Published On: Mon, May 2nd, 2016

The untold stories of Israel’s diplomats

A new book sheds light on the less glamorous side of Israeli diplomacy: security officer Danny Biran recounts how he searched for his wife through the rubble of the Buenos Aires embassy after the 1992 terror bombing, while consul Stella Rapp tells of how she organized a Seder for an Israeli prisoner in Switzerland; and deputy consul general Rogel Rahman writes of the daring operation to rescue a hostage at the Berlin consulate.

L - R- Gideon Meir,   Pini Avivi,   Stella Rapp,   Kobi Shoshani,   Dr. Ofer Mazar,   Alon Shemer,   Revital Dankner,   Danny Biran (Photo Alex Kolomoisky)

In July 1977, Menachem Begin landed in Washington for his first visit as the Israeli prime minister, along with his wife Aliza and a delegation of ministers and MKs. A convoy of limousines took the guests to Blair House, the American administration’s official guest house. An hour after arriving and settling in, Aliza Begin called the new administrative officer of the Israeli Embassy in the American capital, Gideon Meir, a young diplomat only a month into his first mission abroad. Meir rushed to the Begin couple’s room, excited as a young boy.

“Mr. Meir, ” the prime minister’s wife said. “I forgot my cosmetics at home. Could you please send someone to buy me a few items? I’ll give him a list.”

“Of course, Mrs. Begin, ” Meir responded. “It would be our honor.”

“I have another request, ” Mrs. Begin went on. “The trip was planned in a rush and I didn’t have time to buy my husband some shirts. Would it be possible to buy two white shirts for him?”

“Of course, ” Meir replied. “Give me his size, and I’ll send someone to purchase the shirts.”

Meir recounted, “I sent one of the embassy’s drivers to do the shopping. I came back with the cosmetics and the shirts and handed Mrs. Begin only the receipt for the cosmetics. As a young, inexperienced administrative officer, I believe it was only appropriate that the embassy finance the purchase of shirts being used by the prime minister for official events. When she inquired why I didn’t present her with a receipt for the shirts, I told her it was all right, and that we would cover the expense.”

“Absolutely not, ” Mrs. Begin said decisively and opened her purse. “The taxpayer will not pay for my husband’s shirts.”

This story, which is a testament to how different the leaders of years past were from our current leaders, appears in the book “Behind the Scenes: The Untold Story of Israeli Diplomacy, ” recently released by the Pardes Publishing House. The book features 29 stories from 19 consuls and administrative officers who served in Israeli missions across the world from 1968 to 2012. Most of these stories are coming to light for the first time.

“Being an administrative officer or a consul is not a glamorous job, ” said Dr. Ofer Mazar, who came up with the idea for the book. Mazar joined the Foreign Ministry in 1990, served as an administrative officer and a consul in Bangkok, Oslo, Rome and Los Angeles, and today serves as the Deputy Chief of the Finance Bureau in the ministry.

“The Foreign Ministry is known for its diplomatic work, and those behind the scenes who prepare the infrastructure for this work don’t always get the credit they deserve. This is why we decided to publish this book. Our job touches the lives of Israeli citizens, but isn’t very well known, so I felt the obligation to bring it to light. It was important to me to also convey our quite difficult experiences during our missions abroad and talk about the price we and our families pay.”


Gideon Meir,   right,   shakes hands with the late prime minister Menachem Begin (Photo Moshe Milner,   GPO)


In early 2013, Mazar sent an email to the 450 administrative workers in the ministry, asking them to send him stories of their experiences. “There was a lot of excitement over this, ” he said. “People realized this was an important project both as a legacy book for future generations in the ministry, and to open up a window to our world for the general public. Everyone wanted to write for the book, but there were those who couldn’t find the time or were unable to put things into writing.”

Mazar edited the stories he received himself and later submitted them to the relevant officials for approval, including the IDF Censor’s Office, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet. The budget for the book came from the Foreign Ministry.

The book strives to shatter the image of diplomats as hedonists who spend most of their time drinking cocktails and attending parties. According to the book, the consuls and administrative officers were busy doing things far removed from that, and far less enjoyable, like identifying the bodies of Israeli hikers who were killed in natural disasters or terror attacks, searching for missing Israelis, or finding family members of IDF soldiers killed in Israel in order to give them the terrible news.

That last task is described by Mazar in his book as “tragic news in a suit;” he also told of the time he had to wait outside an El Al gate in one of the airports to tell a young woman that her brother had been killed in the 1997 IDF helicopter disaster.

Other diplomats recount their work in war zones and disaster areas to rescue Israelis and Jews, more than once at a risk to their own lives. Eyal Siso, for example, who served as a consul in Cairo, told of how Egyptian soldiers pointed their weapons at him while he was trying to evacuate to the hospital Israelis wounded in the 2004 terror attack in the Sinai.

Another diplomat, Alon Shemer, who was a consul in New York, told of how he was rushed to Venezuela on his anniversary to evacuate Israeli diplomats that were kicked out by President Hugo Chávez, and had to stay for another month in Caracas to issue visas for some 1, 000 Jews who wanted to flee the country.


Dr. Ofer Mazar


A miracle in Buenos Aires

One of the more touching stories in the book, which has not before been told, was written by Danny Biran, who served as the security officer in the Jewish Agency’s delegation to Argentina after the terror attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in March 1992. Twenty-nine people were murdered in the attack, four of them Israeli diplomats and four embassy employees, and some 250 people were wounded.

On the morning of the attack, Biran received information that during a memorial service for the late prime minister Menachem Begin, held the night before at the local synagogue, a suspicious man was seen in the area, scouting the event. This information worried Biran, and he decided to send a telegram to the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem. After he finished writing the telegram, he went to the embassy and gave it to his wife, Eva, who worked there, so she could type it up urgently. Afterwards, he left with the embassy’s security officer for a meeting at a hotel in the city.

“After giving my wife the telegram, ” Biran said, “she noticed that the letter S is not working on the typewriter, and went to a different floor to use another typewriter. This actually saved her life, because the floor she was originally on was completely destroyed (in the attack). Her friend, who sat next to her in the office, was killed.”


The scene of the embassy attack (PhotoAvi Peretz) - ARGENTINA


Eva Biran sat down to type up the telegram, “and then there was a massive explosion, ” Danny Biran wrote. “It shook the ground all over Buenos Aires. The entire area filled up with thick smoke, intense heat, and darkness. And then everything was silent. Eva found herself lying on the sidewalk, bleeding, in complete shock. Varda Sahar, the ambassador’s secretary, is a registered nurse, and God decided to send her to Eva in that moment. At once she removed her husband’s tie and used it as an arterial tourniquet, which later turned out to have saved Eva’s life.”

Biran and the embassy’s security chief heard the massive explosion, jumped into their car and drove to the embassy, terrified of what they would find there.

“The scene in front of us as we arrived there haunts me to this very day, ” Biran wrote. “The vibrant building was gone as if it had never been there. It was replaced by a pile of ruins and sights from the site of a mega-terror bombing. Hundreds of people running around, terrified, scared, in complete panic, some bleeding from open wounds. I wanted to burst out crying, but something inside of me demanded, ‘Keep a cool head! Take a deep breath and run to save lives.’

“I charged the building, entered it through one of the windows and come across Noga, security head Roni’s wife. Her face was crushed; she was lying on the ground. In an act of heroism—that to this day I still don’t understand—she whispered to me and Roni, who came in after me, ‘Move on. You have a lot of work to do.’ With great difficulty, I climbed what was left of the staircase, terrified, and was looking for Eva’s office, praying she was still alive. I held onto iron rods and pulled myself towards what used to be Eva’s office. When I got there, I was horrified to learn her office had collapsed. At that point, it was clear to me that my wife was buried under the rubble. My eyes were tearing up, the lump in my throat threatened to suffocate me, but I pulled myself together. I was part of the building security’s emergency team, and I could not allow myself to fall apart at that moment.


The destruction at the embassy site after the attack.- ARGENTINA


“And then the biggest miracle I’ve ever experienced happened. ‘Danny, I’ve been looking for you, ‘ the envoy from the Israel Bonds called out to me from below. ‘I saw Eva at the hospital. Eva is alive.’ The tears of relief came bursting out. But I was still afraid to rejoice. It was hard for me to believe that she had survived. After all, I had seen with my own eyes the ruins of the floor she was working on.

“Several minutes later, I was rushing towards the hospital. I searched for her in every room, asking all of the doctors I encountered on the way whether they knew where she was, scanning every patient making their way through the halls, and then I came across her. We hugged and kissed. We couldn’t believe that this miracle had indeed happened, and that we were both still alive.”

Nowadays, Biran works as the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Division for Information Technology and Communication Services. His wife works at a private company. Shards of glass from the explosion still remain stuck in her body that cannot be removed.

“When I went to Argentina for the 20-year anniversary memorial, ” Biran said, “she called me from Israel crying, telling me, ‘You’re not going to believe it. A shard of glass just came out of my hand.’ I told her, ‘Keep it; we’ll frame it.’ Five years ago during dinner at a friend’s house in New York, she felt an itch in her head, and another shard of glass came out. Eva has gone through really difficult times, but she hasn’t agreed to tell her story. When I wrote it for the book, she was okay with it and told me she was glad I did it.”


The wounded Eva Biran on the cover of an Argentine magazine.


Seder in a Swiss prison cell

Another story in the book took place in February 1998. Stella Rapp, now the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Consular Department, served as a consul and administrative officer at the Israeli embassy in Bern, Switzerland. On the day in question, she received a phone call at 6am. “Come to the embassy right now, ” the head of security ordered her. Rapp said she was feeling unwell, and was running a high fever, but the security head showed no consideration. “This isn’t the time to be sick, ” he told her.

When Rapp arrived at the embassy, she was informed that an agent of Israel’s Mossad spy agency was arrested in Bern while attempting to bug the Iranian embassy in the city. Israel launched a diplomatic effort to release him, while Rapp turned to the Swiss authorities and asked to meet with the detainee.

“My children couldn’t understand where their mother was going on Friday night, clouded in mystery, ” she recounted. “The whole thing had to be kept secret, not just from my immediate family, but also from many of my colleagues in Israel and in the embassy.”

The meeting with the Mossad agent was held under the close watch of the Swiss authorities, who even brought a local translator with a good grasp of Hebrew so he could monitor the conversation between the consul and the prisoner.

“At first, I had to gain his trust and convince him that I was on his side, ” Rapp said. “After all, he didn’t know me, didn’t know who I was, and that was not an easy task. I was surrounded by watchful eyes. I was also very sick. But the prisoner presented me with questions, the answers to which proved to him I was truly on his side.”

Since that meeting, Rapp continued meeting with the prisoner whenever Swiss authorities allowed her. “It was important to me to ease his loneliness. I also kept in contact with his family and updated him on the details of our phone conversations. I met with him at least once a week.”

As Passover approached, Rapp was bothered by the fact the prisoner would be left alone on the Seder night. “In my mind’s eye, I could see this dear man sitting in his dark cell in a prison in a foreign country, while his family and the entire nation of Israel sat by the Seder table, and I was struck with an idea, ” she wrote. “I contacted the relevant officials, explained the importance of the Jewish ritual of dining together on Seder night, and demanded that the prisoner be allowed to spend the holiday with us, under security, of course. Unfortunately, the request was rejected out of hand.”

Rapp wouldn’t give up, however, and after a marathon of phone calls and meetings, the Swiss allowed her to celebrate Seder night with the detainee at the prison. At first, they insisted she would come alone, but eventually relented and allowed her husband to join her.

“We brought with us everything required to hold a proper Seder. We even brought a stovetop so we could heat up the matzah-ball soup and the chicken. We spread a white tablecloth over the old table and put a vase with flowers on it, to light up the gloomy room we were given.

“The door opened. The prisoner walked into the room dressed in a white shirt and accompanied by a solemn-looking guard and a translator. We handed out kippahs and haggadahs to the men in the room. We even remembered to bring a German-language hagaddah so the guard could read along. We urged him to join the dinner. At first he politely declined, but later he succumbed to the delicious smells.

“We read the hagaddah and sang its songs. We’ve never been very orthodox about the Seder, but this time we were very strict over each and every detail. We felt obligated to do so, because of the situation and the special circumstances. I felt like for a short time, the prisoner could forget his bitter fate. He cooperated and appreciated it. The 45 minutes we were allocated stretched to an hour and a half, and when the Seder ended, we sadly said goodbye.”

After ten weeks in Swiss prison, the Israeli agent was released on bail until the beginning of his trial, and he returned to Israel. Three months later, when Rapp finished her mission and returned home, a surprise awaited her at Ben-Gurion Airport’s arrivals hall: the Mossad agent. “Welcome back to our homeland, ” he told her with a smile.

Since then, every year around Passover time, the two call each other, wish each other a happy holiday, and reminisce on that Seder night they spent together at a prison cell in Switzerland.


Takeover of the Berlin consulate

On February 17, 1999, the Israeli embassy in Berlin was attacked by hundreds of Kurdish exiles amid claims that the Israeli Mossad was involved in the capture and extradition to Turkey of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. Four Kurdish rioters were killed in the incident from Israeli security guards’ fire, and 16 were wounded.

The new book features the tale told from the perspective of deputy consul general Rogel Rahman, who was also the administrative officer at the time.

“‘What is going on?’ I yelled to Itzik, the head of security, who was running towards me. ‘Kurdish protesters…they climbed the fence…they’re here, ‘ he yelled and disappeared down the stairs. ‘Run…run outside…I’m taking over here, ‘ I yelled.

“I looked at the (security camera) monitors, and my heart dropped. A mob of people, like a swarm of ants, were converging on the consulate from every possible direction. I couldn’t find even one police officer. I looked through the reinforced window that overlooked the outside staircase and was horrified to learn dozens of people were pounding on it hard with hammers, axes, crowbars, and anything else they can lay their hands on. I prayed that the window wouldn’t shatter. I knew that they couldn’t see me through the window, but I could see them clearly. Their faces enraged, they were possessed with madness, and they were looking at me with murderous intent.”

Rahman opened up an emergency line to Israel and reported the attack to the Foreign Ministry’s Security Division. “‘I can hear gunfire inside the consulate, ‘ I told the deputy head of the unit. It didn’t make sense to him because of the calm tone of my voice. At first he thought it was in the outside reception area. So I said, ‘No. Inside the consulate, ‘ and I was thinking that it was possible that within minutes, I could be lynched. I turned back to the monitors and saw that the mob was starting to withdraw from our courtyard, but remained surrounding the building. It was then that police forces arrived and started imposing order.

“Itzik then came back running, saying, ‘They penetrated the consulate and took Ruthie hostage.’ Ruthie Yaakov was a liaison for the Foreign Ministry. We had manpower shortages and the Foreign Ministry sent her to help out. She arrived two days before the attack. ‘What?’ I cried out. ‘They’re barricading themselves on the second floor, ‘ Itzik told me. ‘Report this back to Israel. I’m going to secure the floor.'”

Meanwhile, the phone line went dead, and Rahman improvised a new line using the internet so he could report back to Jerusalem about the hostage held on the second floor of the consulate. At the same time, he also called his wife, warning her not to come to the consulate building. After making sure all the other consulate employees were safe, he turned his full attention to the hostage situation.

“She was imprisoned in a room with one of her captors, and 20 minutes later we still had no idea what was going on behind that room’s closed door, ” Rahman recounted. “Jerusalem gave us the green light to allow the German police’s special unit into the consulate building. ‘Let them do their job, ‘ I was ordered by the deputy chief of the Security Division over the phone. ‘Promise to give the captors whatever they want, just make sure you free Ruthie.’ I conveyed the message to the commander of the German special unit and told him, ‘Do whatever it takes to get her out alive.'”

R., the consulate’s deputy security head, accompanied the German commander on his way to the fortified floor, as many soldiers stood outside, guns pointed at the door. Because R. didn’t speak German, he had to find a creative solution for how to communicate with the German troops: He drew a sketch of the room’s number pad on the wall, and demonstrated entering the code to the commander by pressing his finger to the numbers he drew. The commander nodded, wrote down the details in his notepad, and asked anyone who wasn’t part of the German police force to leave or lock himself in his office. He explained to them that he wanted to keep them safe and didn’t want the kidnappers to come across any of the Israelis.

German experts then began a negotiation with the kidnappers, “and meanwhile, the bodies of the three Kurdish intruders were left lying inside the consulate, ” Rahman recounted. “Itzik and R. fought off dozens of inflamed rioters on their own, in face-to-face battle, while (the rioters) were trying to snatch (the Israelis’) weapons. It would later transpire that another intruder who was wounded in the rioting died of his injuries in the hospital.”

The hostage was still held prisoner on the second floor, but as the minutes passed, the Germans dawdled. “We heard strange noises from the room she was kept in and were anxious for her safety. Many of the rioters were still surrounding the breached building. They were loud and violent. The police was fighting them off. While there were enough forces outside to defend the consulate, the tumult outside was still very loud.

“I kept reporting every few minutes. It was at this point that the people at headquarters in Jerusalem started realizing this we were in the middle of one of the gravest incidents in the history of Israel’s foreign service. About 50 minutes later, the German officer returned. ‘Get everyone inside the offices, ‘ he instructed me. ‘We convinced them to turn themselves in and free the hostage.’

“‘What’s her condition?’ I asked.

“‘We’ll know shortly, ‘ he responded, but his face revealed how worried he was.

“I went from one employee to the next and asked them to lock themselves in their offices until they heard from me on the PA system that they could come out. I then gave the commander the green light to proceed. Within minutes, the kidnappers were led out. Ruthie was freed, safe and sound. Her level-headedness astonished all of us. ‘After everything she had gone through…what a brave woman, ‘ I thought to myself. I reported back to the Foreign Ministry that the situation had been resolved, and I could hear the sigh of relief from Jerusalem all the way to Berlin.”

But this wasn’t the end of that day’s dramatic events. Fearing the Kurds will seek revenge, Israel decided to urgently evacuate the head of security Itzik and his family, as well as his deputy R., from Germany. They left immediately. At the same time, a Kurdish terrorist organization issued a threat against the lives of four Israeli diplomats in Norway, one of them being Dr. Ofer Mazar. The Foreign Ministry decided not to take any chances and secrete them in a hotel under tight security.

Meanwhile, media in Israel reported an erroneous story according to which Rogel Rahman shot one of the Kurdish intruders after a physical struggle. In the wake of this report, the Foreign Ministry decided to repatriate Rahman and his family and cut his mission short. Upon his return to Israel, Rahman received a commendation from the Civil Service Commission.

Years later, Rahman returned to Berlin and now serves in the embassy. “That incident stayed with me to this very day, ” he said. “It’s not something you can just forget. You’re aware that everything could change within seconds; the calmest day can turn into complete chaos. But the Israeli embassies abroad are now built in a way that makes it very hard to penetrate them.”


Bangkok - Israeli embassy building


Mysterious calamities in Bangkok

It was pure chance that led to the foiling of a large-scale attack against the Israeli embassy in Bangkok in March 1994. In his book, Mazar, who had just been appointed the Israeli consul to Thailand, reveals the full story of what transpired.

“The embassy complex, which at the time was on Lang Suan Street, included the ambassador’s house as well, ” Mazar wrote. “An explosive-laden truck that was making its way to the embassy, carrying some 1, 000 kilograms of explosives, was stopped by a police officer because it committed a traffic violation, one street away from the embassy complex. This was an incomprehensible miracle. The panicked driver fled for his life, and luckily was caught, as if he hadn’t been caught, we wouldn’t have known the attempted attack was targeting us. The truck was towed to a nearby police compound and was parked there for two days before the driver cracked under interrogation and admitted to the planned attack.”

Following the incident, it was decided that Israel, in an emergency move, would acquire an entire floor of an office building in Bangkok and move its embassy there. Mazar was tasked with managing the project.

At the end of May 1995, after a year of construction and moving, the new embassy was opened in its new residence, and then the troubles began. Two months after that, the embassy’s long-time cleaning service employee suddenly died; two weeks later, Mazar’s personal assistant fell ill, and the doctors had a hard time figuring out what was wrong with her; a month later, three family members of the embassy’s local employees died several days apart from one another; another employee was involved in a car accident; yet another was hospitalized and had to have three of his fingers amputated.

The Thai employees reached the conclusion the new embassy was cursed. “We checked this and found that our building was built on top of an ancient cemetery, ” they explained to Mazar. “The bad spirits wander the building’s floors and since we moved here, they have been striking us and our families mercilessly. We’re asking you to either exorcise the ghosts or move the embassy elsewhere, otherwise we’ll have to leave.”

The embassy realized the Thai employees were not joking: They insisted to have a senior Buhddist monk perform a ritual to banish the evil spirits. When Mazar went to Israel’s ambassador to Thailand, Mordechai Levy, and raised the possible solutions to the problem, the ambassador nearly passed out. “Are you serious? I can already see the newspaper headlines back in Israel: ‘Ambassador to Bangkok recalled in shame following a Buddhist exorcism at the embassy.'”

But Mazar was very serious, and several days later, a monk came to Bangkok and performed the ritual at the Israeli embassy. “After we cleared the conference room of all its furniture, some 30 local employees prostrated themselves in front of an elderly monk dressed in orange, so emotional that they were about to burst into tears, ” Mazar wrote. “The monk mumbled for four hours until he stopped and determined that the ritual had ended. The local embassy employees became the heroes of the day: They came into contact with a supremely holy monk. The workers on all 40 of the building’s floors were excited to come into contact with them. They also thanked them for exorcising the evil spirits from the building. Since then, and until the end of my mission in Bangkok, we were fortunate to have healthy and happy employees.

“Years later, near the end of 2011, while I was a consul in Los Angeles, two Israeli employees approached me, asking to check all of the mezuzahs in the consulate. An odd coincidence led to an unlikely amount of illnesses among the consulate’s employees. I did this with understanding. The rabbi checked every mezuzah and decided which Torah parchments were kosher and which weren’t, and I thought to myself that maybe we weren’t that different from the Thai after all.”

Via Ynet News

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