Grapevine: A serious window of opportunity?

President Shimon Peres encourages Tony Blair on his new mission.

blair peres 298.88 (photo credit: GPO)
blair peres 298.88
(photo credit: GPO)
If former British prime minister Tony Blair, who is now the Quartet's special envoy to the Middle East, was looking for brownie points, he received them on Tuesday from President Shimon Peres. The new president said he was extremely delighted that Blair had taken up "one of the most responsible and demanding tasks in his career." Peres said that he could not think of a person better equipped and motivated to do this task. Describing the Middle East situation in which Blair finds himself as "very complex," Peres nonetheless perceived it as "a serious window of opportunity," but admitted that he did not know its duration. "Not too long," he surmised. Peres and Blair, after talking to each other at Beit Hanassi, the president's residence, for close to an hour, emerged with slow, measured steps into the main reception hall to be greeted by a horde of photographers. It had been previously announced that each would make a short statement, and would not take any questions. "Your success will be our success," Peres told Blair, adding that the former prime minister brings his own respect and prestige to the challenging task at hand. Blair expressed his delight at seeing Peres in the role of president, and apologized to the media for not being more responsive. On this initial visit, he said, he had come to "listen, learn and reflect." Blair was also cautiously optimistic, saying that "there is a sense of possibility," but he was not sure whether it could be translated into anything concrete. Meanwhile, he said, he was getting a sense of the challenges and issues, as well as the answers and solutions, and there was no one better to do that with than Peres, though he would be paying attention to other Israeli leaders, the Palestinians and other players in the region. When signing the Beit Hanassi guest book, Blair was either in a hurry, or his mind was elsewhere, because he left no great thought for posterity. He merely wrote his name. In a break with protocol, Peres walked Blair to his car. Generally speaking, the president neither receives nor bids farewell to anyone of a lower rank outside the doors of Beit Hanassi. It was a supreme tribute to Blair that Peres chose to escort him. Once outside, Peres was surrounded by reporters eager to know what he and Blair had discussed. Peres said he had told Blair that he had to be like the conductor of an orchestra to achieve harmony - "a sort of political Zubin Mehta." He also told Blair that he had to achieve consensus, and to advance the Palestinian Authority politically and economically while helping the Palestinians to build their institutions. Blair was the third Middle East peace envoy to meet with Peres in the space of a week. The others were EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana and China's special envoy to the Middle East, Sun Bigan. Peres is scheduled to meet today with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah al-Khatib, who are heading an Arab League delegation to Israel. JOURNALISTS COVERING the meeting on Monday between Peres and Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog, waiting outside the president's office while the two had a private tete-a-tete, were surprised when the door was eventually opened not by a security guard, but by Herzog. Part of their closed-door conversation was taken up with Herzog's reminiscences of Beit Hanassi during the decade in which his father, the late Chaim Herzog, was president. Since his death 10 years ago, there has been an annual memorial ceremony for him at Beit Hanassi on the anniversary of his passing. Members of the Herzog family are also invited to various events at Beit Hanassi throughout the year, so their association remains quite strong. Herzog commented that the president's office had undergone a major change since his father's time. Indeed, it was hardly recognizable as the office which Moshe Katsav vacated in January of this year. All the furniture has been replaced, and in the redecoration, everything has been moved around, so that neither the desk nor the sofa and arm chairs are in the same part of the room as they were before. The result is that the room looks much bigger than it used to. There are also fewer photographs in the outer office and on the walls of the landing leading to the outer office. Naturally, there are photos of Peres with David Ben Gurion and with Yitzhak Rabin, but there are also photos with Pope Benedict XVI, USPresident George W. and First Lady Laura Bush, King Hussein, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat. The Arafat photos are not downstairs, where members of the general public might notice them. Yet even though fewer people will see them, some will undoubtedly be disconcerted to see a man with Arafat's blood-stained history featured on any wall in Beit Hanassi - and more than once at that. IN HIS new role as number one citizen, Peres will not be able to do as much traveling as he did in the past, when he went abroad several times a month and sometimes two or three times in one week. However, it is highly likely that he will be in France next March to open the prestigious Paris Book Fair together with President Nicolas Sarkozy, who sent the invitation almost immediately after Peres entered office. The book fair will include many volumes about Israel in recognition of Israel's 60th anniversary year. For his part, Peres has already begun issuing invitations to world leaders to come to Israel to join in the celebrations. Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, during her recent visit to England as acting president, invited Prince Charles, who was born in the same year that the State of Israel was created, to come and celebrate his 60th birthday in Israel. TALKING OF births, Yoram Dori, Peres's long-time strategic adviser, had trouble coming down to earth as the working week began on Sunday. His daughter-in-law had presented him with twins - a boy and a girl - over the weekend, and although it was not his first experience as a grandfather, it was the first time around in his family for a double bundle of joy - and he was walking on air. TELEVISION AND radio personality Merav Michaeli appeared in a somewhat different role than those she has taken over the years on the electronic media. She was neither zany, nor brash. As MC for an event honoring the memory of her grandfather, Dr. Israel Kasztner, whose private archive was donated to Yad Vashem, she was more subdued than usual. The material includes original historical documents describing relations between private parties, and Jewish and non-Jewish institutions as well as papers documenting the rescue efforts of the Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest during World War Two. In 1981, the archives were given to the historian Dov Dinur to aid in his research into the notorious Kasztner Affair and into the life of Kasztner in general. An attorney, journalist, and one of the leaders of the Zionist movement in Hungary, Kasztner, as the co-chairman of the Relief and Rescue Committee, aided Jewish refugees who reached Hungary during the early years of the war. In April 1944, a month after the German invasion of Hungary, the committee initiated deals with the Nazis in the hope of rescuing Hungarian Jews in exchange for money, goods, and military equipment. These negotiations took place under the shadow of the deportations of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. In June 1944, the "Kasztner Train" traveled to Bergen-Belsen and eventually on to safety in Switzerland where the 1,684 Jewish "passengers" found refuge. The negotiations also resulted in the deportation of 20,000 Hungarian Jews to an Austrian labor camp, thereby averting their impending expulsion to extermination camps. In 1954, Kasztner was publicly accused by Malkiel Gruenwald, an embittered Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, of collaborating with the Nazis and selling his soul to the devil Kasztner filed a libel suit, and lost. He appealed the verdict handed down by Judge Benjamin Halevy, but was assassinated in 1957, a year before the Supreme Court exonerated him. Even so, there has been a cloud over his memory for half a century. However the people he saved will forever be grateful. Many of them, their children and grandchildren attended the archive presentation ceremony and filled the Yad Vashem auditorium to overflowing. One of them, Naomi Herskovitz, spoke emotionally about the train journey from Hungary to Switzerland and on to Israel. Kasztner's daughter, Susan, who has lived with the tragedy for most of her life, believes that making the archives available to scholars will not only support the Supreme Court's decision, but will vindicate her father in the eyes of all those who study Holocaust history, especially that pertaining to Hungary. Michaeli went a step further, and said that this chapter in Holocaust history should be taught in schools in the same way as the history of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto is taught. In that way, she said, more people would come to know the true story about her grandfather. THE MUSIC of Richard Wagner is still banned from public performance in Israel, though conductor Daniel Barenboim briefly broke the taboo and later faced a storm of criticism. Zubin Mehta has also been advocating a change of policy vis-à-vis Wagner, but perhaps because Mehta is not Jewish, he did not dare do what Barenboim did. Anyway, whether Wagner's music is played in Israel or not, his great grandson, Dr. Gottfried Wagner, is here to participate in the local premier of an opera, "Lost Childhood," based on the autobiography of child Holocaust survivor, Dr. Yehuda Nir, at the Jaffa Music Center. EXTRAORDINARILY POPULAR singer Einat Sarouf, whose weekly fashionable nostalgia concerts at Gonky in south Tel Aviv are invariably sell-outs, with celebrities dancing on the tables and dignitaries letting down their hair, witnessed a little competition last week between psychologist, company director, entrepreneur, actress, writer, and television hostess Galia Albin and public relations executive Irena Shalmor. The latter and her business partner, Motti Scherf, decided to give their 30 employees a fun night at Gonky. Albin happened to be there on the same night. Enraptured by Sarouf's rendition of "To live with him" (Lagur Ito), Albin and Shalmor energetically joined in and took over the stage to the extent that Sarouf was almost left out in the cold. THERE WILL probably be a lot of energy tonight, when another popular singer, Yehuda Sa'ado and his fiancée, Esther Ifergen, participate in the traditional pre-wedding henna ceremony at the bride's home in Nir Galim. The wedding at the Chateau Banquet Hall on Monday of next week will understandably be a much larger affair to which a thousand guests have been invited. SUMMONED TO an urgent Labor Party meeting in Rishon Lezion at the home of National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, MK Ophir Paz-Pines obeyed the call only to discover that the urgent meeting was a surprise party in honor of his birthday. He turned 46 on July 11. VETERAN JERUSALEMITES and those from long established families are flocking to the capital's Underground Prisoners Museum to see a very special photographic exhibition organized by Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi and based on extracts from family albums dating from 1850 to 1950. For reasons best known to the museum management and the curator, the exhibition is stretched along what used to be Death Row. Stories about the poverty that existed in Jerusalem are seldom borne out in the photographs which in many cases show sweet little girls in the most adorable, highly fashionable dresses. One of the more prominent families of the city in the late 19th and early 20th century was the Valero family. A photograph of the marriage in 1906 in the Old City of Yaacov Valero to Menucha Goldberg shows the bride and her attendants in the most exquisite of gowns. In fact, there are several bridal photos and in every case, the bride is impressively dressed in a high necked, long-sleeved gown with the skirt trailing below her ankles. Everyone seemed to have been much more fashion conscious up to 1950, because the men are almost always seen in suits, and the women in quite sophisticated dresses and high heeled shoes. Of special interest is the album of Mazal Navon-Linenberg, the older sister of Israel's fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, who, as she approached middle age, took on the study of genealogy and history and became one of Jerusalem's foremost experts. A family photo dating back to 1924 shows Mazal, her parents and her two brothers, Victor and Yitzhak, one dressed in a military jacket and the other in a sailor suit. Mazal Navon-Linenberg spent her whole life in Jerusalem until last year, when at age 93, she moved to Kfar Shmaryahu to be closer to her children. The Navon family on their father's side can trace their Holy Land lineage back to 1670. ALSO SEVERING ties with Jerusalem is business magnate Moshe Dadash, the former legendary chairman of the Betar Jerusalem soccer team. Dadash, who moved to Tel Aviv soon after he lost his prestige with Betar, continued to maintain a luxury villa in the capital, which he recently sold for something in the range of a million dollars. LISTED LAST week by Business Data Israel as one of 19 business people and their families who control more than a third of the income of Israel's 500 leading companies, billionaire Haim Saban has proved time and again that he not only rakes in the money, but gives it away in huge amounts. The most recent case in point was his $20-million dollar gift to a major outreach initiative of Hollywood's Motion Picture and Television Fund Foundation. Saban and his wife, Cheryl, live in Hollywood although they commute frequently to Israel. The Sabans have provided most of the funding for the Saban Center for Health and Wellness, whose beneficiaries will be retirees from the motion picture and television industries. The MPTFF has for decades operated a large retirement village for the industries' aging population, on what is known as the Wasserman Campus. But its new focus is now on healthy aging, and towards that aim it created an additional "campus" facility, the Saban Center, whose service will also be available to those Hollywood retirees living independently, in addition to the 400 residents of the village established for people less well off. Like the retirement village, it will charge only what people can afford. The Saban Center's swimming pool and hydrotherapy facilities were funded by award-winning actress Jodie Foster. At the center's celebrity-studded dedication ceremony last week, Saban said: "By engaging members in a healthy lifestyle management, this center will directly affect the quality of life of those who rely on MPTFF." In Tel Aviv, there is a modest-sized retirement home not far from Habimah Theater for retirees from Israel's entertainment industry. They too might welcome a little of the Saban largesse. THERE'S HUTZPAH, and there's hutzpah, and either way you look at it, Jerusalemite Gavy Friedson, whether speaking in English or in Hebrew, has no shortage of it. Friedson, who is due to begin his army service on Thursday, recently bumped into Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi at a social gathering. When he told them that he was going into the army, they asked what he wanted to get out of it, and the precocious 18-year old replied: "An air conditioned room." Apparently they liked his style, because they posed for photos with him.