Grapevine November 19, 2021: Not talking Turkey

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 SWISS AMBASSADOR-DESIGNATE Urs Bucher (from left), Gideon Hamburger and Prof. Gabi Barabash. (photo credit: Eitan Dror)
SWISS AMBASSADOR-DESIGNATE Urs Bucher (from left), Gideon Hamburger and Prof. Gabi Barabash.
(photo credit: Eitan Dror)

The relatively speedy release from Turkish prisons of Israeli tourists Mordi and Natali Oaknin, who were arrested as spies after having photographed the presidential residence, helped to score a lot of points for the coalition government. What was remarkable during their ordeal was the extent to which their family and their lawyer cooperated with the offices of President Isaac Herzog, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who all worked behind the scenes to secure the couple’s freedom, and who were lavish in expressing appreciation to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the couple was freed.

One can’t help wondering whether the couple were pawns in a face-saving endeavor for Turkey to get back on an even diplomatic keel with Israel. Even after they returned home, there was a lot of discretion by all concerned in interviews given to the media. But the Oaknins and their relatives were exuberant in praising the government for its help and its concern. A pleasant change from the attitudes of other families whose loved ones were arrested or hijacked abroad.

■ THE EXCITEMENT of diplomatic relations with Morocco remains fresh, and as official visitors from Morocco arrive in the country, hoteliers will be going to great lengths to attend to their needs and make them feel welcome. Case in point is Sheldon Ritz, general manager of Jerusalem’s Vert Hotel, who this coming Sunday will be greeting a delegation of Moroccan journalists who are coming to Israel as guests of the Foreign Ministry.

The welcome drinks that most hotels set out for arriving groups are usually orange juice, grapefruit juice, apple juice and water.

But Ritz will be welcoming the Moroccan group with mint tea, and dates. The tea will be served in accordance with Moroccan tradition. In addition, when the Moroccans check in, it will be to the sound of a musician playing an oud.

A police officer stands near a Moroccan national flag (credit: REUTERS/AMR ABDALLAH DALSH)A police officer stands near a Moroccan national flag (credit: REUTERS/AMR ABDALLAH DALSH)

All members of the group will be allocated rooms on the same floor, and one room on that floor has been transformed into a prayer room replete with prayer mats and a large Koran. A special app will help to point worshipers in the direction of Mecca. They will also receive prayer beads as gifts.

Needless to say, there will be a Moroccan national flag in the lobby .

Inasmuch as the delegation will appreciate the gesture, at least some of its members will be hoping to taste something uniquely Israeli. The question is: What can be described as uniquely Israeli in a melting pot society?

■ WHEN HE founded Yad Ezer L’Haver in 2001 for the purpose of helping needy families and youth at risk, Shimon Sabag did not realize to what extent he would become involved with Haifa Holocaust survivors. In 2008, he discovered that among the regular senior citizens who lined up for a hot meal at Yad L’Haver’s soup kitchen, there were a large number of Holocaust survivors who lived in abysmal conditions. Sabag decided to provide them with warm. comfortable homes where they would feel loved and safe. The apartments are designed to accommodate people with physical disabilities, medical services are available around the clock, and residents of all the apartments receive three meals a day. A Holocaust museum was recently added to the apartment complex so that the stories of all the residents could be recorded in perpetuity.

The organization also conducts several social events each year for the benefit of the residents. One of these is a beauty contest in which child Holocaust survivors now in their eighties, compete. Until this year, the contest was held in Haifa. But this year for the first time, and presumably not the last, it was held in Jerusalem at the Friends of Zion Media Center, which was packed to overflowing with well-wishers.

Mike Evans, the founder of the FoZ Museum in which the media center is located, is a keen supporter of Yad Ezer L’Haver. When he learned that several of the Haifa Holocaust survivors had never been to Jerusalem, he built a residential adjunct to the FoZ Museum so that they could come and stay there free of charge when brought to the capital.

The beauty contest, whose judges included current Miss Israel Noa Cochva, who next month will be competing in the Miss Universe contest in Eilat, was broadcast to some seven million overseas viewers. Dressed up and made up with their hair beautifully coiffed, the contestants were as excited as if they were young girls.

When asked on stage to tell their stories, they said little about what they had endured, and preferred to speak of how many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren they have. Family means more to these women who were deprived of their childhood, and who in most cases lost one or both parents. The winner was Selina Steinberg, who was promptly mobbed by photographers as well as members of the audience who wanted to capture the moment on their cellphone cameras.

■ FORMER PRIME minister and former mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert, who has not lived in the capital for more than decade, must be hankering for what was once one of his regular stomping grounds. Both as mayor and prime minister, Olmert was frequently at the King David Hotel to meet and greet visiting officials and to be a keynote speaker at various national and international conferences. 

Apparently, he’s still in demand as a public speaker. As prime minister he had an extraordinary gift for making ad hoc speeches in Hebrew without notes or a prompter and then translating what he’d said into English without summarizing, but repeating almost verbatim what he’d said in Hebrew. He may not be quite on a par with arch rival Benjamin Netanyahu, though there have been times when he has been far better than Netanyahu on certain issues.

Olmert will be at the King David during the weekend of December 16-18 to present his forecast for Israel 2022, and will presumably take questions from the audience:

Where is Israel going health-wise? How will the loss in value of the American dollar affect Israel’s economy?

Why are prices soaring at a time of high unemployment and low salaries? Will Israel’s tourism industry ever recover? Will Israel attack Iran?

These and other questions have been preying on the minds of many Israelis, and Olmert usually gives straight from the shoulder replies. He has been appearing in public and official events quite a lot lately, and it would appear that he wants to return to politics. While athletic and well preserved, Olmert is nonetheless 76 years old, which may be a little late for resuming a political career. On the other hand, people live longer these days, and 70 is the new 50.

Also appearing during that particular weekend is Israel Prize laureate, and the most daring and experienced defense reporter, Ron Ben-Yishai, who will talk about Iran’s nuclear threat as well as the challenges confronting Israel and the Palestinians.

Kabbalat Shabbat will be slightly different to the norm of most people and will be accompanied by operatic arias.

■ IT’S A great time for celebration, COVID notwithstanding. In September, there was great joy during the first anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords. This was followed soon after by the 30th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel, and a reception marking the occasion was hosted by Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov.

Now it’s Kazakhstan’s turn. The 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Kazakhstan and Israel will be celebrated next week in tandem with Kazakhstan’s 30th Independence Day, which is actually celebrated in mid-December. In honor of the two occasions, Ambassador Satybaldy Burshakov will host a tree-planting ceremony at the Memorial Park in Rishon Lezion’s Hasidei Umot Ha’Olam Boulevard.

In December, Ukraine will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its diplomatic relations with Israel, and in January, China, India and Latvia will do the same.

■ THERE HAS always been a strong relationship between the Israel-Switzerland & Liechtenstein Chamber of Commerce chaired by President of the Harel Group Gideon Hamburger, and the Swiss Embassy. Chamber members waste no time in welcoming new ambassadors as was the case with Swiss Ambassador-designate Urs Bucher, who was feted at a Chamber meeting at the Tel Aviv Hilton.

Bucher, who has not yet presented his credentials, is the former head of the Swiss mission to the European Union.

He came to Israel earlier than he might have ordinarily done, in order to escort Swiss President Guy Parmelin during his state visit to Israel last month. Guest speaker at the Chamber event was Prof. Gabi Barabash, a former director-general of the Health Ministry who is at odds with the government regarding many of the decisions it has taken with regard to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

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