Grapevine November 11, 2022: Their last hurrah

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.  (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

For ministers in the outgoing government, their inclusion in the delegation to COP27, the UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm e-Sheikh, was a last hurrah before they vacate their positions. It certainly was for Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, who participated in a closed-door regional forum in which Iraqi and Lebanese leaders also took part. All pledged to cooperate on matters of climate change that affect the whole region.

Zandberg, a former head of Meretz, announced some months ago that she was taking time out from politics, and did not stand for election in the Meretz primaries. With hindsight, that was a wise decision considering that Meretz did not pass the threshold to enter the Knesset.

For President Isaac Herzog, who is genuinely concerned about climate change, the conference was an opportunity to engage in diplomacy. It is something that has marked his presidency to such an extent that it would not be a surprise, at the conclusion of his term, if the prime minister in 2028 offers him either the position of foreign minister or roving ambassador.

In Sharm e-Sheikh, Herzog was the first member of Israel’s leadership to meet with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. But photographically, he appeared to have as close a relationship with King Abdullah of Jordan as Yitzhak Rabin had with the king’s father, King Hussein. The body language said it all.

For all that, there was a missed opportunity. In accordance with protocol and good manners, leaders of delegations who stood together en masse for a group photograph introduced themselves to each other.

 KING ABDULLAH of Jordan with President Isaac Herzog.  (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO) KING ABDULLAH of Jordan with President Isaac Herzog. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

According to a press release from Herzog’s office, “T​he prime minister of Tunisia and ​prime ​minister of Lebanon​ were standing nearby when the leaders introduced themselves to each other; it was understood among them that they could not speak [to Herzog]. That was the entire conversation between the three leaders.”

But at least one Israeli publication decided that Herzog had briefly chatted with Tunisia’s prime minister, adding that this was something that had drawn harsh criticism in the Arab world.

Herzog: The third president to give Netanyahu the mandate for form a government

■ HERZOG HAS announced that on Sunday he will task a Knesset member to form a government. If, as generally anticipated, the MK considered most likely to be able to do so is Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Herzog will be the third president of the state to give Netanyahu this mission. 

The first was Ezer Weizman. The second was Reuven Rivlin and the third will be Herzog. If that is the case, and Netanyahu succeeds, not only will he make history by serving three non-consecutive terms, but also by having been chosen by three different presidents, only one of who is younger than him. All three were former MKs and ministers.

The Cypriot delegation to Israel

■ AMONG THE dignitaries from Cyprus who accompanied President Nicos Anastasiades and his wife Andri to Israel this week was former ambassador of Cyprus to Israel Thessalia Shambos. She has a rich diplomatic history and is currently the director for the Middle East, Gulf and African states in the Cyprus Ministry for Foreign Affairs, as well as coordinator of trilateral and regional networks. 

Other invitees to the ceremony​,​ at which President Herzog conferred the Presidential Medal of Honor on Anastasiades​,​ were Greek Patriarch Theophilos III, Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll, and Energy Minister Karine Elharrar.

Herzog and Anastasiades both mentioned the long-standing relations between Herzog’s family and Cyprus. Approximately a century ago Herzog’s maternal grandfather, Simcha Ambache, together with several partners, founded the famous Phassouri Plantations, the largest in Cyprus. In 1974, ownership of the company became fully Cypriot.

The speakers at the Mitvim Conference

■ TAMAR ZANDBERG is listed as a speaker in the upcoming Mitvim Conference on “Israel’s Foreign Policy between Change and Continuity,” to be held at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Center on November 21. Since a new government will probably be in place by then, it is not certain that Zandberg will actually make an appearance.

Among the other speakers are Alon Ushpiz, director general of the Foreign Ministry; and Tor Wennesland, UN envoy for the Middle East Peace Process. The conference is being held in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Armistice Day

■ FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 11 is Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I, which was optimistically referred to as “the war to end all wars.” Since then, the world has witnessed many wars, and continues to do so. 

Because the Armistice Agreement was signed in France, Armistice Day is particularly meaningful to the French, and Ambassador Eric Danon is today holding an Armistice Day ceremony at his residence.

Approving the zoning for the US embassy in Jerusalem

■ IT MAY have been a sheer coincidence, or it could have been by design, but the Jerusalem Municipality’s approval of the zoning for the permanent US embassy in Jerusalem was published on the 27th anniversary of the Jerusalem Embassy Act becoming law. 

The act, which was approved in October 1995, became law on November 8 of that year, but was left unsigned by then-president Bill Clinton. The relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem was postponed time and again until the advent of former president Donald Trump, who authorized its transfer in 2018.​The huge plot of land​ on Derech Hebron​, acquired for the​ embassy’s​ ​construction, has remained empty for years; construction of the new building ​​may not be completed before the end of the decade. ​

The launch of a book on Edmond Safra

■ QUITE UNINTENTIONALLY, the ethnic genie crept out of the bottle. The event at the Israel Museum was a book launch and meeting with New York journalist and author Daniel Gross, who is currently traveling to different countries to talk about Edmond Safra, the subject of his latest book, A Banker’s Journey. 

Safra, who was born in Beirut to a banking family from Aleppo, Syria, was widely acknowledged as the greatest banker of his times. In conversation with fellow journalist and author Matti Friedman, Gross said that it had taken him approximately four years to interview people who had known Safra, and to research the thousands of documents to complete the book. 

Although Safra was a very private person and rarely granted interviews, much has been written about him. But other writers were unfamiliar with the Syrian Jewish milieu in which Gross had been raised, and they missed the reasons for some of Safra’s seeming idiosyncrasies, which actually were bound up with Sephardi Jewish tradition, or Jewish traditions per se. Without understanding the reasons for what he did, such as selling shares in one of his banks for $72 each – four times hai (life) – it would be impossible to tell the whole story. 

Gross’s combined expertise in economic history and familiarity with Syrian Jewish traditions enabled him to write about aspects of Safra’s life and character that had escaped the attention of other writers. Among the people attending the launch were rabbis, philanthropists, representatives from the world of finance, academics and others who had benefited from Safra’s extraordinary largesse, and that of his widow Lily, who continued with his legacy until her own recent death. 

A photo exhibition – which features the couple together, as well as Edmond on his own with close friends and acquaintances such as Yitzhak and Leah Rabin, Margaret and Dennis Thatcher, Teddy Kollek, Mikhail Gorbachev and David Rockefeller – gives some indication of Edmond Safra’s importance and influence. 

And yet, as Gross himself said during the conversation with Friedman, there were audiences at his book launches who were acquainted with Safra, and those who knew nothing about the successful banker. When Gross took questions from the audience, he was asked why the whole world knows about the Rothschilds, yet considering the influence and impact of Safra, so few people know about the Safras. 

Gross pointed out that the Rothschilds have been on the world trading, banking and philanthropic map for a considerably longer period. He also went into detail about how Sephardi Jews were held in low esteem – even those as rich and generous as the Safras. He recounted that when the Jewish Federation of New York was approached for funding to help get the remaining Jews out of Syria, the response was that Syrian Jews are not important. What was important was to get Jews out of Russia.

In some quarters, that negative attitude toward Sephardi Jews continues to prevail – even in Israel, where in ultra-Orthodox, high-standard Ashkenazi yeshivot and seminaries for girls there is a quota system that denies top-level Jewish education to Sephardi students.

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