SDE BOKER — Kedma Isrotel staff had only the weekend to prepare for the Negev summit in Sde Boker, which kicked off Sunday afternoon.
Last Thursday, a day after Foreign Minister Yair Lapid began contacting his counterparts across the region by phone and text, the Foreign Office reached out to Isrotel management to give them details of the summit. .
The Kedma team had to design the meeting rooms, host a formal dinner while respecting religious sensitivities, bring in specialists – all while handling the often baffling demands of Israeli security personnel.
Sde Boker resident Guy Haas, the hotel’s catering manager, only found out about the summit on Friday but was confident Isrotel could pull it off. “We are a very strong chain,” he said confidently.
The designer of Isrotel traveled to Sde Boker to prepare the hotel. “She designs the tables, the atmosphere, the space, the look and feel,” Haas said.
In keeping with the summit’s name, she and her team sought to create an “authentic Negev” atmosphere.
Lanterns were placed around event rooms and linen ropes were hung above meeting spaces.
The chain brought in its culinary adviser, Chef Amir Halfon, to work with Chef Kedma on the menu.
For Sunday’s main event, a dinner in the Wine Room for the six ministers, Halfon crafted a menu of items from across Israel, including peppers from the Arava, desert herbs from the Kedma Garden, a main course of Golan Heights lamb – and the misleadingly named Jerusalem artichoke.
Wine, usually an important part of an important formal dinner, was nowhere to be found. The Foreign Office imposed this requirement because four of the foreign ministers represented Muslim-majority countries.
The staff even removed decorative wine bottles from the shelves in the wine room and covered the wine fridge with a cloth.
The servers – all English-speaking – were brought in from an Isrotel restaurant in Eilat.
During the meal, Ambassadors and staff sat at a long table in the bar outside the Wine Room.
“It was a good vibe,” said Noa, a waitress who worked at the event. “The dignitaries treated us well.”
Kedma staff said Egyptian staff were the friendliest, and Emiratis made sure to tip exceptionally large Arab cleaners and kitchen workers.
Lapid the musician
Noa said he interacted with Lapid several times during the summit.
On Sunday, as the guests arrived, an official told him to prepare an americano for Lapid, who was talking outside with his counterparts. She made the coffee and sent it off with a waiter, but Lapid’s guards came back and told her that for security reasons she had to make a new one – this time, while they watched.
Lapid and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani sat down to talk on a sofa in the bar. She brought him another americano, which he refused, but made sure to ask Noa her name and where she was from.
Kedma staff have always said that Lapid is a “mensch” who goes out of his way to shake hands and chat with waiters.
He also surprised the staff with a display of musical talent. As guests mingled in the bar on Sunday afternoon, the Foreign Secretary sat down with the artist playing the oud at the side of the room, picked up a guitar and started playing.
A planned formal musical performance, however, ultimately could not take place. Arab-Israeli singer Valerie Hamati was set to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Arabic, English and Hebrew, and was dressed for what could have been a career milestone. But after the deadly Islamic State terror attack in Hadera on Sunday night, a musical event would have seemed inappropriate.
According to those present, Hamati was visibly upset that her performance was canceled.
hours to prepare
Servers weren’t told about the summit until Saturday night, and since everything was arranged at the last minute, they had no idea of their times. They just knew they had to be ready for anything and they were part of a historic event.
The only hiccup, as is often the case, was the safety feature.
On Monday morning, the chefs were preparing lunch in the kitchen. When Israeli security personnel discovered that they were preparing food without them being present to watch, they asked the cooks to throw everything away and start from scratch.
That very morning, Noa and her manager went to bring fruit and cheese to Blinken and his team. The security personnel took them back to the kitchen and prepared a new plate for them in front of them.
The operation softened as the morning progressed. Noa was asked to make mint tea for Lapid as he sat with another foreign minister by the pool. This time, the security guards watched her the whole time, even going so far as to choose the tea bags for the minister.
When she brought it to Lapid, he greeted her by name.
Despite the unique pressures, Noa enjoyed being part of the summit. “Everyone in my family was excited,” she said. “‘What, did you speak with Yair Lapid?'”
“If we had had more time, it would have gone even better,” she told herself. “But for a day or two of preparation, it went very well.”
“It went well,” Haas said.
The Foreign Ministry was also very pleased, he said. He pointed to the fact that the forum is now on the way to becoming a regular event as evidence that attendees appreciated the service provided by the hotel.
“People understood it was a historic moment and took it to heart,” he said. “They prepared and worked towards the goal.”
The hotel’s Arab staff – which includes Bedouins, Christians and Palestinians from the West Bank – were also happy to participate, according to Haas, even though many Palestinians view the Abraham Accords as something of a betrayal.
The staff member responsible for arranging the logistics for public statements at the end of the event was an Arab Christian, Haas noted.
“It’s a feeling of satisfaction, great satisfaction,” he said, hours after the last of the visitors left.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.