Grapevine: Clear vision down under

AUSTRALIAN Prime Minister John Howard was mobbed in Perth last weekend after declaring that Hizbullah "is not some kind of inspirational liberation organization, it's a terrorist organization." But for several days beforehand, Australian Ambassador Tim George, who is winding up his term, had been stating that the attack against Israel was "unprovoked and unjustified." It would seem his opinion was not only personal but official. Among the people who showed up at the Australian residence at George's own farewell, which he hosted with his wife, Geraldine, was National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who was visibly roasting in his suit. He was one of only three men who came in suits, though in his case it was because he was continuing on to another engagement. An aide of Ben-Eliezer's whispered to George that Ben-Eliezer was in a hurry to leave to this next engagement, but either George misunderstood him or did not hear him in the excitement of the official procedure, which could have easily been reversed to accommodate the minister. But instead, it started with the traditional presentation by Henri Etoundi Essomba, dean of the Diplomatic Corps, of a sterling silver salver, which is the traditional gift bestowed on departing ambassadors to Israel by their colleagues in the Diplomatic Corps. In making the presentation, Essomba indulged in a rambling speech about George's virtues, during which Ben-Eliezer's aide again approached the host, but to no avail. When Essomba finished speaking, George took the microphone to praise the caliber of all foreign ambassadors sent to Israel, and observed that they were chosen as much for their stamina as for their professional skills. In reviewing his three-year tenure, George listed as the highlight of his experience in Israel "the terrific cooperation" he had received from the Foreign Ministry and all the organizations and institutions with which the embassy interacts on a regular basis. He also made frequent references to the excellent relations that exist between Australia and Israel, and commented on the contribution made by Ben-Eliezer toward the enhancement of those relations. He then invited Ben-Eliezer to the microphone, but the minister had already gone. The speeches had taken place in the garden, and Ben-Eliezer had slipped out. ONE OF the subjects Tim George has frequently discussed in recent weeks is the long relationship between Australia and Israel, which extends beyond the period of statehood. Australian forces fought on what is now Israeli territory during the first and second World Wars; Australian soldiers are buried in Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Israel; and there are Australian forces now serving with UNTSO and the MFO. Australia was the first country to vote in favor of the UN resolution for the partition of Palestine in November 1947, and Australia and Israel have enjoyed diplomatic relations since the beginning of Israel's sovereignty. George also mentioned that there are some 10,000 people of Australian background, most of them dual nationals, living in Israel, some of whom are prominent figures. He cited as examples Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mark Regev, Labor Party activist Guy Spigelman (who has been drafted as a reservist into the Army Spokesman's office and has made several television appearances); and Paul Israel, the amazingly effective executive director of the Israel Australia Chamber of Commerce. George has been asked by Canberra to stay on a little longer than expected, and will be succeeded by James Larsen. KOREAN AMBASSADOR Kak-Soo Shin, along with First Secretary and Cultural Attache to the Korean Embassy Saeng Kim, are determined to upgrade cultural ties between Korea and Israel. They celebrated the 12th anniversary of diplomatic links between the two countries with a gala performance at the Jerusalem Theater by the renowned Korean National Dance Troupe. Artistic director Jung-Hye Bae admitted at a post-performance reception that she had seriously considered canceling the tour "after hearing the troubling news about the security situation, but the ambassador told us to come even if it was dangerous, because it was important for us to share our Korean culture." Once the troupe arrived in Israel, all fears were dispelled. "We love Israel," said Bae, who made a point of touring the holy sites. Of the nine traditional dances performed by the troupe, the last was a prayer dedicated to freedom and peace in the Middle East. "I hope that Korea and Israel can become more connected through our performance, so that we can come again," said Bae. Kim, who was extremely proud of the dance troupe and its rousing success in the packed theater, underlined how meaningful it was to have the dancers come during such a volatile period in Israel. Ambassador Shin, who says he believes cultural exchanges contribute greatly to understanding between countries, was confident that the Israeli understanding of Korean culture had already been enhanced. He was looking forward, he said, to "further exchanges of heart and mind" through films, music, art and sport, and he added that he hoped to see "peace for this beautiful country at an early stage." Amos Nadai, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for Asia and the Pacific, is unashamedly enraptured by Korean culture. His own love affair with Korea started in the early 1980s, he said, long before Korea became an economic superpower. He was pleased that the Cameri Theater was going on tour to Korea. Among those attending the dance performance were Cameri Theater managing director Noam Semel, Mexican Ambassador Carlos Ricco Ferrat (who was so impressed that he immediately decided to bring the Mexican National Dance Troupe to Israel), and a large representation of Israel's Korean community, including ceramicist Hyun-Jin Park. IT SEEMS to be the Korean cultural season in Israel. Aficionados of the annual summer International Opera Workshop headed by Joan Dornemann, assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera New York and one of the most acclaimed opera coaches in the world, have been singing the praises of Korean tenor Yong Hoon Lee and American baritone Scott Bearden. The two are among 47 young singers from around the world who, together with 50 young Israeli singers, are receiving the benefits of Dornemann's brilliant coaching. In addition, they are all receiving the assistance of a faculty of 37 teachers, vocal coaches, directors, conductors and pianists, some of whom - such as baritone Sherill Milnes, mezzo soprano Mignon Dunn and conductor Paul Nadler - are artists of international status. The overseas singers all received scholarships to come to Israel, and some of the faculty members have been returning each year since 1986, the year the International Opera Workshop was launched by then-mayor of Tel Aviv Shlomo Lahat. Notwithstanding possible security hazards, none of the singers or faculty staff dropped out. The workshop experience includes public performances. Over the past week, the students have performed in Eugene Onegin, Don Pasquale, The Crucible (based on the play by Arthur Miller) and Tosca. Several singers coached by Dornemann in Tel Aviv over the past 20 years have gone on to achieve worldwide fame.