- IT WAS political playtime on Monday when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took time out for a few moves in a game of chess with Israeli international chess champion Boris Gelfand, while Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Minister for Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein, along with other government officials, indulged in a match of diplomatic ping-pong at the Foreign Ministry. The local team wore navy blue shirts, while the foreign diplomats, headed by Henri Etoundi Essomba, ambassador of Cameroon and dean of the diplomatic corps, chose bright orange. The tournament was initiated by Foreign Ministry Chief of Protocol Yitzhak Eldan and Korean Ambassador Young-sam Ma and was coordinated by the Israel Table Tennis Association.
The foreign diplomats were well trained. Ma, who is a great table tennis enthusiast and a champion player, was a judge at the last Maccabiah Games. The team also included Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jun, and political historians are fully aware of what the game of ping-pong did toward a thaw in China-US relations, paving the way for president Richard Nixon to make his landmark visit to Beijing.
For most of the match, the orange shirts demonstrated superior skill, despite the aggressive play by Lieberman. Three of them reached the semifinals. Ma was naturally one of them. The others were Japanese Ambassador Haruhisa Takeuchi and Stefan Mircea, an attaché at the Romanian Embassy. Edelstein was the only blue shirt to make the semis, and in the final analysis proved to be the strongest player. He went into the finals by defeating Takeuchi. Ma appeared to be overwhelmed by the thunderous applause and shouting by many of the Israeli spectators who were cheering for Edelstein. In the final, after each player had gained one set, Edelstein revealed his “secret powerful smashing weapon” and crushingly defeated Ma.
At the award ceremony, Edelstein said he had retaliated against Ma who had defeated him last year at the Maccabiah Games. “We are now even, and next year’s game will be the final match for us,” he said, taking into account that at some stage Ma will have to complete his tenure. Ma noted the considerable improvement in Edelstein’s skill since last year and said that he would have to practice more in order to beat him the next time around.
- NOTWITHSTANDING THE nuclear threat from Iran or the destructive plans of its president, especially with regard to Israel and the Jewish people, Israel will survive. So said Netanyahu. No, it wasn’t the prime minister speaking; it was his father, eminent historian and editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica and Encyclopedia Judaica Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, and the occasion was his 100th birthday, celebrated by family, friends and admirers at the Begin Heritage Center. Among those who filled the auditorium were political figures past and present including Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, Ministers Yuval Steinitz, Yaakov Neeman, Yisrael Katz and Bennie Begin, former ministers Moshe Arens and Moshe Nissim and many other notables, such as former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar and honorary life president of WIZO Raya Jaglom.
Jointly hosted by the Begin Center and the Jabotinsky Institute, the three-hour event comprised mainly speeches with two short musical interludes and video clips of an interview conducted by Yossi Ahimeir, director of the Jabotinsky Institute, with Benzion Netanyahu, who had been closely connected to Ahimeir’s father. President Shimon Peres who had not been included in the program, gave last minute notification that he wanted to come and pay tribute to a great man who had done great things for his country. Even though Peres did not necessarily agree with his views, he respected Netanyahu’s enormous intellect and his uncompromising attitude in relation to his beliefs. Peres called him “a solid rock.”
Someone else who didn’t agree with Netanyahu politically or academically was Prof. Yirmiyahu Yovel, who has spent the past decade delving into Netanyahu’s special field of expertise from the Golden Age of Spain to the post-Inquisition era. Yovel disagrees with him on whether Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity maintained their Judaism in secret or became completely assimilated. Yet for all their differences, he acknowledged that Netanyahu is an intellectual giant.
Politically, Netanyahu, a dyed-in-the-wool Revisionist, was very close to Ze’ev Jabotinsky and was one of the pall bearers at his funeral. All speakers, without exception, acknowledged Netanyahu as a man of vision. In a very moving address in which he spoke as the son of, rather than as the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu recalled that his father had been born under the rule of the czars, had come to a country ruled first by the Ottoman Empire and then the British Empire and had outlived them all. He also remembered that his late mother Tzila used to say that genius is all very well but someone has to look after the socks.
As immersed as he was in his research, Benzion Netanyahu always had time to listen to his sons, to help them with their homework and to play football with them.
Binyamin Netanyahu described the traumatic experience of the phone call that he received in America from his younger brother Iddo telling him that their older brother Yoni had been killed in the Entebbe rescue operation in 1976. The seven-hour ride from Boston to his parents’ home at Cornell University had been a nightmare. His father, who had been standing by the window, saw him and asked in surprise what he was doing there. And then it dawned on him and a terrible scream rose out of his throat. And then Binyamin heard his mother scream. The sound of those screams would accompany him all the days of his life, he said.
Racheli Edelman, CEO of Schocken Publishing, disclosed what it was like to work with a writer as meticulous as Netanyahu, “who knows the whole of the Even-Shoshan dictionary by heart.” As a young student at the Hebrew University, Benzion Netanyahu used to write poetry for himself. His brother persuaded him to enter a poetry contest for which the prize was £20, which was a tremendous amount of money in those days. He won, but when he went to collect the prize he was given only £10. When he protested, he was told that it was only a short poem. He never wrote another.
- NEXT MONTH there will be another great gathering in Jerusalem when the haredi community celebrates the 100th birthday of noted halachic authority Rabbi Yosef Sholom Eliashiv, who is the spiritual leader of Degel Hatorah and who determines the decisions of the United Torah Judaism list in the Knesset.
- FORMALITY IS not the strong suit of Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli. A man who likes to speak from the heart, Martinelli, during his state visit last week, discarded the speeches that had been written for him and spoke with much emotion about the importance of Israel. Even jaded journalists who are usually cynical about political leaders were impressed by his obvious sincerity and the strength of his Zionist fervor.
But Martinelli is also a man who loves to sing and at the state dinner which Peres hosted in his honor, he was so delighted with the performance of singer Layla Marcos, originally from Argentina, that he asked for an encore, but not before joining her in a rendition of “Cielito Lindo.” They made a great couple, and ordinarily the performance would have been over after two songs. But when Martinelli asked for more, Marcos had to oblige. He chose to sing “Ya no estas mas ami lado,” and this time Marcos came in on the chorus. Martinelli received a standing ovation, after which he gallantly turned to kiss Marcos’s hand.
- AMONG THE guests at the dinner for Martinelli were ambassadors of most Latin American countries, Israel’s ambassador to Panama and former Israel ambassadors to Latin American countries including the country’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, who in the early years of state served as a diplomat in Uruguay and Argentina. Navon will celebrate his 89th birthday on the first day of the Hebrew calendar month of Nisan, which falls next week. Although he was born on April 9, 1921, Navon chooses to recognize the Hebrew calendar date of his birthday, which also happens to be the new year for kings. This year, he’s looking forward to a best-ever birthday present – his first grandchild, due to arrive some time next week – possibly on the first of Nisan.
- ALSO AT the dinner was Hadassah Medical Center director Shmuel Mor Yosef, who obviously knew what the outcome of his lightning trip to New York would be. When asked whether he would accept an offer by Bar-Ilan University to oversee the creation of its medical school in Safed, if such an offer was put to him, Mor Yosef replied: “It’s not on the table. For the time being I’m still at Hadassah.”
- MARTINELLI AND his wife Marta endeared themselves to Israelis wherever they went. Their enthusiasm for all things Israeli was unbounded: Whether it was planting a tree in Jerusalem’s Forest of the Nations, catching up with the latest security devices of the defense establishment, meeting some of the children being treated by Save a Heart, learning about autism at Alut or inspecting the country’s technological achievements in different fields, they found everything to be just wonderful. They’re sure to be among Israel’s best ambassadors in South America.
- AT THE Same time that Martinelli was being feted by Peres, the Israel Australia-New Zealand and Oceania Chamber of Commerce hosted a reception at the King David Hotel for New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who was accompanied by nonresident New Zealand Ambassador Andrea Smith, Permanent Ambassador to the UN Jim McLay and Honorary Consul in Israel Gad Propper. Also present was Nicoli Maning-Campbell, charge d’affaires of the Australian Embassy.
Guests were greeted by Paul Israel, executive director of the chamber, who noted that New Zealand’s relations with the land of Israel go back to World War I. Alluding to a sensitive spy scandal involving two Mossad agents who in 2004 were convicted of passport fraud in New Zealand, Israel said that relations are back on track and that the chamber recognizes the potential in growth for bilateral trade and other areas of cooperation and exchange.
McCully said that he had been touched by the ceremony held the previous day in Ness Ziona commemorating the 50 New Zealand soldiers who fell near there in battle in World War I. He was also pleased that Vice Premier Silvan Shalom and Ness Ziona Mayor Yossi Shvo had been in attendance. He confessed to being overwhelmed by the high profile of his visit, and the opportunities for one-on-one meetings with Peres, Netanyahu, Lieberman and opposition leader Tzipi Livni all in the space of 36 hours. Not only that, but he had also been given tours of the Old City and Yad Vashem.
He was very pleased that Israel is reopening its embassy and expressed his delight that Shemi Zur has been nominated to be the new ambassador. McCully said that he looked forward to personally welcoming him in Wellington and working with him in New Zealand.
- NO PUBLIC figure has travelled as many kilometers within the country or logged up as many flying hours as Peres – and he’s off again next month, this time to Paris, ostensibly to attend the naming of Ben-Gurion Square in honor of the country’s founding prime minister who was also his mentor.
Peres will also use the occasion to meet with President Nicolas Sarkozy and other high ranking French officials.
Meanwhile Beit Hanassi has denied reports in the Italian daily Corriere della Serra that Peres will be visiting Rome in April for a summit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to launch a new peace initiative. Such a meeting has the strong support of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was recently here, and Gianni Alemano, the mayor of Rome.
But the Beit Hanassi spokeswoman added that if Abbas were to invite Peres to such a meeting, he would probably accept providing that his participation was approved by and coordinated with Netanyahu. Although Abbas has so far refused to meet with Netanyahu, he is in regular telephone contact with Peres who consistently expresses confidence that negotiations will resume in the near future.
In May, Peres will travel to Moscow to participate in the 65th anniversary commemorations in Red Square of the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis. He will also use the occasion to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other Russian dignitaries.
Meanwhile Peres has received numerous invitations to visit other countries – most recently from Panamanian President Martinelli and Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak. He responded favorably to the latter, telling Lajcak that his staff would have to find an appropriate time in his schedule. Among the other trips planned for this year is one to Korea.
Meanwhile, last Friday, Peres participated in the 120th anniversary celebrations of Rehovot which were due to have been launched the previous Sunday, but were delayed because of heavy rain.
So much traveling would be wearying to almost anyone, but Peres seems to thrive on it, and seldom betrays any signs of fatigue despite the fact that he will celebrate his 87th birthday in August. Greeted by Mayor Rahamim Malul, Rehovot dignitaries, descendants of the original settlers and thousands of other residents of the city, Peres dubbed Rehovot “the biography of the State of Israel” and recalled that he had spent part of his youth there at his uncle’s home. Peres was led to Rehov Jacob, the city’s first thoroughfare, where he sat down in a horse-drawn carriage to participate in the reenactment of Theodor Herzl’s memorable visit to Rehovot in 1898. He was accompanied by Herzl look-alike actor Josh Sagi. The emcee of the event was actor Aki Avni, a native of Rehovot, who divides his time between his home town and Hollywood.
- WHILE NOT in any way suggesting that her father had a hand in the appointment of Danielle Saar in the new daily current affairs program on HOT that is anchored by Karnit Goldwasser, who impressed so many people here and around the world in her struggle for the return of her late husband Ehud Goldwasser, one of the soldiers captured by Hizbullah in July 2006 and whose body was returned in July 2008, one can’t help wondering whether the adolescent Danielle would have received her regular spot on the program if her father was not Education Minister Gideon Saar.
Then again, talent runs in the family. Danielle’s 12-year-old sister Alona is a member of the cast of the Beersheba Theater’s production of Habayita Habayita. Incidentally, the minister occasionally sheds his formal role and takes on that of a DJ.
- GENERALLY SPEAKING, references to the background of Welfare andSocial Services Minister Isaac Herzog are strongly related to Ireland,where his father, the country’s sixth president Chaim Herzog was born,and where his grandfather, Isaac Halevy Herzog, served as chief rabbibefore becoming chief rabbi of Israel. But Herzog also has Britishroots, which may be the reason that he was asked to be one of thespeakers at the Federation of Zionist Youth 100th anniversary dinner inTel Aviv on March 18. Herzog’s great- grandfather Rabbi Shmuel YitzhakHillman was a dayan of the London Beth Din, and it was in London thatIsaac Halevy Herzog met the Dayan’s daughter Sarah Hillman and proposedto her. Unlike many wives of famous men, Sarah Herzog did not live inher husband’s shadow but was a personality and social activist in herown right.
Before joining the IDF, Chaim Herzogserved as an officer in the British Army during World War II, in whichcapacity he helped to liberate Nazi concentration camps. Also attendingthe dinner will be British Ambassador Tom Phillips and Jewish AgencyChairman Natan Sharansky. As far as anyone knows, Sharansky has noBritish roots, but since nearly everyone attending the dinner madealiya from Britain, it’s considered appropriate that the head of anorganization dedicated to spurring immigration attend the dinner ofBritain’s oldest and largest Jewish youth movement with a Zionistorientation.