Approximately three weeks after the state visit to Israel by Angela Merkel, the first woman to be elected chancellor of Germany, comes that of Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the first woman president of Latvia, who last year hosted President Moshe Katsav. A tough cookie who refuses to be intimidated by Russian President Vladimir Putin - or anyone else, for that matter - Vike-Freiberga has been in office longer than Merkel, having been elected in 1999. The two are among a growing number of women leaders holding the highest office in their respective countries. While there have been female monarchs for centuries, there were no female prime ministers until 1960, when Sirimavo Bandaranaike became prime minister of Ceylon, which is now known as Sri Lanka. Among current leaders are Helen Clark, the prime minister of New Zealand; Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, president of Liberia; President Tarja Halonen, who is Finland's first female head of state; Khaleda Zia, prime minister of Bangladesh; and Michelle Bachelet of Chile, who was elected president on January 15 and is due to take office on March 11, three days after International Women's Day. AS FAR as International Women's Day goes, it should be remembered that Hollywood celebrity Sharon Stone - who will be in Israel to participate in the tenth annual Women's Festival in Holon, traditionally held in conjunction with International Women's Day - may arrive as the guest of the Peres Peace Center. In fact, Stone was invited a year ago by then-foreign minister Silvan Shalom, whom she visited in Davos after he slipped on the ice and broke his ribs. Stone's Israel connection goes back more than 20 years: she starred with Richard Chamberlain in King Solomon's Mines, which was produced in the 1980s by Israeli movie mogul Menahem Golan. ST. PATRICK'S Day doesn't fall till March 17, but judging by the consumption of Irish beer, stout and whiskey, the lilt of Irish music and the plethora of Irish films on view at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque over the past week, one could not help thinking that perhaps St. Patrick's Day had come early. In fact, it was the annual Irish Festival, which has become part and parcel of the Tel Aviv cultural scene, and which to some extent spreads to Jerusalem and elsewhere. The whole Irish jig was set off with a reception at the Cinematheque hosted by Irish Ambassador Michael Forbes, with Murphy's beer and stout and Jameson's whiskey flowing like water. There was also a screening of the highly acclaimed prize-winning film Adam and Paul, whose director Lenny Abrahamson was on hand to swap pleasantries with fellow Dubliners such as Carole Golding, who knew his family in the old country and reminded him that even though he had come to Israel for only four days, he must at least telephone his aunt in Jerusalem. Among those present at the festival launch were Zvi Gabay, Israel's former ambassador to Ireland, and Malcolm Gafson, chairman of the Israel-Ireland Friendship League, who seemed to have the richest brogue among the Irish ex-pats. Even though she had made a point of not wanting to be mentioned, Sheila Harris, the new cultural attache at the Irish Embassy, came in for a lot of kudos for her role in getting this year's festival up and going. Alluding to Israel's characteristic hospitality, Forbes said even though he has been in Israel for only two years, he has met many people who have become friends. When he was growing up in Ireland in the 1970s, he recalled, it was unheard of for the Irish to direct films. "That was for Hollywood. But now it's altogether different." Abrahamson attributed the "renaissance of Irish film making" to serious funding by the Irish government. FORMER MANAGING editor of The Jerusalem Post Calev Ben-David and former news editor David Brinn, who have each joined Israel advocacy groups, last week officially welcomed former colleague Arieh O'Sullivan, the paper's long-time defense correspondent, to the ranks of Jewish world organizations. Ben-David is the Jerusalem-based director of The Israel Project, while Brinn is the editorial director of ISRAEL21C. O'Sullivan was recently appointed director of the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League. All three are still involved in writing, but with a particular agenda in mind. O'Sullivan is not the only star reporter whose by-line is disappearing from the pages of the paper. At a festive farewell brunch, editors and reporters also took their leave of Matthew Gutman, who had thought of going into television but for the time being is focusing on being a foreign correspondent. Intrepid reporters both, O'Sullivan and Gutman carried out dangerous assignments in places such as Hebron, Jenin, Ramallah, Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq. In addition, O'Sullivan - a former paratrooper - has logged 13 jumps, and his logbook carries the signature of former chief of General Staff, Moshe Ya'alon. Editor-in-Chief David Horovitz assured the two exiting reporters that the columns of The Post would always be open to them, and said he hoped one day they would follow his example and come back to full-time jobs on the paper. It took Horovitz 16 years. DESPITE ITS burgeoning population, India does not want to lose touch with its emigrants or their children, Indian Ambassador Arun Singh said to some of the members of Israel's Indian community at a recent reception at his residence. Singh disclosed that the Indian government has decided to give full citizenship rights - other than voting and the right to stand for public office - to anyone who left India after 1950. More important, India has introduced a program similar to birthright-taglit, which encourages young people from the Indian diaspora to return to their roots on sponsored trips. This Indian outreach program, which introduces young adults ages 18-25 to Indian culture, technology and politics, is working successfully, said Singh, and has already included a group from Israel, who recently returned home after spending a month in India. IT'S NOT always the product that counts - sometimes it's the packaging. When presenting all the options for a constitution to President Moshe Katsav, Knesset member Michael Eitan, chairman of the Knesset Constitution and Law Committee, observed that of the 87 meetings held by his committee over the past three years, only three or four had been reported by the media, despite the fact that the issues discussed were the same as those discussed at the annual Herzliya Conference. But whereas the committee carried out its work without fanfare, the Herzliya Conference was a bombastic, hyped-up affair, resulting in copious reports by Israeli media. ALTHOUGH HE usually forgoes a tie and prefers an open-necked, long-sleeved shirt sans jacket to being fully suited, Labor Chairman Amir Peretz, at his first official meeting with President Moshe Katsav, was a picture of sartorial splendor in a white shirt, charcoal grey suit and grey tie in light and shadow stripes. Peretz made a point of impressing on Katsav the need for him to use his influence to increase the number and nature of medications in the health basket. Too many people were dying, he said, because they could not afford to pay for life-saving medications that are not in the basket. FORMER FOREIGN and defense minister Moshe Arens is not being given the opportunity to stop celebrating his 80th birthday. Arens, who turned 80 in the last week of December, had been feted several weeks earlier in Los Angeles at a fundraiser for Ariel College. Arens heads the college's International Board of Governors, so he could hardly refuse to cooperate. Since then, there have been other celebrations of the milestone year, with yet another scheduled on February 19 at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center with the participation of former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, former chief justice Meir Shamgar and Gen. (res.) Herzl Bodinger.