They arrived together a little over two years ago. Four ambassadors, from four European countries - Simon McDonald from Great Britain, Gerard Araud from France, Bob Hiensch from Holland and Carsten Damsgaard from Denmark. They even presented their credentials together at a ceremony in September 2003. As Hiensch recalls, protocol was observed at the occasion, but something nevertheless bothered him. "When Simon approached the president, all the photographers started taking pictures, [he is] after all the British ambassador," he says. "When I approached, all the photographers stopped taking pictures. But then once again, when Carsten approached, they all started taking pictures, because of his unique domestic situation (Damsgaard is a homosexual who lives in Israel with his partner, A.S.)." I'm the only one they ignored, Hiensch remembers with a smile.
"I am two days younger than the State [of Israel]", says Hiensch, 58, who came here after serving in the United States. Araud (who claimed that his age is a "state secret," but whose colleagues revealed that he is 52-years-old) served in Israel as a diplomat in the 1980s. McDonald, 44, previously spent six years in Saudi Arabia, and Damsgaard, 50, was stationed beforehand at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
The four are good friends, and gladly accepted the request to be interviewed together and to discuss the pleasant surprises Israel had in store for them, the good life in Tel Aviv and, ultimately, the sensitive, and sometimes frustrating, position they fill.
Perhaps in contrast to the impression that Israelis sometimes have of the "European opinion" of Israel, the four ambassadors shower endless compliments on their host country. "To be a diplomat in Israel is a dream post," says Damsgaard. "Israel is at the center of one of the most difficult conflicts in the world, and nevertheless, it belongs to the First World in terms of living conditions. A diplomat here has fascinating work, without having to get used to life in the Third World." Hiensch agrees: "Israel manages, in spite of the conflict, to maintain a high standard of living. This is, in effect, the only country in the world that has succeeded in doing so." He says that this unique phenomenon stems from the human capital that arrived here in the waves of immigration, and from the money invested by the United States.
Araud was posted in Israel during the early 1980s and can therefore compare the situation in the country then and now. "What amazed me most was the change and the variety. Israel was a poor country in 1982. That was evident to anyone coming from Europe. In the meantime, the GNP here has grown sixfold. Aside from that, there is an unbelievable variety here. Everyone in my fitness gym speaks Russian. Today one sees a large number of Russians, and hears a lot of Russian. Once you were also a very monolithic and militant country. Young people used to talk about politics and they felt very committed. Today nobody talks about politics."
McDonald also senses the sharp rise in the standard of living. "When I enter Tel Aviv via the Ayalon [highway], I feel that I'm entering an American city," he says. "The infrastructure here has improved greatly. The number of cars has increased astonishingly." He adds with a smile, "It's true, most of them are Mazda-3s, but still." In all, says Hiensch, "Israel is a success story. This is the only country in the world that has successfully made the transition from the Third World to the First."
Amazing night life
Except for Damsgaard, they all showed up wearing suits. Under McDonald's jacket, red suspenders peeked out occasionally, but undoubtedly Araud was the most elegantly dressed, with a delicate handkerchief in a matching color emerging from the pocket of his suit jacket. McDonald said that the casual Israeli dress doesn't bother him at all. On the contrary, he is envious when he watches people in the street. "What is important is to be elegant, not necessarily formal," said Araud like a typical Frenchman, and mentioned that he is very comfortable in a suit and tie, and that he would dress that way even if it were not required by his job.
They have mainly good things to say about the Israeli character. "The quality and openness of the people surprise me each time anew," says Araud. "You can hear every opinion here. You can sit in a restaurant with a sociologist, a Nobel Prize winner and a writer. An outstanding quality of people. I always say to people who work in the embassy: 'If you didn't have friends in Israel, you missed the whole experience.'" Damsgaard agrees: The Israelis he has met were warm and friendly towards him. After serving in Brussels for three years, he left without a single friend there. McDonald also did not succeed in forming social ties, although he served in Saudi Arabia, "And that's already a different story," he says.
"The climate is wonderful," says Damsgaard, as Hiensch interjects "and the wine is good, (without insulting Araud)." Araud echoes with pleasure, "the restaurants in Tel Aviv" as Damsgaard chimes in "and the amazing night life." Hiensch says that Israeli women, mainly those in Israel Defense Force uniforms, lift his spirit, as Damsgaard says, with the silent consent of his friends and to their slight embarrassment, that both the men and the women in Israel are attractive.
How do you explain the fact that many Israelis feel that Europe is unfriendly towards them? Hiensch:
"I feel that the Israelis love the Dutch. Whether it's young people, maybe because of the hashish (which can be purchased in Amsterdam, A.S.), or whether it's older people, for other reasons."
McDonald: "Much of the Israeli attitude stems from soccer. Israelis are generally fans of one of three teams - Manchester United (the older people), Liverpool (the middle generation) and Arsenal (the young people). Besides, there are two Brits who are very well known and loved in Israel. One of them is Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the second is Harry Potter. I don't know which of them is more popular."
Araud: "The description of history changes according to the present relations between the countries. Before 1967, France was identified with the Resistance in World War II. Since 1967, it has been identified with the Vichy regime. Before 1967, even the Dreyfus Trial was mentioned as a positive event, because of the acquittal in the end. After 1967, the Dreyfus Trial was remembered as a negative event. Hardly anyone remembers that in France, relatively more Jews were saved than in any other country."
Damsgaard: "But in Denmark many Jews were saved as well."
Araud: "Yes, but we were invaded."
Damsgaard: "So were we!"
Araud: "Yes, but we fought!"
Damsgaard: "Oh, come on."
Who here is the chef?
All four feel that the classical role of the diplomat has changed in recent years. Their job is less to report on events and more to explain their significance. Due to the age of the Internet and the abundance of information, the four are mainly required to analyze events and to explain the variety of opinions in Israeli society. "To read about Israel and to live here are two entirely different things," says McDonald. "It's impossible to understand Israeli decision-making without understanding the tremendous variety in society" - from the wealthy and sophisticated coastal strip, to Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Bnei Brak, and to Jerusalem and the outlying areas. "Israeli policy is a combination of everything," says Damsgaard.
They are quite involved in Israeli politics. In a surprise test that was conducted by a raising of hands, they were all familiar with several of the names that often appear in political reports. McDonald was the most outstanding, and knew the exact title of the deputy mayor of Raanana, Uzi Cohen, and the estimated age of Rabbi Kedouri, who has since passed away. The ambassadors learned about the major news event of recent times, the hospitalization of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, from their own sources, and not necessarily from media reports. McDonald consulted with Sharon's advisers, while Araud consulted with one of the senior journalists in Israel.
Araud: "At first the newspapers here wrote about the great transparency in Israel regarding the state of the prime minister's health. They proudly said that it was not like France (President Jacques Chirac was hospitalized last September, about which few details were publicized in the media, A.S.). Since then, it has turned out that they didn't really reveal everything here, either. In other words, you're actually not so different from us. Nowhere do they reveal everything."
All four mentioned that the journalists in Israel play a much more dominant role in the political arena than do the journalists in their countries. The art of spin also reaches heights in Israel that do not exist in Europe.
McDonald: "A journalist told me that he spoke to a minister one evening until 11 PM. There is no such thing in Britain."
Araud: "One day I was sitting in a cafe with a journalist, and I mentioned to him that I was interested in meeting the new foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. He immediately pulled out his mobile phone, told me to write down her home number, and then said: 'Call now, she's home, I spoke to her a minute ago.' In France, that wouldn't happen."
There were very few questions in our conversation that were answered with the diplomatic reply: "Off the record." Nevertheless, there was apparently one issue that would have aroused tremendous tension - the question as to who was a better cook, the French or the British ambassador. Here the two suddenly turned serious, and Araud said gravely that "It's not a personal matter" (since both have personal chefs). Nevertheless they agreed, in order not to arouse unnecessary tension (between their chefs as well) to leave this question unanswered.
At the same time as we were conducting this lighthearted conversation last Wednesday, the elections for the parliament were taking place in the areas of the Palestinian Authority. That evening, the surprising results were made known, with the Hamas movement winning an absolute majority in the parliament, as opposed to all the earlier forecasts.
French ambassador Araud said three days ago in response that the European Union will consider transferring economic aid to the Palestinians via a mediator, such as non-governmental organizations. Such a decision, he said, will be made only after negotiations with Israel, since the collapse of the Palestinian Authority is also opposed to the Israeli interest. He continued, adding that the fact that a terror organization won the elections is very worrisome and Hamas' victory in the elections does not change its character. He said that France did not have to change the policy it had followed until now - in other words, not to have contact with Hamas. He rejected the distinction between a political and a military arm, and determined that as long as the organization did not recognize Israel, there should be no ties with it. As per the question of how France and the EU will behave if a Hamas man heads the Palestinian finance ministry, Araud responded that it is still not clear as to what the nature of the government will be. Therefore, there is no need to rush. He added that the money is a sensitive issue, because Israel does not want to see chaos in the PA, either. In the final analysis, he said, we will have to find some compromise.
Danish ambassador Carsten Damsgaard admitted that in recent days there had been tense anticipation of future events among the diplomatic community in Israel. Damsgaard described the results of the elections as an "accute situation." Dutch ambassador Bob Hiensch said that the results were a "shock" for him: "When you're in Israel, you experience what Israeli society experiences. Just as the Israelis were in shock, so were we."