April 5, 1989, a picture of a smiling Yitzhak Shamir, then Israel’s prime minister, shaking hands with Mike Tyson, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, and his wild-haired promoter Don King, appeared in The Dispatch in Lexington, North Carolina, and dozens of other newspapers around the globe.
The headline of the caption in The Dispatch read “Some World Heavyweights,” and was the brainchild of Shamir’s chief diplomatic adviser at the time, Arye Mekel.
Mekel returned last month from serving as Israel’s envoy in Greece, and in so doing – at 67 – wrapped up nearly 50 years of work in the public sector that took him from being Army Radio’s first diplomatic reporter in 1968, to one of Shamir’s top advisers, to the director- general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, to Israel’s consul-general in two US cities and, finally, ambassador to Greece.
With the IBA to be completely overhauled, Mekel is among those voices calling for reform, but warning “not to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
There is a need for public broadcasting that is not dependent on business interests or politicians, he said, adding that in carrying out the reform a distinction should be made between the radio, which he said is working well, and the television, which is expensive and leaves room for improvement.
Mekel’s action-packed career has given him a treasure trove of anecdotes that he tells with charm, a ringside seat to the country’s biggest stories since 1968, and an acquaintance – sometimes passing, sometimes intimate – with some of the state’s most prominent players.
Shamir was one of his favorites, and among the best anecdotes involving the prime minister was that photo op with Tyson.
“We were in a hotel in New York, during a visit to America, and we were about to leave for a talk in Brooklyn,” said Mekel, sitting over a cup of coffee in a Jerusalem hotel lobby. “I was in the lobby of the hotel, in my suit and tie, waiting for Shamir to come down.
And then I saw the oddest group you could imagine.”
At the head of the group, coming in his direction, was Rabbi Marvin Hier, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who was followed by none other than Wiesenthal himself. And just behind him were Tyson and King, trailed by six big, burly, beefy bodyguards.
Mekel said that when he saw that group he realized it presented an opportunity not only to put a human touch on Shamir’s image, but also to score some points in the African-American community.
“I went up to Hier, and asked him what he was doing here. He said there was a premiere showing of a film on Wiesenthal’s life, followed by a reception, and that Tyson and King were invited guests.”
Mekel asked Hier whether he thought Tyson would like to meet Shamir.
“Go ask him,” Hier responded.
So up to Tyson strode Mekel.
“‘Mr. Tyson,’” he said, “‘would you like to meet the prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir?’ “He looked at me, put two thumbs up and said ‘Israel, Israel,’” Mekel said, laughing at the retelling. “I turned to Don King and said, ‘I take that for a yes.’ He said, ‘I think so.’” And that was the easy part of the shidduch.
The prime minister proved to be a harder sell.
“He said, ‘Mike Tyson? Who is Mike Tyson?’” Mekel said that he explained to Shamir his thinking, about how a picture with the heavyweight champion of the world could add a different element to his image.
Shamir agreed but told Mekel to “make it quick.”
“I brought them up to his room, and said to Tyson, ‘This is prime minister Shamir.’ At that moment it was not clear to me if he understood who Shamir was, or if Shamir understood who Tyson was. To Shamir I said, ‘This is Mr. Tyson.’ They shook hands, but I still don’t know if they got it.
“Suddenly Tyson looked at Shamir, and said ‘Can I join the Mossad.’ Then I understood that he got it.
Shamir said to me, ‘What does he mean?’” THERE IS a palpable degree of affection in the way Mekel talks about Shamir, the iron-willed former prime minister, foreign minister, Knesset Speaker, Mossad operative and head of the pre-state underground Stern Group.
“I liked him a lot,” Mekel said of Shamir, who plucked him out of the Foreign Ministry in the mid-1980s and brought him to the Prime Minister’s Bureau in 1986 along with Yossi Ben-Aharon, Elyakim Rubinstein, Avi Pazner and Tzachi Hanegbi. This was Shamir’s second stint as prime minister, having served for just under a year in 1982-1983.
“He was my teacher and my rebbe,” Mekel said, smiling when he remembered how the prime minister used to speak to him in Yiddish, and once accompanied Mekel and his mother to a performance of the Yiddish theater in Tel Aviv, sitting in the back row.
“I spent a lot of time with him, You knew he was courageous, a man of principle. You might disagree with his politics, but that generation – [prime ministers David] Ben-Gurion, [Menachem] Begin, Shamir – they were giants. That we have a state today is only thanks to them. I was fortunate to have drawn water for one of that generation.”
Shamir took Mekel with him from the Foreign Ministry, where he landed a job after serving as the Army Radio’s first diplomatic correspondent in 1968, Israel Radio’s diplomatic correspondent during the Yom Kippur War, a Jewish Agency emissary in Cincinnati and a student at Columbia University where he received a master’s in sociology.
One of the jobs Mekel did for Shamir was serve as his note taker during meetings with statesmen that were conducted in English, such as in meetings with US president Ronald Reagan and secretary of state George Shultz.
“Shamir learned English,” Mekel said, but when he sat with a Shultz, a Reagan or a Bush, he didn’t always understand all the nuances. “There was one incident with Shultz when he said that if Israel would do this and that, then it would be a ‘touchdown.’” Shamir, Mekel remembered, “looked at me, not knowing what he meant.”
“What I would do after the meeting was type all the notes up in Hebrew, and give it to him to read at night.”
The idea, Mekel said, was to transmit the nuances.
People do not give Shamir, who died in 2012, enough credit, Mekel said.
“He knew exactly why he was prime minister – he said that as long as he was prime minister, he would never give away one centimeter of Eretz Yisrael. You could argue with him. I said to him once, ‘You are not going to be prime minister forever, people will come after you – even from the Likud – who will want to return territory.’ He said, ‘I know, but sometimes in history a postponement of even a few years is important.’” Mekel said the image of Shamir as the steely man who only said “no” was mistaken. While he did indeed say “no” when it came to any territorial concessions, he said “yes” to US president George H.W. Bush in 1991 when he asked Shamir not to respond to Scud missile attacks from Iraq during the First Gulf War.
“He was a man of principle,” Mekel said. “When he needed to say ‘no,’ he said ‘no.’ But when he needed to say ‘yes,’ he said ‘yes.’ During the Gulf War the whole security apparatus came to him and said it was inconceivable that an Arab country was firing missiles, and we weren’t responding. Shamir did not listen. The US asked him not to respond, and he said ‘yes’ to the Americans.”
DURING SHAMIR’S years in office, one matter that was not high up on his list of priorities – not even on the radar screen – was Israel’s relations with Greece. It was the late 1980s, and Greece was being governed by Andreas Papandreou, a friend of Yasser Arafat and a person who ensured that his country would not have much of a relationship with Israel.
Indeed, during that period Greece was arguably the most hostile country in Western Europe toward Israel.
Not until 1990 – a full 42 years after independence – did the two countries exchange ambassadors, and that during a four-year interval when Papandreou was not in power. After 20 years, Mekel was tabbed to fill the position of Israel’s ambassador to Greece, the culmination of a long career in the Foreign Ministry that included stints in South Korea, Atlanta and New York, and as the ministry’s spokesman.
The dramatic shift in Greek-Israeli relations came in February 2010, when another Papandreou – George, Andreas’s son – was prime minister and by chance met Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the Pushkin Restaurant in Moscow. In a meeting that has since entered Israeli diplomatic lore, the two men – accompanied by their wives – spoke for hours and significantly altered the course of Israeli-Greek relations.
“Papandreou surprised us,” Mekel said. “He [is] half-American, his mother is American, and he was born in Minnesota, speaks English. He looked at things differently than his predecessor, and wanted to give Greece a global role. Once he asked me why, if there were peace talks again, they couldn’t be held in the Greek islands, like the Rhodes armistice agreement talks in 1949.”
Mekel said that when he took up his posting in Athens later that year, the door to better Israeli-Greek relations was open, and his job was to “enter it” with full force.
And he did. Ties between the two countries took off in 2010 – in the four years Mekel was in Greece, from 2010 to 2014, there were numerous ministerial visits in both directions: prime ministers, defense ministers, foreign ministers and others.
All those visits were accompanied by the signing of various accords, and by media coverage. As government-to-government ties changed for the better, so too did public opinion.
And as Israel’s relations got progressively worse with Turkey during 2010, following the Mavi Marmara incident in May of that year, things got progressively better with Greece. To this day the Turks bar Israeli military aircraft from flying over its airspace – not only for maneuvers, but also on their way to other destinations. Greece stepped in, permitting such flights.
Furthermore, Israel appointed a military attaché to Athens this summer, a sign of the burgeoning security relationship between the two countries.
Mekel said that what makes the dramatic changes with Greece even more significant is that they took place amid two objective obstacles. The first was Greece’s economic crisis, when the country had to look inward, not abroad. And the second was that it took place at a time of great political instability. Mekel started working with the socialist Papandreou, and after two elections finished his stint with a conservative prime minister, Antonis Samaras, now in power.
The new prime minister has continued and even stepped up Greece’s ties with Israel.
“It was not a given that the conservatives would continue the same policy of the socialists,” he said.
Regarding the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party in Greece, Mekel said that although problematic, the way the government is dealing with it – onethird of the party’s parliamentary members, including its leader, are currently in jail – is impressive.
“This is a difficult phenomenon, but the government is acting,” he said.
During a recent conference in Hungary, where there is an even stronger neo-Nazi party, Jobbik, in parliament, one comment Mekel said he heard repeated was why Hungary’s government could not be more like Greece’s in this regard.
Upon leaving Greece, Mekel gave a number of interviews, and was constantly asked what would happen to Israeli-Greek ties in the event of a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement.
Israel’s tension with Turkey, Mekel said, was an excuse Papandreou could use at the time to explain to the Greek public closer ties with Israel.
“He could say that since we were not f r i e n d l y with Turkey, they could c o o p - e r a t e with us. The Mavi Marmara influenced the ties with Greece, because it illustrated dramatically the distance between Israel and Turkey. Papandreou used this as an excuse when speaking to his public, but he wanted those ties for his own global reasons.”
In those parting interviews with the Greek media, Mekel said that today Israel’s relations with Greece is standing on its own two legs, independent of the state of relations with Turkey.
“I didn’t hide anything, we want good relations with Turkey – it is the only nation in our immediate neighborhood that is Muslim but not Arab, and its is important for us. But with that being said, I think the relations with Greece are so close that there is no reason that they should be hurt by good relations with someone else. We could have good ties both with Greece and with Turkey.”
What Mekel could fairly have said, but did not, was that there was no real need for Greek concern, since the recent election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Turkey’s president rendered the chances of Israel having to choose between Greece and Turkey any time soon as slim indeed. But that answer would not have been very diplomatic, and after 50 years of public service, Mekel remains – until the very end – a true diplomat.