NEW YORK — The journalists who are covering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s New York visit started complaining right after the plane landed at JFK Airport on Thursday, hours before Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly. But the initial griping, about the logistical complications that are set to impact our shopping capacity in Manhattan, soon paled by comparison with the screw-up that lay in store.
After leaving the Boeing 767 that had carried Netanyahu and his delegation, we were whisked into a black SUV. Tucked in at the end of the prime minister’s impressive motorcade, the vehicle got going safely, en route to the fancy East Side hotel where Netanyahu is headquartered. As we motored along, Florit Peretz, a Prime Minister’s Office staffer in charge of the traveling press, started explaining the logistics for the coming days.
Because the delegation is heading home mere minutes after the end of Shabbat — so as to be able to land in Israel just before the start of the Sukkot holiday late Sunday afternoon, without risk of desecrating the Jewish holiday — we journalists must check in our suitcases for the return trip on Friday afternoon, Peretz said.
Cue outcry: Since Thursday is packed with important speeches and meetings, and we have to cover the prime minister’s meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his phone call with President Barack Obama on Friday, when, if we have to give up our suitcases on Friday afternoon, can we shop?
Saturday was meant to be shopping day, wailed one vociferous member of the press pack. “I am not Shabbat observant, Eli Yishai will not dictate my life,” this prominent TV journalist loudly protested, referring to Shas’s ultra-Orthodox interior minister.
But Peretz would brook no dissent: “People, there’s nothing I can do. We can’t do anything on Shabbat, and that’s the end of this discussion. Your suitcases need to be checked in by Friday afternoon.”
“That’s pathetic. We’re not sheep. Find me a solution,” the journalist retorted.
But no solution was found and, as the black SUV was fighting its way through the New York City traffic, the dozen journalists started arguing instead about the air conditioning. For some it was too hot; others said they were freezing to death.
And that’s when the real trouble hit. All of a sudden, our SUV ground to a halt in the middle of the road — in the middle of a tunnel, that is, somewhere on FDR Drive.
At first, we joked that the switching off-switching on of the air conditioner had caused the breakdown. But then we heard the driver call someone on his cell phone: “We’re having a problem — we just ran out of gas.”
“I have no words,” Peretz said in utter disbelief.
Our instinct was to get out of the SUV. “Don’t panic — no one leaves this bus!” Peretz said quickly, though herself clearly not really sure what to do. There was a pause, and then the pack — most of us Israelis, with a few Germans — got out in any case.
In the middle of the tunnel, cars swooshing by, some of the Israelis started hailing cabs. Two or three reporters jumped into one, while the rest of us, dumbfounded, weighed whether to do likewise. Or perhaps the Secret Service could send us another vehicle, or some gas?
Then one of us stopped a yellow school bus. Luckily, it was almost empty — only the driver’s companion was on board. And, amazingly, he agreed to ferry us forward toward our date at the UN.
But the suit-and-tie-clad driver of the stranded black SUV protested. “Do not get on this bus, it has not undergone any security checks,” he insisted. “I can’t guarantee that I can get this vehicle anywhere near the hotel or the UN.”
Nobody cared. We boarded, shaking our heads at the absurdity. It was a rather small school bus, and some of us remained standing. No matter. The driver slowly fought his way through the traffic toward our destination.
“This has never happened to us,” Peretz said, speaking to other PMO officials on the phone. “How can they run out of gas in the middle of the road?”
As it began to become clear that our rescue driver had saved us, and that we would make it to the speech on time, the tense atmosphere lightened. “This is a severe security breach,” one of the journalists said, half-jokingly, to no one in particular.
Our guardian angel driver, would you believe, turned out to be a member of the tribe — a Jewish-Russian immigrant to the US. And he spoke some Hebrew. “Have you been to Israel?” someone asked him. “Four times,” he added, in Hebrew.
About half an hour later, as he dropped us off across the street from the UN building, we asked him how much we owed him for his services. “No, that’s OK,” he said, refusing to accept any payment. The journalist sitting right next to him insisted he name a price, so the driver said, “10 dollars.” The journalist gave him $20, which he reluctantly accepted as he wished us a cheery “Shana Tovah.”
Peretz, meanwhile, took down his contact information — so that the Israeli Embassy in Washington could properly reimburse him… and perform those security checks.
Note: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the black SUV was provided by the US Secret Service. In fact the Secret Service was responsible for the motorcade’s security only; the empty gas tank was the responsibility of a private company hired by Israeli consular authorities in the US.