06 October 2007
'I Have More White Hairs, But Each One Came From Something Positive'
In his last few hours in his post, Israeli Ambassador to Turkey Pinhas Avivi is still working in his office, preferring to put in even just a few hours before he returns to his country.
Looking back he says that Turkey has been a difficult, exciting and challenging mission -- but he is happy with the results. He says that he has had to work very hard and has more white hairs now, but that this is a good thing. Ambassador Avivi thinks that for successful diplomacy it is very important to establish personal relations with all levels of the society. He quotes his grandmother, “Distance is the arm of weak people.” Turkey is his third mission as an ambassador; he says he’s made mistakes in the past, but “thank God” these were learning experiences for him. Ambassador Avivi is proud of the ability to laugh at himself and wishes the Turks had this ability too. He admires, however, the method of administration and collective administrative memory in Turkey and wishes that these elements were present in Israel. Administration in Israel can be a mess, according to him -- “balagan” in Hebrew.
“It is the most difficult, most interesting, most challenging and really not an easy diplomatic mission,” says the outgoing Israeli ambassador of his mission in Turkey. He adds that he was very happy to be in Turkey despite all these difficulties and challenges. In an interview with Today’s Zaman last week, he explained what made Turkey such an interesting post.
“Somehow Turkish is Mediterranean, surrounded by different powers; Iran, the Gulf countries, the Arab countries, Europe, the Balkan countries. This creates a very difficult geo-strategic position for Turkey. Throughout history Turkey has been the meeting center for all these places. As an ambassador, yes, you are in charge of the relations between two countries; but you have to be interested in this atmosphere, too,” Ambassador Avivi says. Some developments in Turkey, however, make his post challenging.
“My people at the embassy wonder every day about what obstacle they will have to overcome that day. It doesn’t matter what you prepare in the morning, life gives you challenges that you didn’t think of before -- I can tell you this. I prepared myself to complete my mission in September, as I am doing now. I decided on that half a year ago; the ministry asked me, ‘When do you want to finish your mission and receive a new job here?’ I said, ‘If it is possible, in September.’ I thought to myself six or seven months ago that after four difficult years, I want to have a nice and quiet final two months in the summer, that I could spend time going out and visiting some places. Who prepares like that? Elections, the presidential election, and at the end of the mission, on the last day, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) problem. You cannot prepare in advance. You prepare for one thing, life gives you another thing,” Ambassador Avivi points out.
Ambassador Avivi says that his days in Turkey were very interesting and exciting and that he intends to write a book about his time in Turkey. One of the things that made his post in Turkey so intriguing was the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).
“I came here more or less at the start of the AK Party. The party did not exist in the past, so it did not have experience in relations with Israel; we didn’t know them either. I had to initiate contact with people -- I’m not talking only about the government, but also with the members of Parliament which, as you know, comprised more than 350 deputies. Only a few of them had been to Israel. Most of them only knew about Israel what they had heard from local television and newspapers. We had to begin the very serious and difficult job of getting to know them. First, to know them and construct confidence-building measures and then, to try to develop those relations,” Ambassador Avivi says.
Ambassador Avivi is leaving Turkey happily, too. He says during his term, the trade volume between the two countries increased greatly, reaching $7 billion.
“Last week, there were 26 flights everyday from Israel to here. Once you have these numbers, you can be sure about relations,” he says. When it comes to political relations, Ambassador Avivi says that almost all Turkey’s senior officials, including ministers, have visited Israel. Israeli officials have also made visits to Turkey.
“My happiest day was the moment that Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s plane landed in Israel with a delegation of 200 people. Just a year ago everybody thought that he would come alone,” he says, adding: “I work very hard -- I have more white hair, but every new white hair of mine, is not for something negative but for something positive,” he says, laughing at himself and continuing: “Turkey is my third post as an ambassador, so I made all the mistakes before I came here. I was lucky to learn a lot, thank God. Every day I have to use the experience that I gained in other countries.”
Ambassador Avivi is able to laugh at himself. He thinks that Israelis are very good at it, but that Turks have some difficulties: “We have a sense of humor nobody else has. Please do not be offended, I am telling the truth -- Turkish people do not do that [laugh at themselves]. We are always laughing at ourselves,” he says. But on the other hand there is something in Turkish culture which does not exist in Israel, though Ambassador Avivi wishes it did: administrative order.
“In Turkey your administrative order and collective memory is very good. When you are talking to someone in one office, the person in the other office knows about the subject of the conversation. In Israel it does not work; we divided it too much, we call it ‘balagan’,” he says, which means “mess.”
Mr. Ambassador is already nostalgic a few hours before he leaves Turkey: “Human beings are born into a role in the middle of a film which began long before they came into the picture. This is normal for every one of us. As a diplomat you are always invited to see another film, starting in the middle, and you have to leave before the end. You have to collect all these small pieces of different films to make the film of your life. I worked here, I created a lot of relations, and I hope I made good friends and will see them again. Yesterday I went all around Ankara with my wife, looking around and asking myself: ‘Will it be possible to see this all again? Will it be possible to experience the same feeling and touch?’”
Mr. Ambassador tries to answer his own question: “In my new post I will be responsible for Europe, Russia, the Baltic countries and Eurasia. Of course Turkey is in the middle of all these. I will have a lot contacts, but it might not be the same.”
As he puts it, Mr. Ambassador has “visited more or less all of Turkey, apart from the area close to the Iranian border.” He decided in advance of beginning his appointment in Turkey that he would spend his vacations here. Apart from short holidays to visit his family in Israel, he has done so and his favorite place in Turkey is Kaçkar in the Black Sea region: “This place is unique, the most beautiful place to me: it is a combination of the Black Sea and the snow on the mountains on one side, with the other side desert. There are no big hotels, only small and simple ones.”
But when Mr. Ambassador is traveling in Turkey, he has to be with his bodyguards and this makes his having a personal life absolutely impossible. “Practically speaking, I don’t have a personal life. For example in the car with my wife, we cannot talk about anything privately. In restaurants, it is the same. I cannot go out without them [bodyguards], I cannot have a coffee somewhere alone. It is very difficult; when I am in Israel I feel so good because I can be without them. Actually they are not protecting me, but they are protecting the Israeli ambassador. I know that they are doing their job. It is necessary, but absolutely not easy,” he says and also recalling that when he was just starting his career, the doors of the Israeli embassies were glass, but this changed after the Munich Olympic Games in which Israeli sportsmen were taken hostage and some killed.
Ambassador Avivi, as a diplomat, was also part of the peace delegations that held negotiations with Israel’s neighbors. He thinks that for successful peace talks two elements are needed, but were always missing: “More than once we were very close to an agreement with neighboring countries. Windows of opportunity should exist, but they are not enough. On both sides the level to which leaderships use this window of opportunity is important. The leaderships should be able to make important and difficult decisions. With the peace talks with Syria and the Palestinians, we never had the windows and the leadership at the same time.”
According to him it is theoretically easier to have peace with Syria than with the Palestinians.
“With Syria we are like two different families living in different apartments in the same neighborhood. With the Palestinians we are like two families living in the same apartment -- so division is more complicated,” Ambassador Avivi thinks. He adds: “Am I optimistic? I am not. Am I pessimistic? Absolutely not.”
Ambassador Avivi also underlines that they need a facilitator in peace talks to host meetings, somebody to provide a good atmosphere, but he says he does not believe that they need a mediator: “If you don’t understand your husband on your own, nobody will be able to understand him for you,” he says.
Mr. Ambassador is working in his office even on his last day and he thinks that this is what everybody should do, saying, “My father used to tell me a good sportsman was tested in the last 100 meters, not in the first 100.” In that grain, Mr. Ambassador’s advice to his successor will be related to this philosophy and his main priority in diplomacy, which is to establish personal relations.
“If we can talk about good results of the mission, it is because the most important thing for us is to stay in the embassy as little as possible and to be outside of it as much as possible. My personal priority is to make contact with the person in his office if possible, not in my office; it is very important. If it is in your office, you never know to whom exactly you are talking,” he explains, adding, “normally people appreciated this very much. The second thing and one that we did quite well, was if you invite people, invite them to your home, never outside or to a restaurant. Whenever I invited people I invited them individually to my home. The home should be open,” he believes. He also believes that if a diplomat puts distance between himself and others, he will never able to succeed as a diplomat.
“To create distance does not work. My grandmother used to tell me that distance is the arm of weak people. I try to be with people, I try to listen very carefully, I try to understand. In a political discussion if somebody is telling me ‘It is not correct’, I never say it is correct, I tell them ‘Explain to me why you think so’. He has his rights. You have your rights. You have to try to find the space between two rights in order to have good diplomacy,” he says.
Mr. Ambassador underlines that he and his wife learned Turkish to at least the level of daily conversation. He thinks that diplomats should not live isolated from the society that they are working in. He smiles as he remembers a farewell party thrown for them by Turks at the bowling club to which they were frequent visitors.
Mr. Ambassador also likes taking pictures, a longtime interest for him. He has published almost 300 pictures from Turkey. “It is not important for me to photograph simple beautiful panoramas. I try to look at normal things with different eyes. What the faces are telling you? If I have time, you can find me in the field, laying on the floor, taking picture of a small animal or in poor neighborhoods, because I try to take photos of people when they are living, not to create a stance, but the truth,” he underlines.
Mr. Ambassador has two sons and one daughter and four grandsons. None of them want to be diplomats. “To go from one country to another, from one culture to another culture is very interesting for the father, but not for the children,” he says, but he adds that he is happy to be diplomat and if he had to opportunity to start to life again, he would do the same, as he says, “I would begin the whole way all over again.”
AYSE KARABAT ANKARA