Reporter's notebookAustrian ambassador hails 'day of celebration for Israelis'

Ahead of official embassy opening, it’s Jerusalem of red-white-and-blue

Foreign Ministry throws a lavish gala reception for top US and Israeli officials, key players over years of bilateral relations — and even some foreign diplomats

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Foreign Ministry's reception to celebrate the US Embassy’s relocation from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, on May 13, 2018. (Haim Tzach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Foreign Ministry's reception to celebrate the US Embassy’s relocation from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, on May 13, 2018. (Haim Tzach/GPO)

It’s not everyday that the world’s only superpower recognizes your capital. Grateful for the US administration’s move, the Israeli government on Sunday — Jerusalem Day — hosted a red-white-and-blue extravaganza to thank US President Donald Trump for his historic decision.

About 24 hours before US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will unveil the seal and the dedication plaque at the new embassy’s site in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona, Israel’s Foreign Ministry staged a lavish reception the likes of which this office building has rarely if ever seen before.

The ministry’s usually dreary-looking dining room was artfully decorated with flags and flowers, crates of watermelons and buckets of tomatoes.

On pita-laden stands reminiscent of the city’s Mahane Yehuda market, guests were served a wide variety of salads, hummus with ground meat, vegetarian maqlubaJerusalem mixed grill, and other local delicacies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the official reception on the occasion of the opening of the US Embassy at ?the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, on May 13, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Gali Tibbon)

Upstairs, guests waited in line to have a professional photographer take their picture while holding a framed copy of Trump’s December 6 Jerusalem declaration. On their way out, they were handed an ornate silver bookmark from the luxury Hazorfim Judaica and silverware chain. On it was engraved: “U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.”

“It’s a day that few of the experts ever imagined they would see. But it is happening,” said former Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold, a longtime linchpin of US-Israel ties. “I don’t fear for its aftermath, because it will insert an extraordinary degree of realism in the discourse on Middle East affairs.”

Much of the guest list read like a who’s who of the bilateral relationship: famed pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz was present, as were casino mogul and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson, Pastor John Hagee (whose Christians United For Israel group counts more than four million members), Yeshiva University President Ari Berman, and former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein.

Jewish American businessman Sheldon Edelson attends the welcome ceremony for the US Embassy at the Foreign Ministry, ahead of the official opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Former Israeli ambassadors to the US Michael Oren and Danny Ayalon rubbed shoulders with former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

Participants also included senior US Congressmen — including Senators Lindsey Graham and Senator Ted Cruz — and a host of Israeli politicians and officials, ranging from Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to the sultan of selfies, MK Oren Hazan.

Ahead of the event, there had been some controversy over a possible boycott by the foreign diplomatic corps, but some 30 diplomats ended up attending, including a handful from Europe.

The foreign envoys looked somewhat lost in what, at times, seemed like a big reunion of Israeli and American “machers” who have known each other for years. But when approached, they confidently explained why they were attending, even if their own governments have no intention of emulating the embassy move in the foreseeable future.

“This is a day of celebration for Israelis from across the political spectrum,” said Austria’s Ambassador Martin Weiss.

Austrian Ambassador to Israel Martin Weiss at the Foreign Ministry reception celebrating the US Embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

“If you ask any Israeli on the street, whether he’s left-wing or right-wing, what the capital of Israel is, they’ll look at you weird. It’s obvious,” Weiss went on.

“However, the EU and Austria have a different position. The Austrian embassy is in Tel Aviv and will also remain in Tel Aviv for the time being. But that doesn’t mean that when the Israeli prime minister invites me to an event I can’t go. We can have a policy disagreement but that doesn’t change the fact that today is a very joyous day for Israel and the Israeli people.”

Commenting on the fact that most EU envoys were absent, Dore Gold said Europe used to have “extreme views” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He recalled that Germany’s ambassador to Israel in 1999 declared that EU policy regarding Jerusalem was to advocate for the city to become a corpus separatum (a separately administered body), consistent with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181.

“I don’t know what they put in the punch at diplomatic parties. I hope nobody believes that today,” Gold said. “But what is clear is that President Trump’s statement about Jerusalem undercut that antiquated position and strengthened Israel’s standing in Jerusalem immensely.”

US President Donald Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump, center right, and Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, center left, at a welcome ceremony for the US Embassy at the Foreign Ministry, ahead of the official opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The real VIPs — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump — did not participate in the mingling, but immediately went to their seats in the front row.

The hour-long ceremony, held in a huge white tent in the Foreign Ministry’s backyard, began with Hatikva and the Star-Spangled Banner.

Then a video about the history of US-Israel was screened, including sound bites from Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton, Netanyahu and Donald Trump. The crowd cheered frantically when Trump declared over the speakers that, “Today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.”

An American flag flowerbed planted next to the compound of the US consulate in Jerusalem, which will host the new US embassy on May 13, 2018, AFP PHOTO / Ahmad GHARABLI

The prime minister was the first speaker. “This is a momentous time. President Trump is making history,” he said.

The Jewish state is a rising power, even in singing, Netanyahu said, in a reference to Israel’s Netta Barzilai winning the European song contest the day before.

“Those who didn’t want Jerusalem in the Eurovision are going to get the Eurovision in Jerusalem. Next year in Jerusalem,” he said.

After his speech, a band played a reggae version of Naomi Shemer’s classic “Jerusalem of Gold,” before Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin delivered brief speeches reiterating the administration’s belief that moving the embassy will advance peace and vowing to continue confronting Israel’s enemies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, together with US Ambassador David Friedman, at a welcome ceremony at the Foreign Ministry, ahead of the official opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

After the speeches, Netanyahu handed a “letter of appreciation” to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, thanking him “for his activity on behalf of moving the embassy to Jerusalem.”

As the prime minister and his important guests headed to the exit and into their black limos, Israel’s real national anthem (at least for the next couple of days) was blasted through the speakers: Netta’s Europe-conquering “Toy.”

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