Israel accommodates bevy of dignitaries

The much-publicized October 1994 visit of President Bill Clinton to Jerusalem highlighted a new phenomenon in Israel: a sharp rise in the number of visiting foreign dignitaries.

Following the Madrid Conference in 1991, which ushered in the current peace initiative, many countries established or re-established ties with Israel. The pace accelerated after the signing of the declaration of principles by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in September 1993, with 22 countries renewing or establishing ties.

Since the Madrid Conference, 58 nations have re-established ties with the Jewish state, and Israel now enjoys diplomatic relations with 148 countries worldwide.

The long list of new diplomatic partners includes Andorra, Zimbabwe, India, Madagascar, Nigeria, Russia, the Seychelles Islands and Vietnam. There are also three spectacular recent additions: Morocco, Tunisia and neighboring Jordan.

And as the establishment of diplomatic relations is usually followed by a state visit and visits by foreign ministers, other Cabinet ministers, members of parliaments and other official delegations, the number of visitors to Jerusalem has reached unprecedented heights.

Thousands of guests are processed each year by a handful of dedicated workers at the Foreign Ministry's Department of Official Guests, which is in overall charge of the visits.

Each visit needs careful planning, with the first step being to check that the hosts — the prime minister, president and foreign minister — will be in the country and available for the mandatory protocol meetings.

Then suitable accommodation must be provided. Official guests are usually billeted at the King David Hotel, which means that this prestigious hotel has to regularly juggle with its other guests to make room for visiting VIPs.

The establishment of an official guest house, along the lines of Blair House in Washington, D.C., is being considered, but even if the project is adopted, it will be some years before the building is ready. That being said, the long-suffering inhabitants of Jerusalem will have to continue to cope with the closing down of one of the city's main streets at least one day every month for some time to come.

With accommodation secured, a program is then worked out, with the Department of Official Guests arranging and coordinating meetings and visits. The program usually includes a judicious blend of sight-seeing, business meetings and protocol.

Meanwhile, efforts are made to obtain the national anthem of the visitor's country so that the Israel army orchestra can rehearse it in time to play it faultlessly as the distinguished guest steps off the plane.

Then there is the matter of the flag. Very often, it will have to be specially made, particularly when it is the flag of a newly independent country. Special attention is paid to the correct name of the country and the correct form of address for the visitors, especially for royal visits.

Four kings have recently visited Israel: the king of Spain, the king of Tonga, the king of Zulus and, of course, King Hussein of Jordan. Last year a royal princess of Thailand also came to Israel, as did Prince Philip of Britain.

For the Israeli public, the novelty of foreign motorcades and flags on the streets of the capital has worn off, and people shrug and go about their business. True, the Clinton visit, with its hundred-car motorcade, brought total chaos to the country.

Airports were shut down for hours on end, as well as the country's main thoroughfare, in order to ensure maximum security for the president.

And yet Israelis did not grumble; they just hurried home to get our of the traffic jams and watch the historic visit live on local TV.