Grapevine: Our friend Putin

Putin seems to have more time for Jews and Israel than any of his predecessors or his neighbors.

Russian President Vladimir Putin  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At the end of this year, Russia and Israel will celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations.
Actually, the Soviet Union was one of the first countries to enter into diplomatic relations with the nascent State of Israel, but severed ties in 1967, following the Six Day War. When relations were renewed toward the end of 1991, the crumbling Soviet Union sent colorful journalist Alexander Bovin as its ambassador to Israel. Bovin, dressed in the uniform of a Soviet admiral, presented his credentials to president Chaim Herzog. A week later, Bovin was no longer the ambassador of the Soviet Union but, rather, the ambassador of the Russian Federation.
Relations between Russia and Israel must be far better than meets the eye, given the fact that since first taking office in 2000, President Vladimir Putin has met every Israeli president and prime minister. The first time he came to Israel, in April 2005, as the guest of president Moshe Katsav, there was speculation both in Russia and Israel that Putin would have a hard time living with the bread of affliction instead of regular bread – but he survived. He came again in November 2012 and was hosted at a banquet in his honor by president Shimon Peres.
Putin seems to have more time for Jews and Israel than any of his predecessors or his neighbors. On the day before Passover, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a lightning visit to Moscow and met with Putin for the second time in seven months. During the month of April alone, Putin has met with President Reuven Rivlin, Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar on more than one occasion, World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder and most recently Netanyahu. In January this year, Putin met with members of the European Jewish Congress headed by Russian oligarch Moshe Kantor. During that meeting Putin offered Russia as a haven for European Jews, who are facing the worst anti-Semitic threats since the Nazi era.
■ DURING THE day on Wednesday, for the fourth consecutive year, Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, distributed vouchers to lone soldiers and soldiers from families suffering economic hardship. The vouchers were gleaned from NIS 565,000 which she had raised through United Israel Appeal, and she was pleased to not only be able to continue with this annual tradition but also to raise more money than in the past, despite economic crises in various parts of the world. As the mother of a combat soldier, she said, she could well understand the anxieties of mothers of lone soldiers.
Late on Wednesday night, after the Netanyahus had hosted the prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, and his wife, Ho Ching, who were on the first-ever visit to Israel by a prime minister of Singapore, the Netanyahus received two visitors dressed in hassidic garb bearing gifts. The hassidim wanted to make sure that the prime minister had plenty of shmura matza for his Seder, and each was carrying several boxes. A security guard took them indoors via a side entrance.
■ EVEN BETTER than vouchers was the surprise that Nechama Rivlin, the wife of the president of the state, had for five lone female soldiers serving in combat units. After thanking Levana Biton from France, Chaya Winterfall from Canada, Elisheva Rubinstein from Holland, Tal Duber from Florida in the US, and Yael Tzubra from Sweden and telling them how much she admired them, Rivlin said that she had a surprise for them in the next room. The surprise was a reunion with their parents, which was met with exclamations of delight, warm embraces and tears of joy on the part of both parents and soldiers. The emotional reunion was facilitated by Friends of the IDF in the US and Panama.
■ DEAN OF the diplomatic corps and Ambassador of Cameroon Henri Etoundi Essomba has been in Israel for so long that he calls it his second home. In fact, many of his diplomatic colleagues thought that he would wind up his diplomatic career in Israel, but though he’s leaving, he’s going to another fascinating destination – Washington. Essomba was initially sent to Israel in the early 1990s as chargé d’affaires, tasked to set up the chancery and pave the way for Cameroon’s first ambassador here.
He thought that he would spend only a few months in Israel, but the few months stretched into a few years, and no ambassador was appointed.
In the mid-1990s, following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Essomba was called home and offered the position of deputy chief of protocol. He saw it as a learning experience and accepted. But it turned out to be a very brief interlude. Within a short period of time, he was promoted and appointed Cameroon’s first ambassador to Israel.
Nine-and-a-half years ago years ago, he became dean of the diplomatic corps. The dean is usually the ambassador who has served for the longest period in his or her current posting. Essomba has no idea as to who will succeed him. The most obvious candidates are either nonresident or due to wind up their own tenures within the next few months.
Coincidentally, Essomba, together with Gad Naschitz, the dean of the consular corps, are to be honored at a special reception hosted by the Ambassadors’ Club on May 9. When he sent out the invitation, Ambassadors’ Club founder and president Yitzhak Eldan had no inkling that the event would also be a farewell for Essomba.
■ HEADS OF foreign missions stationed in Israel have been known to sing “Hatikva” at their national day receptions, but until this week no one had accompanied the singer on the piano. The large crowd gathered on the lawns of the Dutch residence on Wednesday night was pleasantly surprised, after the speeches and toasts by Dutch Ambassador Gilles Beschoor Plug and Construction Minister Yoav Galant at the King’s Day reception, to see the ambassador move back a pace and sit down at the grand piano to accompany Daniel Colthof as he sang the Dutch and Israeli national anthems.
Plug, who has been in Israel for only a few months, made a valiant effort to address his guests in Hebrew, saying how much he, his wife, Louise, and their daughter Nina appreciated the way in which new friends and colleagues had aided their integration into Israel. Switching to English, he also explained that King’s Day had been moved forward by a week due to next week’s Passover holiday. The ambassador characterized the past year as “remarkable” in the development of relations between the Netherlands and Israel, both at government to government and business to business levels. He said that next year’s reception will be on the correct date and voiced the hope that by then there would be a better outlook for the region.
Galant had some difficulty in reading the speech prepared for him by the Protocol Department of the Foreign Ministry. His English is fine, but the print was in relatively small type, and there was insufficient light.
In an attempt to solve the problem, he turned on the torch in his mobile phone, and his reading improved.
He noted that the Netherlands is Israel’s fifth-largest trading partner and leading European investor in Israeli companies, with investments currently standing at $5 billion. Galant announced that Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to visit the Netherlands in September this year. He also announced the appointment of a new honorary consul for Israel in the Netherlands, Arjen Lont, who is one of three honorary consuls serving Israel’s interests in his home country. Commenting on the fact that the Netherlands currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union, Galant voiced the hope that under Dutch leadership there will be a fairer and more balanced approach toward Israel. In this context, he also thanked the Netherlands for its stand against anti-Semitism.
He also thanked the Netherlands for the donation of a goods scanner at the Kerem Shalom border crossing and its willingness to donate another for use at the Allenby Bridge, thus enabling increased import and export of goods to and from the Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria, which helps to improve conditions for the Palestinians while maintaining security. He concluded by saying that Israel would welcome the Netherlands’ contribution in encouraging the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table and to engage in direct dialogue without preconditions.
■ THERE WERE many diplomats at the Dutch reception, including Egyptian Ambassador Hazem Khairat and Jordanian Ambassador Walid Obeidat, who were seen listening intently to two young Israeli-Arab women, Hanan Khamis and Nisma Masawi, who are studying for doctoral degrees at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and who together are running a program to encourage other Israeli-Arab women to utilize their potential and to study some branch of technology in order to be able to make a meaningful contribution to the quality of life of their families and to the economy of the country.
■ SINCE SPAIN’S enacting of legislation in June 2015 to grant Spanish citizenship to anyone who can prove descent from the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, around 4,300 applicants have received Spanish citizenship, according to Spanish Ambassador Fernando Carderera. The ambassador could not say exactly how many are Israeli, because the applications are made directly to Madrid. However, of the new Spanish citizens who proclaim their oaths of allegiance at Spanish embassies in their home countries, almost every week, there is a ceremony at the Spanish Embassy in Tel Aviv, where on average 15 Israelis proclaim their loyalty to Spain, said Carderera.
■ THE PASSOVER toast at The Jerusalem Post was a bitter- sweet affair in that it was the last time that Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde presided over such an event before his successor, Yaakov Katz, takes over sometime next month. It wasn’t exactly a farewell for Linde, as was made clear by Jerusalem Post Group CEO Ronit Hasin-Hochman, who praised him not only as an excellent editor-in-chief but also as a fine journalist who will contribute to the Post from time to time in the latter capacity. Referring to Linde’s daily updates on his Facebook page, which is a blend of his personal adventures as well as events relating to Post writers, editors and graphic artists, in addition to newsworthy items, Hasin-Hochman said that this was indicative of the extent to which all those who contribute to the paper’s ongoing success are in a sense a family.
The occasion was also used to celebrate the 95th birthday of Alexander Zvielli, the Post’s most veteran employee, who after 70 plus years is still on the job.
Political reporter Gil Hoffman was also celebrating a birthday, but he still has well over half a century to go before he reaches Zvielli’s age. Linde will also be celebrating a birthday at the end of the Passover holiday, and Hasin-Hochman had gifts for him and for Zvielli.
Linde confirmed the feeling of family, saying that he had loved every minute on the job and had participated in numerous celebrations of weddings, births, circumcision ceremonies, bar mitzvas and, unfortunately, funerals. He emphasized that he loved everyone with whom he worked at the Post.
■ ONE OF the benefits of being an emergency medical service volunteer is that one’s training enables one to deal with emergency situations in one’s own family.
That’s what happened when Bat-El Moshe of Netivot went into labor several days before she was due to give birth. Just over a week ago, she woke up at approximately 2 a.m. with the feeling that the baby was in a hurry to enter the world. She alerted her husband, Eran, who immediately went to prepare their car for a ride to the hospital. However, when he reentered the house, Bat-El told him that they would never make it to the hospital in time. Eran, who is a United Hatzalah volunteer, called an ambulance but delivered the baby himself before it arrived.
There had been no warning signs the previous day to indicate that the birth was imminent, and it was simply by chance that Eran was home. He was supposed to be on a school trip with one of his other children, but the trip was canceled at the last minute. By the time the ambulance arrived, the only thing left to do was to cut the umbilical cord. The couple’s sixth child was already in her mother’s arms, and Eran was ecstatic that he had been able to assist with the birth.
Mother and child were transferred to Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, and both are now home, happy and healthy. There are many fathers who deliver their own infants, but not all can do it without getting telephone instructions from a nurse or a doctor throughout the process. Eran was already trained and didn’t need any guidance.
■ IDC HERZLIYA graduate Ariella Rada, who was a BA student in the Israel at Heart Ethiopian scholarship program and went on to earn an MA as well, has been appointed deputy ambassador at the Israel Embassy in Lima, Peru, and will take up her appointment in the summer. Rada, who is also a former commander in the Israel Defense Forces, has been to the United States practicing public diplomacy on Israel’s behalf.
The Israel at Heart fellowship program at IDC was created in 2002 to give young Ethiopian Israelis who want to pursue academic studies the opportunity to do so. The fellowship provides full tuition and living expenses. Students study business and accounting, law, government, psychology, computer science and communications, and many of the alumni are successfully employed in these fields. The program continues to grow and is attracting many top-notch students from the Ethiopian community.
However this, and other similar programs have not yet succeeded in breaking down the barriers of racial bias. A highly educated member of the Ethiopian community, who – together with a haredi woman, a religious Sephardi woman, a haredi Ashkenazi woman and an Arab woman – was interviewed this week by Israel Radio’s Keren Neubach, was asked to define what freedom means to her. Her answer was simple but sad. She wants to be treated like everyone else.
Even though she is an Israeli citizen with an Israeli passport, and speaks fluent Hebrew without any trace of a foreign accent, she is always taken aside at Ben-Gurion Airport and needlessly detained, while security staff check make her prove she speaks Hebrew and is indeed who she says she is and not an interloper from some African country. She does not want to be humiliated and treated like a criminal.
All the other women in the group had also suffered some form of bias, not because of anything personal but because of their ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Fortunately, the Foreign Ministry is free of this kind of bias, and has appointed Jewish, Arab, Druse, Ethiopian, religious, secular, heterosexual and homosexual diplomats to represent Israel abroad.