Royal adviser

Belgian Ambassador John Cornet d’Elzius speaks of his diplomatic career from crown prince consultant to Belgium’s envoy to Israel and his great love for so small a country.

BELGIAN AMBASSADOR John Cornet d’Elzius (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Too many commitments on both sides were getting in the way of an interview with John Cornet d’Elzius, the affable Belgian ambassador.
Added to this was the fact Cornet lives in Herzliya Pituah, his office is in Ramat Gan and his interviewer lives in Jerusalem.
Yes, it could have been done by telephone or by email, but face-to-face interviews are always preferable.
Fortunately, we were both invited to the National Day reception hosted by the Cameroonian ambassador, whose backyard is so spacious that there is plenty of room in which to slip away for a private conversation.
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We found two chairs behind the huge patio and were able to speak undisturbed until the official proceedings when the conversation was briefly disrupted and we rose to join the other guests.
Our interview took place a day after former deputy prime minister and Foreign Minister Didier Reynders concluded Belgium’s presidency of the of the 47-member state Council of Europe during its 125th session at the Egmont Palace in Brussels and officially passed the presidency to the Bosnian and Herzegovinian foreign minister, Igor Crnadak. Belgium has headed the Ministerial Committee of the Council of Europe since November 13.
Though trained as a lawyer, Cornet, 55, opted for a diplomatic career and has been a member of his country’s foreign service since 1987. He has served in Canada, Switzerland, Italy and in many positions in Belgium including two stints as adviser to Crown Prince Philippe who has since become king. He succeeded his father King Albert, who abdicated for health reasons in July 2013.
Cornet was adviser to the crown prince from 1999 to 2004, and again from 2009 to 2012.
Israel is his first ambassadorial posting. He has been ambassador since December 2012.
In Ottawa he served as first secretary at the embassy.
He spent four years in Geneva as permanent representation to the United Nations where he was responsible for the World Trade Organization and the UN Conference on Trade and Development. In addition, as minister-counselor in Rome, he was Belgium’s representative to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, UN World Food Program and UNCTAD.
Between postings abroad, there was plenty of variety on the home front. He served as head of the China Desk, was a counselor at the cabinet of the secretary of state for foreign trade and deputy chief of cabinet for the development and international cooperation minister.
Considering that he had been working adviser to the crown prince for a total of seven years, one would think in an era in which democracy holds sway that they may have been on first name terms.
Their relations were indeed very friendly says Cornet, but he always addressed the prince as your royal highness.
“There was no familiarity. Relations were good, but always with a certain formality. Protocol helps us, because it treats everyone in the same manner,” he said.
Cornet’s adherence to protocol was obvious during the Cameroonian reception. At the start of the playing of the national anthems of Cameroon and Israel, he placed the wine glass that had been in his hand on the ground and stood stiffly to attention with his hands at his sides, while other guests continued to hold plates or glasses, standing in casual poses.
Of all the countries in which he has served, Cornet and his wife Mathilde like Israel the best. He is quick to assure his interviewer that he is not saying this out of flattery, but because they are both fascinated by the extraordinary diversity in so small a country.
Being in Israel has proved “such an interesting experience” for them in almost every possible way.
Even before coming to Israel, Cornet and his wife were deeply interested in “the fascinating history” of the country, and soon after being notified of his appointment, he bought 40 books about the country including history and biography books in French, English and Flemish.
He likes to read biographies “as an accompaniment to history.”
The Cornets have traveled the country extensively and every Saturday night they go to a different Tel Aviv restaurant to sample the fine Israeli cuisine.
He has familiarized himself so much with the history and geography of the country that when he and his wife are entertaining guests from abroad, he takes on the role of tour guide.
His favorite place is Jerusalem, especially the “fabulous” views of the city from the Mount Zion Hotel.
He loves the architectural harmony of the city and the very special light.
“Every stone says something to you.”
He is also enamored with the diversity of the population in general and Jerusalem’s in particular. He is no less fascinated by the diversity of climate in different parts of the country and by the topography.
Notwithstanding the smallness of the terrain, the Negev reminds him of America’s Grand Canyon, and the area around Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) reminds him of Tuscany. But as far as he’s concerned there is nothing to compare with Masada and the Dead Sea.
Much as he is bound to protocol by virtue of his position and his background, he loves the lack of protocol in Israel and the ease with which people connect with each other.
He and his wife have often been invited for dinner to the homes of people whom they met at one reception or another “and it has always been a good experience.”
In their travels around the country, they have made a point of visiting the birthplaces of famous native sons such as Moshe Dayan and astronaut Ilan Ramon.
They have a 26-year-old daughter, who is married to a Frenchman and who lives in Paris. She and her husband come to Israel quite regularly and when they do, the family always goes on tour around the country.
From a professional standpoint, Cornet said that “for a diplomat you are at the heart of international political intrigue.”
On the human interest side he continued, “Israel is very rich. Everyone has a story to tell, and there is no problem entering into conversation.”
And there is the other well known aspect so familiar to Israelis, but almost awesome to the non-Israel in the fact that this tiny country is the cradle civilization, yet another of the many factors that combine to make Cornet so enthusiastic.
While the activities and bilateral relations of some of the other EU member countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic are well publicized, there is very little published about relations between Israel and Belgium.
“Perhaps because we are too modest,” said Cornet with a smile.
He emphasizes that relations between the two countries are very good and that bilateral trade is in the range of €2 billion, with diamonds accounting for some 50 percent due to the close business relations between Antwerp and Tel Aviv.
Other than that Belgium and Israel are both startup nations, which place great value on research and development and have a good record of collaboration between universities and the business world, he said. He added that the cooperation and exchanges in culture and sport, and the fact that in June 2013 the prestigious Queen Elisabeth piano competition was won by Russian-born Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg, who studied for 12 years with Arie Vardi and who has played with many orchestras around the world including the Israel Philharmonic.
With regard to sports, Cornet points to the Belgium- Israel soccer match last year at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem that ended in a score of 1 to 0 in Belgium’s favor. A return match in Belgium is scheduled for October this year.
Every ambassador likes to have an achievement to his or her credit in each country they are posted and Cornet is pleased to be able to say that in June 2014 he hosted the launch in his residence of the Belgium Israeli Business Club, which is focused on innovation and which was set up with the active contribution of a group of enthusiastic young Belgian expat entrepreneurs who live in Israel.
He hosted a meeting between Israeli and Belgian hi-tech enthusiasts who related instantly to each other, though Cornet confesses that he didn’t understand a lot of the conversation.
“I talk a lot about hi-tech but I’m not very hi-tech myself,” he admitted.
Asked about his preferences in Israeli culture, he says that he goes to concerts and dance performances, but what he really likes are “traditional Israeli songs” that he finds to be very melodious. He has a CD of such songs in his car and listens to it while driving.
When pressed to name his favorite song, he hummed it. Needless to say it was Jerusalem of Gold.