WHILE THOUSANDS of Israeli families are still waiting for access to affordable housing, the President’s Residence is about to undergo significant expansion. According to a report last Friday in Yediot Yerushalayim supplement of Yediot Aharonot, the residence will be completely revamped, including the president’s living quarters. All in all, the additional construction – which inter alia will include an auditorium a visitors’ center and additional parking facilities – will take up 2,200 square meters.

While it’s true that the existing reception hall at the President’s Residence is now too small to accommodate the many invitees of various organizations and institutions who are hosted by the president, it would not be all that difficult to knock out a back wall, which is largely made of glass and leads onto a patio and from there into the back garden. Expanding the reception area from there would be a lot less costly than building an auditorium from scratch.
The first major alteration to the residence was initiated by Arie Shumar, who was director general of the President’s Bureau during the tenure of Ezer Weizman. Aware that the plumbing was obsolete and would eventually fall apart, Shumar completely renovated the public toilets at the facility and in the process also renovated the cloakroom.

During his tenure as president, Moshe Katsav was bothered by there being no proper reception area for guests at state dinners. The large hall was set up for the dinner, and the adjacent smaller hall was used by Katsav and visiting presidents in which to receive the guests. It was all very nice and formal. The chief of protocol of the Foreign Ministry introduced each guest to the two presidents. There would be a flurry of handshakes and the guests would then take their places at tables in the large hall.

Katsav was not given the go-ahead to build a reception area. All that he was allowed to do was to glass in a side patio leading from the main hall. But this is a relatively small area, and when there are large numbers of guests, the reception takes place on the lawns of the residence.

While Katsav was in office, American philanthropist Ira Rennert, who has been a generous benefactor to Israel, and to Jerusalem and to Bar-Ilan University in particular, wanted to give Katsav a gift. Aware that he was forbidden by law from accepting personal gifts, Katsav, who is religiously observant, commented that it would be wonderful to have a synagogue in the grounds of the residence. Here again, he was not allowed to build. However, a small building that had been used for storage and was located at the far end of the grounds was converted into an exquisitely beautiful house of prayer, with a somewhat cramped, but well-furnished women’s section at the rear. The synagogue, which was dedicated in October 2001, hosts a daily minyan, except on Shabbat.

In December 2011, during the presidential tenure of Shimon Peres, a pipe burst in his upstairs living quarters and caused water to seep into the small reception hall on the ground floor. Peres moved into David’s Village for a few months while new pipes were installed, the parquet flooring was restored and some of the furniture was replaced or repaired. Peres was also permitted the removal of columns from the main reception hall. The pillars had been a nuisance in that they dominated the room and seating arrangements had to be built around them. Very often, guests were seated behind a pillar and couldn’t see what was going on. The hall became more spacious with their removal.

Two years ago, it was decided to enlarge the entrance to the President’s Residence in order to make the processing of visitors faster and more efficient. Construction of the new entrance took more than 18 months. During this period, the cloakroom was totally renovated and new furniture was purchased.

Now, if the report by Kuti Fundaminsky, one of the most informed real estate reporters in Jerusalem, is accurate, there will soon be construction on a much larger scale.  Fundaminsky is descended from a Chabad family that settled in Hebron more than 200 years ago and later moved to Jerusalem. A branch of the family is distantly related to the Rivlins. The fact that he is a descendant of a long-established family gives Fundaminsky many connections. It’s not certain how close he is to the Rivlins, however, his is not the first exclusive report related to the president that has been published by Yediot or one of its subsidiary publications without the information being simultaneously released to other media. This leads to speculation, in view of the fact that Yediot has just published Yoaz Hendel’s book of conversations with President Reuven Rivlin on the president’s Israel Hope project.

There was at least one inaccuracy in Fundaminsky’s report. He wrote that all of Rivlin’s predecessors had continued to live in their own homes and not in the living quarters of the President’s Residence, but only Rivlin and his wife had opted to live there.

Actually, Rivlin’s predecessors also lived there, but went home at weekends. Or if they happened to be at an evening event that was closer to their private homes than to Jerusalem, they sometimes slept at home. For security reasons, it was preferable that they stay in the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. Rivlin has already more than passed the halfway mark of his seven-year tenure, so given Israeli bureaucracy and the slow pace of building in Jerusalem, it is unlikely that he will be in office to enjoy the changes being made.
ON THE other hand, Rivlin may enjoy turning 80 next year. It is inconceivable that some of his close friends and acquaintances would overlook the president’s 80th birthday.  It probably won’t be the kind of mega-event that Shimon Peres had on his 80th and 90th birthdays. But then again, if it’s a Rivlin family reunion, there could be more than 5,000 participants. The Rivlin family is spread far and wide and contains quite a few famous personalities. Several years ago the family convened in Jerusalem.

ALTHOUGH PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares US President Donald Trump’s disdain for the media, there is at least one journalist who has found favor in the eyes of the Netanyahu family, and that happens to be Benny Ziffer, the Literary Editor of Haaretz, who has written glowingly about Sara Netanyahu, and whose opinion of her differs greatly from that expressed by some of his fellow scribes. Ziffer has a milestone birthday coming up, and the word is out that Sara Netanyahu is planning a big party for him. The whole affair is currently hush-hush, with no more than a save-the-date notice going out to a select group of invitees

IS FORMER prime minister Ehud Barak testing the waters for a political comeback? He’s been very vocal lately, and he’s also been busy on Twitter. He is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at Tzavta on Sunday, September 16, and most events at Tzavta are full-house affairs.

MOST PEOPLE who enter the political arena do so because they want to bring about change. Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi was no exception, but he had the additional goal of wanting to serve in the Knesset longer than his mother – firebrand Geulah Cohen, who at 92, is still talking about what she wants to do for the country. Hanegbi has already realized that ambition, but is unlikely to realize the next, which is to serve longer than Shimon Peres, who served from 1959 to 2007. Hanegbi is already 61 years old. On the other hand, Peres was just a few weeks shy of his 84th birthday when he was elected president, so perhaps Hanegbi may get his wish after all.

THE INTERNATIONAL media was quick to feature the dramatic walkout last week by Monica Lewinsky from an interview with Yonit Lev of the Israel Television News Company (formerly Channel 2). Lewinsky was one of the key attractions of a news company’s conference on people of influence that was held at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. When Levi asked whether Lewinsky anticipated a personal apology from former US president Bill Clinton, who has publicly made an apology of sorts for the chaos that he brought into her life and that of her family, Lewinsky rose, saying she could not do this anymore.

The walkout was widely interpreted as an emotional reaction, but that was not quite the reason, though emotions may have had something to do with it.

According to Lewinsky, she had reached an agreement with the Israel Television News Company that Clinton questions would be “off limits.” While respecting her decision not to answer such questions, ITNC denied there was such an agreement.

But later in the week on the website of The Hollywood Reporter, there was an item to the effect that Lewinsiky would be telling her side of the story in a 20th anniversary documentary series titled “The Impeachment of Bill Clinton.” She will be revealing details not previously disclosed, and is under contract to A&E not to make any of this public until the series is aired.

In defense of her walkout, Lewinsky tweeted that there were “clear parameters about what we would be discussing and what not. I left because it is more important than ever for women to stand up for themselves and not allow others to control their narrative.” The tweet resonated with a lot of people and earned Lewinsky tens of thousands of likes, while Levi came in for heavy criticism on social media

IT WOULD appear that Hollywood mogul Haim Saban is burning the political candle at both ends. Saban, a well-known supporter of the Democratic Party, particularly during the Clinton era, co-hosted a private dinner in New York last week together with hedge fund manager and philanthropist Paul Singer. The dinner, just a couple of weeks ahead of the September 18 opening of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, had the Trump peace team as guests of honor, but also included people who are more identified with the Democratic Party than with the Republicans – though all in all there were people from both sides. The dinner was kosher and held in a private dining room of the Pierre Hotel on the Upper East Side. Seated around the table were US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, foreign policy experts Elliott Abrams and Martin Indyk, New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, former Time Warner executive Gary Ginsberg, Start-Up Nation author Dan Senor, Israel Policy Forum leaders Charles Bronfman and Susie Gelman, Tikvah’s Roger Hertog, former New York Observer editor Ken Kurson, Guess Jeans’ Maurice Marciano, Ira Rennert, Bob Book, and former Conference of Presidents’ chair Jim Tisch. The purpose was to discuss the US administration’s emerging plans for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, though how much of the specific details were revealed during the two-hour dinner is anyone’s guess. Still, it was important for people of diverse political opinions to sit together at a convivial gathering, and in addition to politics, to take into consideration the few people at the table who observe the Jewish dietary laws.

COMMEMORATIONS OF the horrendous terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, have already been conducted in many parts of the world, including Israel.  Several Israelis were among the 2,977 victims on what has become known simply as “9/11.” In Israel last Thursday, the Keren Kayemet LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), the Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF) and the US Embassy joined forces, as they do each year, to hold a memorial ceremony to honor those who perished. The 9/11 Living Memorial Monument overlooking the Jerusalem Hills and the Arazim Valley is the only one outside of the United States that lists the names of all the 9/11 victims, and reflects the shared values between Israel, the United States and the entire free world for peace and unity, and against terrorism.

Among those attending the ceremony were US Ambassador David Friedman; KKL-JNF vice chairman Yair Lootsteen; MK Nachman Shai; Edward Blank, the donor of the monument; JNF-USA chief Israel officer Eric Michaelson, as well as other distinguished guests, including relatives of the Israeli victims.

American delegations that came to Israel for the ceremony included United Airlines pilots, firefighters, police officers, representatives from JNF-USA and Nefesh B’Nefesh as well as various diplomats currently stationed in Israel.

The 9/11 Living Memorial, a towering bronze sculpture, was created in 2009 by Eliezer Weishoff and KKL-JNF’s landscape architect Yechiel Cohen. A metal shard from the ruins of the Twin Towers is incorporated into the monument, the main feature of which is an American flag folded into the shape of a memorial flame. Friedman said that the ceremony was a reminder to people everywhere that Americans and Israelis stand together “and that we continue to heal and to build in a spirit of solidarity and commitment to the future.”

OPPOSITION LEADER and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni was hosted last week by Argentine Ambassador Mariano Caucino, along with ambassadors of the Latin American and Caribbean Group in the context of a series of meetings with relevant political and social leaders in Israel.

Livni and the ambassadors discussed several matters of common interest, among them relations between Israel and Latin American countries, the role and importance of Jewish communities in Latin America, and where things currently stand with regard to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Livni shared her views on those subjects, emphasizing her commitment to the principle of “two states for two peoples,” with which the ambassadors concurred. Most of those present saw each other again later in the week at a National Day reception hosted by the Ambassador of Brazil Paulo Cesar Meira De Vasconcellos. They will meet again this week at a joint Independence Day reception hosted by Costa Rica Ambassador Esteban Penrod; Honduras Ambassador Mario Edhardo Castillo; Guatemala Ambassador Mario Adolfo Bucaro; Charge d’affaires of El Salvador Hector Enrique Celarie.

ISRAEL PRIZE laureate Leah Koenig, 89 one of the oldest actresses still on stage, though not the oldest, is in all probability the oldest candidate in municipal elections. She is on the list of Givatayim Mmayor Ran Konik who is running for re-election. Albeit not in a realistic slot, Koenig agreed to Konik’s request because he has been an enthusiastic supporter and promoter of arts and culture. Though currently appearing in several Habimah productions, Koenig is taking time out to appear in Yossi Alfi’s annual Sukkot story-telling festival at the Givatayim Theater.

WHILE IT’S no big deal for people in their seventies and eighties to continue to entertain as singers and actors as, for instance, Yehoram Gaon, Paul McCartney, Cher, Julio Iglesias, Rivka Michaeli, Mick Jagger, Gila Almagor, Charles Aznavour, Liora Rivlin, Oded Kotler, Jane Fonda, among many others, it is unusual for a dancer. Fans of Tel Aviv-born choreographer and dancer Rina Schenfeld, who at 80 continues to reinvent herself, know that she is still supple and agile and has not been betrayed by her body. Schenfeld will be in Paris at the end of this month to dance in the opera Berenice that will be performed from September 29 to October 17 at the famed Palais Garnier.

AMONG THE guests at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Republic of Slovakia, hosted by Ambassador Peter Hulenyi at the Porter School Building at Tel Aviv University, was retired ambassador Joel Sher, who has the distinction of having twice made diplomatic history. Sher was Israel’s first ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 23 years, following the severing of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967 by all Soviet-bloc countries, with the exception of Romania. He presented his credentials on November 29, 1990, to then-president Vaclav Havel. The date was auspicious in that November 29, 1947, was the date on which the United Nations voted for the partition of Palestine, paving the way for the creation of the State of Israel. When other countries refused to supply arms to the fledgling state during the War of Independence, Czechoslovakia did not join the embargo and provided both arms and training. When Czechoslovakia split in 1993, Sher went to Bratislava to visit the Protocol Office of the Foreign Ministry and for a year was accredited as ambassador to both the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. He was not only the first Israeli ambassador to Slovakia, he was also the first such ambassador period, and is recorded as 0001 in Slovakia’s Protocol Book.

When Sher presented his credentials to Havel, who had made resumption of relations with Israel a priority, the reception at Prague’s Hradcany Castle, which followed the traditional salute of the honor guard, was considered so newsworthy that it was televised and broadcast on the main evening news program. But there was a glitch in that Sher was mistakenly identified as a visiting minister from Finland.  Czech television, on being notified of the error, subsequently apologized, and to compensate for its mistake featured an interview with Sher in which he emphasized the need to make up for the missing 23 years in relations between the two nations. He stated that 11 Israeli-Czechoslovak accords were being prepared to foster cultural, economic and social cooperation. Since then, there have been more.

IT’S NOT A secret that most government ministers do not relish having to attend diplomatic receptions. Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel was scheduled to represent the government at the Slovak reception, but she was torn between that commitment and noblesse oblige for the Likud New Year toast with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter won out and instead of Gamliel, the government was represented by the Foreign Ministry’s Chief of Protocol Meron Reuben, who actually did a better job than Gamliel, who is not a particularly charismatic speaker.

Hulenyi, one of the most hard-working ambassadors, will complete his posting in Israel at the end of the year. He was happy to report that relations between Israel and the Slovak Republic are dynamic and encouraging, as evidenced by visits to Israel by the prime minister, president and speaker of the Slovak Parliament, who are all constitutional representatives.  The visits in themselves are not the only benchmarks, he said, but bring tangible results.
It was not by chance that the reception was held on the TAU campus, he noted. An agreement for joint scientific research was signed by Slovak President Andrej Kiska and TAU president Joseph Klafter a year ago, and in October, Klafter will visit Bratislava in order to receive an honorary doctorate. October has also been scheduled for a new round of R&D innovation projects that will receive attention in both countries.

Tourism from Israel to Slovakia is on the rise, with 40,000 visitors a year. One can hear Hebrew everywhere, said Hulenyi, adding, “If you want to know what’s happening in Slovakia, just ask an Israeli.”

Reuben was proud to say that Israel was one of the first countries to recognize the independent Republic of Slovakia and establish diplomatic relations. He mentioned areas of cooperation between Israel and the Slovak Republic and said there was still great potential for future development. He welcomed the establishment in Jerusalem of a Slovak Center for Culture and Science.

IN THE first week of September, the Russian Cultural Center in Tel Aviv celebrated Moscow Day, marking the 871st anniversary of Russia’s capital. Among those present were Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov, Belarus Ambassador Vladimir Skvortsov, Kazakhstan Ambassador Doulat Kuanyashev, leaders of Russian-Speaking Community Council of Israel and Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver. Viktorov said that there is a mutual interest in developing contacts between Russian and Israeli cities and that the twinning of Moscow with Tel Aviv and Netanya is proof of this.

IT’S NOT easy when your conscience stands in the way of your ambition and potential, but Israeli Olympic hopeful Dan Kremer, who happens to be religiously observant, answered the call of conscience and refused to compete on Yom Kippur. Kremer is a show-jumper on the Israeli National Team, and withdrew from the World Championships in the United States because they are being held on Yom Kippur. It would be a serious error of judgment to compete on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, he told various media outlets. As the representative of the Jewish homeland and its flag, there was no way that he could bring himself to violate the sanctity of Yom Kippur. It’s not just a personal decision, he wrote in his letter to the Israeli Equestrian Federation. It was also a matter of not offending the Israeli and wider Jewish public.

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