Grapevine: Next year in Jerusalem?

Does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu know something related to the American Embassy that is still being kept from the general public?

His closing remark in his address at the American Independence Day reception, hosted at the Avenue in Airport City by US Ambassador David Friedman, would suggest that he might.

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Taking his cue from the fact that Friedman had moved the reception from the uncomfortable humidity of his residence in Herzliya Pituah, where it had been hosted for decades by a succession of his predecessors, Netanyahu said: “David, I have one message for you. I have one request: Next year in Jerusalem. This is a fine and beautiful hall, immaculately done. Next year in Jerusalem, right next to the American Embassy. There can’t be a more glorious gathering with greater friends.”

Netanyahu’s choice of words, “Right next to the American Embassy,” provokes significant speculation, with the key possibility being the former Diplomat Hotel, which was converted into an assisted living facility for senior citizens, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The Aliya and Integration Ministry has been operating the premises for some three decades, but in 2014 the building was sold to the US Embassy. Reluctant to be accused of evacuating elderly people and rendering them homeless, the embassy kept extending the lease – but there’s a limit to empathy, and the embassy may well have reached that point.

With a year at its disposal, it could certainly turn the hotel’s ground floor into a sparkling ballroom large enough to accommodate even more than the 2,500 guests who came to the Avenue. A lot can happen in a year, as Friedman had pointed out in his own speech.

There was an exuberant aura both inside the building and on the large outdoor terrace. There were eye-catching symbols of Americana everywhere. There was a pleasing variety of food, albeit no apple pie; but there were doughnuts from Mr. Donuts, which were a great hit.

Despite the large attendance, the place didn’t feel crowded. There was air-conditioning, and there was plenty of room for those who wanted to dance to the music of the US Naval Forces Band Flagship, which played for much of the evening.

There was a marvelous rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Lisa Chertman, and of “Hatikvah” by keyboard virtuoso and singer Nir Brandt. Friedman is the fourth US ambassador of the Mosaic persuasion to serve in Israel, but the first who had no compunction about singing “Hatikvah,” nor did his wife, Tammy. Operatic singers Eran Margalit and Shira Ben-David put their all into singing “America the Beautiful.”

Before and after the speeches, Netanyahu received a standing ovation and sustained applause, and there were cheers and applause at every mention of the name of US President Donald Trump. But the greatest roar of appreciation came at the mention of America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

There was an interesting fashion switch between Tammy Friedman and Sara Netanyahu. Last year Friedman wore red and Netanyahu wore blue. This year it was the other way around, with Friedman in blue and Netanyahu in red.

Among those present aside from diplomats, ministers and members of Knesset were members of a bipartisan congressional delegation and Stuart Force, the father of US Army Capt. Taylor Force, who was murdered in a terrorist attack in Jaffa in 2016.

In advance of the projected meeting in Helsinki between Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, the representatives in Israel of their two countries, Friedman and Anatoly Viktorov, met at the American Independence Day bash. Viktorov has already preceded Friedman in hosting a national day ceremony in Jerusalem. On the day prior to the reception, Viktorov was again in Jerusalem to present his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin.

Inasmuch as the Fourth of July, whether celebrated before or after, is a day of great merrymaking among Americans, Friedman, in his address, injected a sad note with the reminder that the prime minister’s older brother, Yoni, lost his life on July 4, 1976, in the Entebbe rescue operation, in which a hijacked plane of hostages – many of them Israelis or French Jews – were saved from the clutches of terrorists. Friedman described it as “probably the most successful commando operation in history,” in which “the State of Israel demonstrated that it will risk anything and go anywhere to save lives.”

Speakers at the official American Independence Day celebrations in Israel have previously included the president of Israel as well as the prime minister. Rivlin had initially been scheduled to speak, but he had such an intensive and emotional day prior to the reception that his doctor ordered him to relax. Rivlin nonetheless made a point of coming ahead of the official proceedings in order to congratulate Friedman and the congressional delegation, but he didn’t stay for the festivities.

■ SLOVAKIA MAY not yet be ready to move its embassy to Jerusalem, but it will open a cultural center in Jerusalem. The announcement was made this week in the course of a meeting between a Slovak delegation and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein “I’m full of hope that this is the first of a series of steps that will follow,” said MP Martin Glvác, who heads the Slovakian National Council’s Slovakian-Israeli friendship committee. The decision, made in consultation with Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, came after Edelstein called on Slovakia to follow the Czech Republic in fostering its diplomatic presence in the city, and is regarded as a practical step reflecting the dynamics of bilateral relations between Israel and Slovakia.

The Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic are a wonderful example of the amicable parting into two states of what used to be Czechoslovakia. Thus, the speaker of the Slovakian parliament, Andrej Danko, and the president of the senate of the Czech Republic, Milan Stech, coordinated their schedules in order to pay tribute together in Israel to the 100th anniversary this year of the founding of Czechoslovakia.

Although the country split into two separate states 25 years ago, Czechoslovakia still enjoys widely positive connotations among Israelis, and both successor countries aim to build on this image and on historical facts. Czechoslovakia’s diplomatic support to the nascent State of Israel is an important segment in Israel’s history of the state long prior to statehood. Czechoslovakian president Tomas Garrigue Masaryk was the first head of state to visit Jewish settlements in British-ruled Palestine as far back as 1927. Czechoslovakia, as a member of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, in 1947 voted for the creation of the State of Israel, and in 1948 was among the first countries to recognize Israel.

The military support provided to the emerging State of Israel by Czechoslovakia in 1948 continues to be seen as one of the crucial factors in Israel’s survival in that critical period. Despite a United Nations embargo on supplying weapons and military training to Israel, Czechoslovakia was the only country to defy that edict, and in so doing enabled the Israelis to become game changers in the War of Independence.

This and other historical facts inspired Czechs and Slovaks to join with Israel in together celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary of independence and the centenary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia.

The visit of the speakers of the Slovak and Czech parliaments included a gala event at the Knesset to mark both anniversaries. Edelstein presented special citations to his counterparts recognizing a heroic act of two paratroopers, Jozef Gabcik (Slovak) and Jan Kubis (Czech), who in 1942 assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the main architect of the Holocaust. The three speakers then officially inaugurated a photo exhibition, “Masaryk in the Holy Land,” which illustrates Masaryk’s special relations with Israel.

Edelstein was in Slovakia last year. The mutual visits serve to underline the cooperation between parliamentary friendship groups of both countries and the challenges faced by each. They discussed ways of better communicating the work of parliaments with the public, exchanged views on the role of parliaments in foreign policy and explored other opportunities for both parliaments to work together. Aside from the Knesset, the visit included the Old City of Jerusalem and Yad Vashem.

■ AFTER TAKING time out from politics after losing out to Rivlin in the presidential race, Meir Sheetrit, who held several ministerial positions, including that of justice minister, supposedly resigned from politics. However, it turned out that it was merely a time out. In March of this year, Sheetrit wrote on his Facebook page that people were urging him to run for mayor of Yavne. The position isn’t new to him. In 1974, at age 25, Sheetrit was elected head of the local Yavne Council, and from there he progressed ever upward on the political scale. After nearly four years of voluntary isolation from the world of politics, it looks like Sheetrit is hankering to return and, from a political base, perhaps run for president again. He may even be running against his good friend Isaac Herzog, who is also rumored to be keen about making his next career move in that direction.

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