Grapevine, September 23, 2020: Fast lane diplomacy

The movers and shakers of Israeli society.

Avi Gabbay (left) and Ambassador to France, Eric Danon. (photo credit: AVIV HOFI)
Avi Gabbay (left) and Ambassador to France, Eric Danon.
(photo credit: AVIV HOFI)
Even though relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates have been under the radar for several years, it is truly amazing how quickly new alliances between Israel and the UAE have been developing since the signing last week of the agreement in Washington that allows for normalization and full diplomatic relations.
On the day of the signing ceremony, Yitzhak Eldan, the founder and president of The Ambassadors’ Club in Israel wrote to Oliver Count of Wurmbrand-Stuppach in Lichtenstein, the President of The Ambassadors’ Club of the UAE, inviting him and a delegation of his club to visit Israel at a date and itinerary to be coordinated between the two clubs.
Eldan added that members of the Israeli club are very interested in visiting Dubai for Expo 2021 and looked forward to creating a cooperative dynamic between the two clubs.
The count replied immediately, writing “it is with great pleasure that we take note of the current historical developments and achievements in the region and welcome a cooperation between our two organizations in the context of international understanding as well as economic and cultural collaboration and we assure you of our full support.”He also accepted the invitation to visit Israel and wrote that it would be an honor to welcome a delegation from the Ambassador’s Club of Israel.
■ LAST WEEK, Eldan was among the invitees to a pre-Rosh Hashanah toast hosted by Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz who invited some dozen former ambassadors all of whom, in one way or another, had been involved in the effort to achieve peace with Arab countries. Ashkenazi spoke of developments within the ministry and presented his analysis of the new regional status quo, and then did something most unusual. He turned to the retired envoys who collectively had decades of diplomatic experience, and asked for proposals and remarks. Eldan who, among other things, heads the School for Young Ambassadors that operates under the auspices of The Israeli Center for Young Leadership, thanked the ministry for its valued cooperation in this project. As a long-term former ambassador, he also realized that appreciation is not the strong suit of government ministries in Israel, and came prepared with a certificate of appreciation to past and present Israeli diplomats for their contributions to peace with Arab countries. On behalf of The Ambassadors’ Club, he presented the certificate to Ashkenazi and Ushpiz.
■ THE JERUSALEM Press Club was quick to seize on the opportunity to include a prominent UAE colleague in a discussion on whether journalism helps or hinders diplomatic work. Unfortunately, registration for the Wednesday, September 23 discussion is already closed, but as the JPC records most of its events, this one will, in all likelihood, be available on YouTube in the near future.
The UAE journalist is Dr. Najat al-Saied, a columnist for Arabic-language UAE daily, Al Ittihad and for American TV, Al Hurra. She specializes in political and social development communication to promote a modern and tolerant Middle East.
She was editor-in-chief of women’s e-magazines in Dubai, and is the author of Screens of Influence: Arab Satellite Television & Social Development. She also contributed chapters for the books, Arab Media Moguls and Handbook on Arab Media. Her book, Gulf Tweets: Twitter Diplomacy and Media Polarization will be published soon by the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research. Saied’s articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Gatestone Institute, Gulf News and Al Arabiya English. From 2014-2018, she was an assistant professor at Zayed University’s College of Communication and Media Sciences. She worked in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at the Islamic Development Bank and the US Consulate’s Public Diplomacy Department. She has also worked for the World Health Organization-Pan American Health Organization and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, both in Washington.
Two of the other participants have both journalistic and diplomatic experience. Boaz Bismuth, editor-in-chief of Israel Hayom is a former ambassador to Mauritania, but before that had vast journalistic experience, particularly as the Paris-based correspondent for Yediot Aharonot. He has the distinction of being the only Israeli journalist to have interviewed former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami (1999), slain Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gadaffi (2003), Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (2003) and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2010). He has also been a war correspondent, covering hostilities in the region.
Polish Ambassador Marek Magierowski worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for more than twenty years, prior to entering the Foreign Service.
Among various positions that he held, Magierowski was deputy head of the economic desk in Gazeta Wyborcza, head of the foreign affairs desk and the business section of the weekly Newsweek Polska, deputy editor-in-chief of Forum. In 2006-2011 he was deputy editor-in-chief of the daily Rzeczpospolita. He wrote a regular column on foreign policy for the weeklies Uwazam Rze and Do Rzeczy. He left journalism in October 2015 to work for the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland as an expert on public diplomacy and then was appointed head of the Press Office of the Chancellery of the President. From June 2017 to May 2018 he served as Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Another Polish participant who is still a journalist is commentator, filmmaker and media adviser Jaroslaw Wlodarczyk, who for the past seven years has served as Secretary General of the International Association of Press Clubs. He is a founding member of the Council of Press Clubs in Poland. During the Communist regime, he worked as an underground press editor until 1989, and afterward as a journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza and a reporter and anchor in TVP (public television) news services. Between 2000-2001 he was media adviser to then prime minister Jerzy Buzek.
Presiding over the event will be JPC director general Uri Dromi, a frequent columnist for publications in Israel and abroad. In a multi-faceted career, Dromi, inter alia, served as Israeli government spokesman under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres from 1992 to 1996, during the dramatic days of the Oslo process and the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan
■ PEOPLE WHO are aware of who’s who in American politics, and watched the televised broadcast of the signing ceremony between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, as well events before and after, might have been surprised to see long-time Democratic stalwart and funder Haim Saban on the White House lawn. Viewers switching channels to see who had the better coverage may have been disgusted with veteran Channel 12 broadcaster Dana Weiss who appeared to have cast all journalistic ethics to the wind, to gate-crash an interview that KAN 11’s Gili Cohen was having with Saban, and insinuating herself into the frame of the UAE broadcaster, who was broadcasting live to his home country and who kept trying to block her. Even her colleagues at Channel 12 were somewhat shocked by Weiss’s behavior, so much so that anchorwoman Yonit Levi queried on-air “Is that the UAE broadcaster whom we are disturbing?” Weiss, who also pushed herself into the forefront in still photographs, was roundly criticized in several Hebrew language publications. The most scathing comment came from Makor Rishon which stated: “A great embarrassment – and her name is Dana Weiss.” It’s not uncommon in Israel and some other parts of the world, for people who, at the sight of a television camera, try to get into the frame, and often do things to draw viewer attention away from the broadcaster. But 51-year-old Weiss is quite sophisticated, and has been in the media business for most of her adult life.
■ BUT BACK to Saban, who it appears, had a behind-the-scenes hand in brokering the new relationship between the UAE and Israel. Egyptian-born, Israeli-American Saban, who will turn 76 next month, has a rags-to-riches life story that would make a great movie. He was 12 years old when he and his family left Egypt and settled in one of the poorer areas of Tel Aviv. His father barely eked out a living selling pencils door-to-door.
After completing his army service, Saban worked as a bass player with a rock band called Lions of Judah. The band traveled to England and Saban realized that his future was not in Israel. He later spent some time in France where he launched a record company with Shuki Levy. The two subsequently moved to the US, where Saban played a few gigs here and there, but essentially was a television producer. He and Levy also composed music for children’s shows, but his big break in the entertainment industry came with the Japanese-inspired Power Rangers, which in 1993, helped to launch Fox Kids programming.
After that, Saban began making money hand over fist, though in recent years he has paid more attention to his nation-wide real estate investments than to his entertainment holdings. His current net worth is $3.4 billion, but he never forgets what it was like to be impoverished. In a broad-ranging interview that he gave to Tzippy Shmilovitz, Yediot Aharonot’s chief correspondent in the US, Saban spoke of what he described as a minor role in helping to cement Israel-UAE relations, and of his friendships with various representatives of Arab countries, the most important of whom is Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE envoy to Washington. The two have been friends for years and meet whenever Saban is in Washington or Otaiba is in Los Angeles. They even go to basketball games together.
One day, not so long ago, Otaiba told Saban that he wanted to speak to the Israelis and wondered if he wrote an article whether it would have more impact in The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post.
Saban, who admits to not always being politically correct, reacted with true Israeli chutzpah.
“Are you mad?” he roared. “If you want impact, you don’t publish it in an American paper, you publish in an Israeli paper.”
And thus, the famous breakthrough Op-Ed, which appeared in Yediot Aharonot on August 21, was born.
Otaiba wrote the article in English, and Saban contacted his good friend and strategic public relations representative in Israel, Moshe Debby. Together they translated into Hebrew, painstakingly checking every word and punctuation mark a dozen times.
It was partially at Otaiba’s invitation that Saban attended the White House ceremony. An invitation also came from Trump Administration Senior Adviser Jared Kushner. It seems rather strange that Saban – a close friend of former US president Bill and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton – should receive an invitation from the son-in-law of US President Donald Trump.
But, there’s always a background story to everything. During the last presidential election campaign, one of the employees in Saban’s philanthropic division, told him that she had found a letter from Kushner that had been sent five years earlier. Saban doesn’t answer letters that were sent by people he doesn’t know, but nothing is thrown away. Everything is filed. Kushner’s letter was full of complimentary comments about what Saban does for Israel and the IDF, and he expressed the hope that they could meet.
So Saban sent him an email apologizing for the five-year delay. They met in New York – and clicked.
Politics aside, on a personal level, Saban admires Kushner very much and says that he’s clever and accessible. Once in a while, Kushner irks him, but that doesn’t change how he feels about him. He credits Kushner as being one of four people responsible for the upturn in the relationship between the UAE and Israel. The others are Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Otaiba and Mossad Director Yossi Cohen.
On the day of the signing ceremony, Kushner approached Saban, saying “we don’t need your money. We need your vote.” Saban’s response was “Leave me alone. For goodness sake, I’m a Democrat. Why are you coming to me now with this?”
Politically, Saban and Kushner are poles apart. What they do agree on is Israel.
Saban returned to Los Angeles to host a $500,000 per ticket virtual fund-raiser for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden which raised $4.5 million.
■ LAST WEEK, on September 17, India marked the 70th anniversary of its official recognition of Israel., but diplomatic ties remained at consular status till October 29, 1992, when Pradeep Kumar Singh became India’s first ambassador to Israel and presented credentials to former president Chaim Herzog. Relations between the two countries have flourished in recent years, but were given additional emphasis in 2017 with the visit to Israel by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who coincidentally was born on the day that India recognized Israel and who celebrated his 70th birthday last week. Both anniversaries were hailed by India’s current ambassador to Israel Sanjeev Singla and Israel’s ambassador to India Ron Malka, who in a joint video statement emphasized the friendship and cooperation between India and Israel, declaring that they stand together.
■ TRUTH CAN often be stranger than fiction. Rabbi Benjamin Levine, a grandson of the famed Rabbi Aryeh Levin – known as the Tzaddik (Righteous Man) of Jerusalem – who was known for his many acts of kindness and most particularly for visiting Jewish prisoners who been incarcerated by the British Mandate authorities, is a marvelous storyteller with an incredible fund of stories based largely on the many famous rabbis to whom he is related. He is also a talented actor and a fascinating tour guide. Although some of his stories sound a little far-fetched, they are actually true.
Last week, while discussing a deceased person on the eve of that person’s anniversary of his demise, Levine was reminded of having met his own future next-plot neighbor in the cemetery when his time will come to leave this world. When Levine’s mother was close to dying, she called her children together and said that though she did not have much in the way of worldly goods to leave to them, what she had done over the years was to put aside a little money whenever she had some, in order to buy plots for her immediate family at Sanhedria cemetery in Jerusalem. Because Sanhedria has long been overcrowded, the plots were not all in one row or in close proximity to each other.
Levine was curious as to who would be his neighbor in eternity and decided that he wanted to meet him while they were both still living. When he told this to the clerk at the burial society, the latter decided that Levine was mad, but Levine kept insisting that he was serious. Not much time passed before he received a phone call from the clerk telling him that his neighbor-to-be is a rabbi who lives in New Jersey.
It seemed that Levine was not destined to meet his neighbor in this world. But then a few days later, the clerk called again to say the neighbor was in Israel, and that he had told him about Levine. The neighbor was quite amenable to a meeting. They got along fine and the neighbor went back to America. Several months went by and one day Levine received a phone call fhis niece in Baltimore, who asked if he remembered a young man whom her family had taken in because he had nowhere to go? Levine’s niece is very hospitable, so he wasn’t surprised by the fact that she had put out the welcome mat, but she was quite excited when she called him. It transpired that the young man had gotten married and his grandfather who came from New Jersey for the wedding informed Levine’s niece that he was her uncle’s neighbor in the world to come.
One of the things that Levine learned from his grandfather, was to try to do at least one good deed a day, and if the opportunity did not present itself, to at least have the intention of doing a good deed. Levine who travels frequently by bus noticed that some tourists were unaware of the need for a Rav Kav public transport card, and also that some Israelis had a card that was invalid, or didn’t have a card at all. So he purchased a number of Rav Kav cards that entitled the user to only a few rides, and if he’s in the bus or the light rail and a passenger doesn’t have a card or the rides on their existing card have all been used up, Levine can instantly come to the rescue.
■ IT’S COMMON knowledge that COVID-19 restrictions imposed on Rosh Hashanah prayer services – though followed closely in terms of social distancing – were not carefully observed in terms of the limitation in numbers of participants with the number of congregants far over what was stated in Health Ministry guidelines. Even the people maintaining a 24/7 vigil near the prime minister’s residence held a service and blew the shofar, but their community dinner unforgivably ignored the needs for social distancing and wearing masks.
One place in which a concerted effort was made to adhere to guidelines was in the courtyard of Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue which is two doors away from Chabad of Rehavia. Chabad’s enterprising director Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg – a social entrepreneur genius – previously had used the large basement of the Great Synagogue for Chabad prayer services since their own premises could not accommodate his ever-growing congregation. The management board of the Great Synagogue decided against holding services this Rosh Hashanah; Goldberg received permission to use the courtyard. The men’s and women’s sections were divided by a large wooden screen, and within each section there were clothes racks from which large sheets of nylon were suspended to separate each cluster of chairs. The chairs were all placed well away from each other and worshippers were protected from the sun by a large navy-blue canopy.
Less than ten minutes’ walk away, in Sokolov Park, was the most pluralistic prayer service one could imagine. The service, as such, was Orthodox, with large fabric screen with plastic window insets separating the men from the women. The chairs were not in rows, but spread out. Some people opted to sit on park benches or on the stone fixtures in the park, and there were also husband and wife couples, presumably Conservative or Reform, who chose to sit together, but not in the immediate vicinity of the Orthodox congregants to avoid any offense. There was also an Ashkenazi-Sephardi mix. Some haredi (ultra-Orthodox) worshippers, prayed within hearing distance of the service, but outside the fence of the park. A few of the women were dressed in the attire they might wear to synagogue, but most were more casually dressed. The little girls wore gorgeous holiday dresses, but the men ran the full gamut from kittels, kapotes, business suits, casual slacks with open-neck shirts to shorts and T-shirts. Parents didn’t havto worry about keeping bored children entertained. The youngsters played on the swings, see-saws, slides, etc under the watchful eyes of older siblings. For all intents and purposes, a park service was the ideal thing. The Prime Minister’s Residence is within a one-and-a-half kilometer radius of more than 20 synagogues, most of which had inside and/or outside services, with people coming and going in all directions between their services and homes. Some men who had been to outdoor services, were so worried about COVID-19 infection, that they brought their own chairs and carried them home again.
Vying with Shlomo Carlebach melodies in services around the world is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which was sung in many places around the globe, and in some Reform synagogues in the US to honor the memory of former US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
■ TO CELEBRATE the September 17, premiere on Cellcom Television of The Middleman, a new French-Israeli series written and directed by husband and wife team Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen for the Arte Television Network, French Ambassador Eric Danon invited Cellcom CEO Avi Gabbay to visit him at his residence in Jaffa. The French dialogue series is set in Paris and focuses on the misfortunes of a divorced, homeless real estate agent who sleeps in a luxury apartment that he is trying to sell and fantasizes over how his luck will change when his mother dies and leaves him an apartment building in her will. The dream turns out to be more in the nature of a nightmare, but has some interesting surprise twists. The series stars French actor Eddy Mitchell and Israeli-French actress Sarah Adler, with Keret and his older brother Nimrod taking cameo roles.
This is not the first time for French-Israeli collaboration on a television series, and Danon expressed his pleasure over the continuing cultural partnership.
Gabbay said that he was pleased to meet with the ambassador and excited that the series is being screened by Cellcom.