Grapevine: More than an olive branch

An Egyptian farewell, olive tourism, Obama's Sderot T-Shirt and a Peretz family simcha.

NOTHING COULD have been more appropriate for the conclusion of Egyptian Ambassador Mohammed Assem Ibrahim's three-and-a-quarter-year tour of duty, which he combined with this country's Revolution Day festivities, than to give his farewell address under the olive tree in the garden of his Herzliya Pituah residence as he stood together with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Livni spoke of Israel's desire for everyone in the region to live in peace. Relating specifically to Egypt, Livni said that there is a good relationship between the leaders of the two countries, but that more could be done to enhance the relationship of the two peoples. She was also aware that relations between the two countries should not be taken for granted "Peace is crucial to us. It is a strategic choice. Peace is not just a piece of paper," she said as she thanked Egypt for the role it has played in trying to defuse the situation in Gaza. Her first visit abroad as Foreign Minister, she recalled, had been to Egypt. In expressing appreciation to Assem for all that he had done in his diplomatic capacity, she said that he personified the friendship between Israel and Egypt. Assem, for his part, was sensitive to Livni's remark about the importance of the Israel-Egypt relationship and her comment that it should not be taken for granted. Focusing momentarily on Revolution Day he said that 56 years earlier, a group of young officers had decided that the pattern of rule in Egypt was not right and decided to change it. Thirty years ago, one of those officers, Anwar Sadat, came to Israel and said "we are ready to accept you as a neighbor" and committed his country to peace. Egypt has lived up to this commitment, Assem noted, as he wished Israel and the Palestinians that their conflict should fade into past history. "We all dream for peace. I sincerely wish for Israel and the Palestinians to contain the situation so that they can say that the Israel-Palestinian issue is behind us." Anticipating that Israel will soon have a new leadership, Assem expressed the hope that the coming leadership can achieve this and that there will be friendship and peace among all the peoples of the Middle East. n Although he was Egypt's third ambassador to Israel, Assem excited special attention when he arrived in March, 2005 because his long-term predecessor Mohammed Bassiouny had been recalled in 2000. There had been no ambassador in the interim, although there had been an acting head of mission, mostly Tarek Mahmoud El Kouny, who is now minister plenipotentiary and deputy head of mission. Assem will be succeeded by Yasser Rada A. Aly Said. n DURING THE period that Itzhak Eldan, the head of protocol at the Foreign Ministry, was Israel's ambassador to UNESCO and the Council of Europe, both organizations in 2003 adopted resolutions related to a Euro-Mediterranean olive route designed to foster peace, co-existence and dialogue. The olive tree is sacred to the three monotheistic religions of the Mediterranean and its fruit has been a source of commerce since earliest recorded history. While Eldan was still in Europe, Amin Hassan, the director of the Israel Olive Board, came to southern France to meet with French olive growers. Hassan's daughter Maysoun had been killed the previous year in a terrorist attack on an Egged bus traveling from Haifa to Safed. Thus Amin Hassan, from the Druze village of Sajur in the Upper Galilee, symbolized everything encompassed in the olive route resolutions. Eldan took him to UNESCO to tell his personal story and the two men have remained close friends ever since. The Olive Board organizes an annual olive festival in the Galilee, but Eldan pointed out to Hassan that olives grow all over the country, from high in the north to as far south as Eilat. He suggested that because olive branches are also part of the national emblem, the olive festival follow a route from one end of the country to the other, with lectures, workshops, culinary and cultural events related to olive oil, olives, olive branches and olive trees. Eldan saw fantastic tourist potential in making the olive festival a national event rather than isolating it to only one region of the country, and he also saw its commercial potential through the marketing of olives and olive oil, plus cosmetics, toiletries and health products with an olive oil base. Eldan spoke to movers and shakers in government ministries and local councils and was delighted to see that his own enthusiasm for the project was contagious. He also interested Beit Hanassi - which not only has olive trees, but also a hybrid olive and fig tree. At the farewell for the Egyptian ambassador, Eldan shared his ideas with Livni who was instantly on the same page, realizing that this was an opportunity to involve Israel's Arab community, and possibly olive growers in the Palestinian Authority. The plans will become operational toward the end of October or the beginning of November. n WHILE ON the subject of Palestinians, those in Gaza are about to benefit from an unprecedented archaeological museum, the obsessive dream come true of businessman Jawdat Khoudary. Many Gaza treasures were excavated more than 20 years ago by renowned Israeli archaeologist and Israel Prize laureate Trude Dothan and are now housed in the Israel Museum which has just published a catalogue of the Gaza findings. Israel Museum Director James Snyder says that in a state of normalcy, he would be happy to make loans to the museum in Gaza as the Israel Museum has done with other museums, and to cooperate in other ways with the Gaza museum as it did with museums in Jordan prior to the first intifada. It's sad to him, he said, that even though Gaza is so close by, Gazans can't come to Israel to view the collection in the Israel Museum and Israelis can't go to Gaza to see from where these artifacts originated. Although Snyder is not an Israeli citizen and therefore is not subjected to the same travel restrictions as Israelis, he has no intention of going to Gaza in the foreseeable future. "I would be happy to go under the right circumstances and have them come to us, to make exchanges and to see each other's holdings. It would be fascinating," he said. He also noted the debt owed to Dothan without whose efforts the material excavated in Gaza would never have survived. Amanda Weiss, director of the Bible Lands Museum, said that she had not been approached by Khoudary, but would be interested to cooperate with the Gaza Museum on serious projects. "Culture is culture and politics are politics," she said. On matters of cultural cooperation, she would be "absolutely" thrilled to work with anyone with ties to the Bible Lands. With regard to the Gaza museum, Weiss said: "I hope they take the issue very seriously and protect the antiquities they're in charge of." n CASINO MAGNATE and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson celebrates his 75th birthday on August 1, and according to reports the festivities will be taking place not in the US where he lives, nor in Israel where his business interests include Yisrael Hayom, a daily newspaper aimed at paving the path for Binyamin Netanyahu to once again take on the mantle of prime minister, but in Macau where he built his largest and most splendiferous casino. Adelson is reportedly flying his guests to Macau at his own expense, which is one of the reasons that Netanyahu and his wife Sarah had to decline. With freebee trips by public figures that are not state approved, or even if approved, just a little too extravagant, included in allegations of corruption in recent months, Netanyahu is not about to risk any further besmirching of his reputation. n SEVERAL MEMBERS of Israel's gay community attended the farewell party of Danish Ambassador Anders Carsten Damsgaard, who was the first openly gay ambassador to serve in Israel. When he presented his credentials in September 2003, Damsgaard was accompanied by his partner Dr. Esben Karmark, an expert in intercultural communications, and was always candid about his sexual orientation. Whenever he accepted an invitation to which couples were invited, he insisted that Karmark, his partner of well over a decade, be included, and in this way introduced a certain change in Israel's social clime and in attitudes on the part of officialdom. Whether it was a special event at Beit Hanassi or the Knesset or some other state institution, it was understood by whoever was handling the invitations that Damsgaard and Karmark were a couple and were to be treated as such. n FROM A halachic perspective, homosexuality is a no-no and gay marriage unacceptable. Yet anyone who attended the lecture on 'Gay Marriages Revisited" delivered at the Israel Center in Jerusalem by Dr. David Luchins, Vice President of the Orthodox Union, was surprised by the compassion and the lack of fire and brimstone. While Luchins made no bones about gay relationships being forbidden by Jewish law, he also made the point that "punishment for cheating in business according to the Torah is greater than for the sum total of all the sexual atrocities forbidden by the Torah." In addition he disclosed that Orthodox Jewish organizations were not putting up a fight against gay marriage because marriage in the United States has lost its meaning, with the divorce rate outweighing the marriage rate and the ratio of babies born out of wedlock higher than ever before. Marriage is no longer a sacrament but a matter of economic benefits, he said. He quoted Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik, who he said refused to discuss homosexuality because he did not want to demonize his fellow Jews. n IT'S NOT easy to be planning your daughter's wedding at the same time as you're running for election, but Ahlama Peretz, who is hoping to be the next mayor of Sderot, and her husband, Labor MK and former defense minister Amir Peretz, who are marrying off their daughter Shani in September, are taking the happy event in their stride. It will be interesting to see who is on the guest list, especially whether it includes Ehud Barak, who wrested both the Labor chairmanship and the position of defense minister from Peretz. For that matter, it will be equally interesting to see if President Shimon Peres, who as Labor chairman brought Peretz back into the party only to have him contest the chairmanship of the party and take it away from him, will be there. When Peretz was elected Labor chairman, Peres left his political home and joined Kadima - which ultimately brought him the presidency. n APROPOS PERES, he celebrates his 85th birthday, this coming Saturday, August 2, just a few days before he leaves for China as the head of Israel's Olympic delegation. Both Peres and former Israel ambassador to China Ora Namir, who will be at the Olympics as the guest of honor of the Chinese government, have been pressured to boycott the Olympics in response to China's human rights violations. Peres, speaking at the ceremonial farewell to the Olympic team at Beit Hanassi last week, observed that there were many negative things that could also be said about Israel and that he was going not because of China's flaws, but because of its merits. Namir, who is one of only 15 foreigners who are honorary citizens of Beijing, says that it is extremely important for Israel to maintain good relations with China, because China is pro-Arab in its foreign policy. During her tour of duty in China, the former government minister and long time MK did much to bring Israel and China closer together, and for her efforts earned enormous admiration and respect from the Chinese. When in China, she promoted Israel's interests, and back home, like all former Israel ambassadors to China, she unofficially promotes China's interests. n SDEROT MAYOR Eli Moyal's standard attire consists of jeans and an open neck shirt, but for the visit of US Senator and presumed Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama, Moyal opted to wear a suit and tie, while Obama for his part, doffed his suit jacket, took off his tie, undid the top buttons of his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. But he didn't go quite as far as putting on the "I love Sderot" T-shirt that Moyal gave him as a take-home souvenir. n PEACE ACTIVIST, former editor of the now defunct scandal magazine HaOlam Hazeh and former MK Uri Avneri, who will turn 85 in September, still cuts an imposing figure as he participates in numerous pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Avneri who has led an extraordinarily active and colorful life and continues to work as a journalist, is trying to find time to write his autobiography. Former foreign minister David Levy, who turned 70 last December, is also thinking about writing his autobiography, but he may shelve the idea if he opts to accept Netanyahu's offer to return to politics. The two had difficulty in getting along in the past but perhaps time has mellowed them. n FOLLOWING IN the footsteps of his famous uncle Moshe Dayan, Uzi Dayan has joined Likud, at more or less the same age. Moshe Dayan was 62; Uzi Dayan is 60. Moshe Dayan, who was elected to the Knesset on a Labor ticket, acceded to Menachem Begin's request to become foreign minister and remained in the post till 1980. In the following year he formed his own party Telem, which he represented in the 10th Knesset. Uzi Dayan seems to be working in the opposite direction. After his party, Tafnit, failed to gain sufficient votes to get a seat in the Knesset, Dayan eventually joined a larger and more established party, Likud. Asked on Israel Radio by Yoram Dekel whether she thought that her cousin would make a good politician, former Labor MK Yael Dayan, who is currently deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, replied: "He's not a boy any more." n THE UPCOMING two-week cruise organized by the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel is a sell-out. Passengers on the kosher cruise that runs from September 7-21, with Daniel Gordis as scholar in residence, will be able to disembark at seven ports of call: Rhodes, Ismir, Istanbul, Odessa, Yalta, Varna and Salonika. n EVEN BEFORE the AACI cruise takes off, another American expatriate is going much further afield. Best-selling author and political and social commentator Naomi Ragen is going to Australia to deliver the Zionist Federation's 60th anniversary Oration "Between Hope and a Hard Place." Ragen will be addressing audiences in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, with sufficient time between each location to enable her to get to see the sights in each city and to get a good feel of the Jewish community in each of the three state capitals. And prior to Ragen setting off for down under in August, Jerusalem Post columnist Isi Leibler will be there. A former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Leibler has been summoned to deliver the memorial address marking the end of the first 30 days of mourning following the death of Australia's Chabad spiritual leader Rabbi Yitzhok Dovid Groner, who half a century ago was sent as an emissary from the US to Australia by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, and built up a huge Chabad network, not only in Melbourne where he lived, but throughout most of the island continent. Groner was buried in the Chabad sector of the Mount of Olives earlier this month, with Australians from all over Israel converging on Jerusalem to attend the funeral.