She shoots off an email and manages to convince the world’s biggest performers that they simply must include a tiny country in their tour itineraries.
Ronit Arbel remembers the day that Paul McCartney’s office accepted the proposal she sent with three partners. “I felt like I was making history,” she recalls. Fans had been waiting 43 years, since the government banned a planned Beatles concert for fears that the group would corrupt Israeli youth.
Arbel is a key player in a group of promoters who bring artists to Israel. She has worked on introducing BB King, Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Eric Clapton, Cesaria Evora, Gilberto Gil and Tracy Chapman to Israel.
Her list of acts continues to grow, her powers of persuasion being almost immune to calls for artists to boycott Israel. Concerts by Take That and Jerry Seinfeld are among recent events she has stage-managed. She will be working with the Backstreet Boys in May and Ringo Starr in June.
When it comes to Israel, she says, celebrities follow each other’s lead.
“After leaving here, performers tell agents and managers they were in Israel and it was great. They also see other artists at festivals and say they love the place, the production, the audiences, and tell each other it’s different from what they see in the newspapers.”
The celebs who come to Israel are keen to see the country before and after their performances, and Arbel says Masada and the Dead Sea are particularly popular.
“Sometimes they’ll ask to go to East Jerusalem and the West Bank, so we have to tell them of the possible dangers of such places,” she says, adding dryly: “We suggest diplomatically that they do their touring after the concert.”
Arbel began her “dream job” soon after she finished a high-ranking military career four decades ago — a career that culminated with a stint in the Chief of Staff’s office. Her early concerts included ones by Carlos Santana and Brian Adams. “Most of them, especially the biggest of them, make no outrageous requests. Often they want specific foods, but just as often they go for the local cuisine. They especially like hummus.”
There was one occasion, she said, when a performer wanted a particular colour on the walls of their hotel room. She was unable to oblige. But when she was part of a group of promoters who brought Michael Jackson to Israel in 1993, and Jackson wanted private access to a large amusement park, they were able to help.
“We closed the Luna Park for him, and he was virtually alone there for more than three hours.” She was one of the few people allowed in as the rides ran just for the King of Pop.
Most performers have calmer ways of enjoying Israel. Some love the food. Others delight in meeting Israeli counterparts. “Paul Simon insisted on meeting with Shlomo Artzi and wanted to meet other Israeli singers and musicians,” she recalls. Justin Bieber simply enjoyed kicking a football around in Tel Aviv.
“He was a teenager when he first came,” she says. “He loved playing football behind the stage, like any teenager. He changed as he became older but he was still wonderful to work with.
“Someone else who changed, not for the better, is Eric Clapton,” she continues. “He gave some terrific sold-out concerts. But nowadays he refuses to come to Israel.”
Most artists are easy to work with, but Roger Waters of Pink Floyd was an exception. Today he pressures other performers to boycott Israel. Arbel says that he made “a big fuss”, insisting that while Arabs only account for 20 per cent of Israel’s citizens, they were represented equally at concerts. “He started lambasting Israel when he left.”
Even the most pleasant of musicians can leave promoters on edge.
“The first time Bob Dylan came — he’s been here five times — he came with one of his sons on a tour including Egypt. He travelled independently, and we lost contact with him in Egypt. Luckily he turned up in time for the show.
“He is well-known for being non-communicative on stage — outside, that is, of his songs. But on a personal level he was extremely affable.”
Unsurprisingly, Leonard Cohen was “extremely humble”. He did not even request a room away from his band, as most big celebrities do. “He wanted to be close to everyone on his tour.”
Paul McCartney was “the essence of a warm, friendly individual”, she says. “He made no poses, despite his massive international reputation. Like almost all of the others, he was very amenable to the press and to interviews.”
Jerry Seinfeld was really charming, too. “He came once on his own. He had four shows to do in two days, so he stayed in his hotel to preserve his voice. The second time he came with his family, and they insisted on eating hummus.”
Rod Stewart “loves Israel and like many others he spread the word when he returned home”. She adds: “That is an extra dimension of these visits. Most of the celebrities coming to Israel do so in the context of an international tour, and so if they find that their stay here has been good, then they are the best ambassadors for our country.” ■