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Reporter's notebook

For staff at hotel that hosted Negev Summit, ‘food security’ was the biggest concern

The Kedma at Sde Boker only found out it would be hosting the six-way event a few days before; it ran smoothly, once the security protocol for food preparation was established

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

(From right) Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed. Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, and Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, sit down for dinner at Kedma Isrotel in Sde Boker, March 27, 2022 (Egypt MFA)
(From right) Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed. Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, and Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, sit down for dinner at Kedma Isrotel in Sde Boker, March 27, 2022 (Egypt MFA)

SDE BOKER — The staff at Kedma Isrotel had only the weekend to prepare for the Negev Summit in Sde Boker, which began on Sunday afternoon.

Last Thursday, a day after Foreign Minister Yair Lapid began reaching out by phone and text to his counterparts across the region, the Foreign Ministry contacted Isrotel management to give them details of the summit.

The Kedma team had to design the meeting rooms, put together a formal dinner while respecting religious sensitivities, bring in specialists — all while dealing with the often perplexing demands of Israel’s security staff.

Sde Boker resident Guy Haas, food and beverage manager at the hotel, only found out about the summit on Friday, but was confident that Isrotel could pull it off. “We are a very strong chain,” he said confidently.

The Isrotel designer headed to Sde Boker to prepare the hotel. “She designs the tables, the atmosphere, the space, the look and feel,” said Haas.

In keeping with the name of the summit, she and her team sought to create an atmosphere that was “authentic to the Negev.”

The Kedma Isrotel in Sde Boker, hours after the end of the Negev Summit (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Lanterns were placed around the event halls, and flax ropes were hung over meeting spaces.

The chain brought in its culinary adviser, chef Amir Halfon, to work with the Kedma chef on the menu.

For the main event on Sunday, a dinner in the Wine Room for the six ministers, Halfon put together a menu featuring elements from across Israel, including peppers from the Arava, desert herbs from the Kedma garden, a main course of lamb from the Golan Heights — and the misleadingly named Jerusalem artichoke.

Morocco’s Nasser Bourita, Bahrain’s Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, UAE’s Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at a summit for foreign ministers at the Kedma Hotel in Sde Boker, March 28, 2022 (Foreign Ministry/GPO)

Wine, usually an important feature of an important official dinner, was nowhere to be found. The Foreign Ministry imposed that requirement because four of the foreign ministers represented Muslim-majority countries.

The staff even took down decorative wine bottles from the shelves in the Wine Room, and covered the wine fridge with a cloth.

The waitstaff — all English speakers — were brought in from an Isrotel restaurant in Eilat.

During the meal, ambassadors and staffers sat at a long table in the bar outside the Wine Room.

“It was a good atmosphere,” said Noa, a waitress who worked at the event. “The dignitaries treated us well.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (C) speaks with his Bahraini counterpart Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani during the Negev summit in Sde Boker on March 27, 2022. (GPO)

Kedma staff said that the Egyptian staff was the most friendly, and the Emiratis made sure to leave exceptionally large tips for Arab cleaners and kitchen workers.

Lapid the musician

Noa said she interacted with Lapid several times during the course of the summit.

On Sunday, as guests were arriving, she was told by a manager to prepare an americano for Lapid, who was speaking outside with his counterparts. She prepared the coffee and sent it out with a waiter, but Lapid’s guards came back and told her that, for security reasons, she had to make a fresh one — this time, while they were watching.

Lapid and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif  Al Zayani sat down to speak on a couch in the bar area. She brought him another americano, which he declined, but made sure to ask Noa her name and where she was from.

Kedma staff said consistently that Lapid was a “mensch” who went out of his way to shake hands and make small talk with the servers.

He also surprised the staff with a display of musical talents. As guests mingled in the bar area on Sunday afternoon, the foreign minister sat down with the performer playing the oud on the side of the room, picked up a guitar, and began playing along.

Mourners attend the funeral Border Police officer Yazan Falah, who was killed in a shooting attack in Hadera, at the military cemetery in northern Druze town of Kisra-Sumei, March 28, 2022. (David Cohen/Flash90)

A planned formal musical performance, however, could not go forward in the end.  Arab Israeli singer Valerie Hamati was to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, and was dressed up for what could have been an important milestone for her career. But after the deadly Islamic State terror attack in Hadera Sunday night, a musical event would have felt inappropriate.

According to those present, Hamati was visibly upset that her performance was canceled.

Hours to prepare

The waitstaff was only told about the summit on Saturday night, and because it was all put together at the last minute, they had no idea what their hours would be. They just knew they needed to be ready for anything, and that they were taking part in a historic event.

The only hitch, as often is the case, was the security arrangements.

On Monday morning, chefs were preparing lunch in the kitchen. When the Israeli security staff found out they were making food without them present to watch, they had the cooks throw it all out and start again from scratch.

The same morning, Noa and her manager went to bring fruit and cheese out to Blinken and his team. Security staff had them return to the kitchen, and prepare a new plate in front of them.

The operation became smoother as the morning went on. Noa was asked to prepare tea with mint for Lapid as he sat with another foreign minister by the pool. This time, security guards watched her the entire time, even picking out the tea bags for the minister.

(L to R) Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid delivers opening remarks during a roundtable alongside US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Sde Boker in the Negez Desert on March 28, 2022 (Jacquelyn MARTIN / POOL / AFP)

When she brought it out to Lapid, he greeted her by name.

Despite the unique pressures, Noa enjoyed being part of the summit. “Everyone in my family was excited,” she said. “‘What, you spoke with Yair Lapid?'”

“If we’d had more time it would have gone even better,” she reflected. “But for a day or two to prepare, it went off very well.”

“It went smoothly,” said Haas.

The Foreign Ministry was quite pleased as well, he said. He pointed to the fact that the forum is now to become a regular event as evidence that the participants enjoyed the service provided by the hotel

“People understood it was a historic moment, and took it to heart,” he said. “They prepared and worked toward the goal.”

A Kedma Isrotel hotel worker carries flags out of the Negev Summit after its conclusion, March 28, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The Arab staff at the hotel — which includes Bedouins, Christians, and West Bank Palestinians — was happy to participate as well, according to Haas, even though many Palestinians see the Abraham Accords as something of a betrayal.

The staffer responsible for organizing the logistics for the public statements at the end of the event was an Arab Christian, Haas noted.

“It’s a feeling of satisfaction, great satisfaction,” he said, hours after the last of the visitors had left.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report. 

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