If it's a big interview, newsman Henrique is sure to be there

Simon Yaffe chats to a top journalist who has interviewed a long list of leading world figures

Henrique Cymerman was the last man to interview Yitzhak Rabin before the Israeli Prime Minister's assassination.

The journalist's life was in danger after interviewing one of the world's most dangerous terrorists in Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

He has visited the headquarters of the Arab terrorist group Islamic Jihad.

And he has worked as a special envoy for the United Nations and made current affairs documentaries for television.

Henrique Cymerman's background and life would make a pretty good documentary in itself.

In fact, plans for a production on the story of his life are underway, with an Israeli director currently writing the script.

Born and brought up in the Portuguese city of Porto, his father, Meir, settled in Portugal from his native Poland.

Henrique's mother, Cotta, came from an old Sephardi family in the Spanish enclave of Melilla in North Africa.

Not known as one of Europe's thriving Jewish communities, the Cymerman family still retained a strong Jewish identity in Portugal, thanks to Henrique's father and grandfather.

Most of the country's Jews live in Lisbon and it was there that Henrique was taken to see the city's rabbi about plans for his barmitzvah.

He recalled: "We also went to see the new consul of Israel and they were celebrating Israel's independence day.

"It was there that I learned all about Israel and the Middle East."

The new consul, Michael Kehat, arrived in Portugal with his family, including his daughter Yael.

Henrique and Yael became friends before the family moved back to Israel, but amazingly they bumped into each other in Tel Aviv years later.

They are now married.

"This was in 1971 and Michael had fought in the Six-Day War and was severely wounded," Henrique recalled.

"He told us stories about the creation of Israel - it was then that I decided I wanted to move to Israel and become a journalist."

Henrique went though with his intention when he was 16, moving to a kibbutz.

"The Portuguese people are friendly in general, but there were times when I was reminded that I was a Jew and it was not easy for me," he said.

"Antisemitism is not a phenomena in Portugal like in other areas of Europe or the world."

But his parents didn't stay in Portugal for much longer either.

They moved to Spain after Portugal's military coup.

His mother moved to Israel little more than six months ago - at the age of 86.

Once in Israel, Henrique took his first foray into journalism by editing the kibbutz's newspaper.

He went on to read psychology at Tel Aviv University and holds an MA degree in the political science and sociology.

Later landing a job at the Israeli newspaper Maariv, he was sent to be a correspondent in Barcelona, where he also worked as director of information in the city's Jewish centre.

Henrique, who speaks Portuguese, Spanish, English, Hebrew and French, recalled: "It was at the time that diplomatic relations between Spain and Israel were being established."

Henrique and Yael's first child, Dana, was born in Barcelona and they lived there until he moved back to Israel.

It was a kind of role-reversal, as he then started to cover Israel and the Middle East for Portuguese and Spanish television.

"My first big scoop when I was back in Israel was breaking the news about the Madrid Peace Conference, in 1991," Henrique recalled.

"My bosses at Antena, the Spanish TV station I worked for, said I was crazy, that it was impossible, that Israel and the Arab countries would never get together to talk like this.

"Then American Secretary of State James Baker announced it publicly."

As well as quizzing dozens of Israeli MKs, diplomats and prime ministers, Henrique has also foraged into the Arab world, interviewing King Hussein of Jordan, Yasser Arafat, ex-Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"I met Arafat 14 times," he said. "He was very Egyptian in that he had a good sense of humour.

"Arafat was not corrupt personally - he lived like a monk - but there was a lot of corruption close to him, which is not uncommon in the Arab world."

As well as meeting Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Henrique has interviewed Abdullah Shami in Gaza - and could have been dangerously hurt or killed.

"It was just before Bill Clinton was due to visit Israel," he remembered. "Shami told me that he wanted to see Clinton dead and this interview was broadcast in Spain.

"Of course, the world's media picked up on it and then Shami was arrested, together with other members of Islamic Jihad.

"I was in Gaza when this happened and I was frightened that something might happen to me. But, in the end, they didn't touch me."

Perhaps his most pivotal interview came with the late Yitzhak Rabin, just a day before Yigal Amir shot him dead in November, 1995.

"Eitan Haber, who worked for Rabin, invited me to the defence ministry to interview Rabin about the peace rally which he was due to go to the next day," Henrique said.

"He seemed really tense and I could feel his stress - he didn't want to go to the rally, but he was obliged to. I asked him at the end of the interview how he would like to be remembered and at that moment, he said 'we finish".

"When I was told he had been killed, I was in complete shock - it traumatised a generation."

Henrique's work led to him writing a book, Voices from the Centre of the World: The Arab-Israeli Conflict, which has just been published in English.

It was originally published in Portuguese - and even attracted the attention of Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho.

Henrique said: "When Jose visited Israel five years ago, as a guest of the Peres Centre for Peace, he brought the book with him. He said he didn't know much about the Middle East and had a lot of questions for me.

"I am trying to bring Cristiano Ronaldo to Israel at the moment - apparently his mother likes my stories."

He was also the recipient of Portugal's highest honour, the Comendador de la Orden del Infante Don Henrique.

And last month, Henrique received the prestigious Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Award.

With all his experience in speaking to the most important people in the Middle East, Henrique believes that Israel is a much stronger country than many people perceive.

He explained: "Jews have always had a traumatic time, but we don't measure things in objective terms or by equability.

"Israel needs to show to the world that it wants piece - it is vital.

"Iran is an important threat, but I don't think Israel's existence is in danger."

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph