Former Israeli Ambassador Speaks His Mind About His Boss, Avigdor Lieberman

Daniel Shek, who recently finished his term as Israel's ambassador to Paris and whose father was among those who founded the Foreign Ministry, has left the diplomatic arena and has some frank and critical things to say about his former boss there.

Daniel Shek, Israel's former ambassador to France, had only one real run-in with his last boss at the Foreign Ministry, Avigdor Lieberman. It was in 2009, after an official visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Paris. Netanyahu was accompanied by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, MK Daniel Ben Simon (an expert on France ), then-national security adviser Uzi Arad and others. French President Nicolas Sarkozy invited Netanyahu and his entourage to a work meeting at the Elysee Palace. Ambassador Shek was also present.

"At that meeting Sarkozy spoke very undiplomatically and said very harsh things words about Lieberman to Netanyahu," says Shek. "He was tough and defiant, and asked Netanyahu in front of everyone: 'How can you appoint a man with those opinions to this job, and to your government? It's unacceptable that I, Nicolas Sarkozy, am forced to say that, but I won't receive him and I won't meet with him.' Everyone fidgeted uneasily in their seats and Netanyahu tried to defend Lieberman and said he's not so terrible. When we returned to the hotel the prime minister took everyone who had attended the meeting to his room and requested that nobody tell anyone about ... what Sarkozy had said.

Daniel Shek - Yanai Yechiel - December 2011
Yanai Yechiel

"Two days passed, and when everyone had returned to Israel it leaked out, and then I received an angry phone call from Lieberman's office. People were angry at me on behalf of the minister, I assume, for not telling Lieberman, whom I represent, what had happened at the meeting. I told them: 'And why didn't the prime minister tell him?'"

That is the only hassle he had with Lieberman, says Shek, and in spite of that, after concluding his term of office in France a year ago, the ambassador decided to hang up his (top ) hat. It was not a simple or easy decision for a professional diplomat like him: Shek has 27 years of seniority in the foreign service. He served under many ministers who represented various parties, and says he did this loyally ("although not with the same degree of personal happiness each time" ); nor did he experience any sharp internal contradictions between his professional work and his worldview. Until two years ago, when Lieberman took over the ministry.

"My crisis point," Shek recalls, "was at the ambassadors' conference in 2009, an event that the Foreign Ministry organizes once a year, which is attended by ambassadors from all over the world. And there the [then-] new foreign minister said that the Foreign Ministry had become the Ministry for Palestinian Affairs, referring to Tzipi Livni's tenure as foreign minister, and added that in his opinion the ministry should not deal with the peace process, because there wouldn't be one in any case.

"I'm the second generation in this profession - my father [Zeev Shek] belonged to the generation of diplomats who only dreamed of making peace with our neighbors; they understood that this was the mission of Israeli diplomacy. That is the meta-idea of diplomacy: to improve relations between countries, and not to spoil them. How can you say the Foreign Ministry doesn't have to deal with that?

"It's irresponsible on Lieberman's part to say that publicly. Even if you're among the most skeptical and cynical of Israelis - you still must understand that the way to create a favorable international environment is to convince the world that at least you have motivation for peace."

In response to these statements, Lieberman's media adviser gave this response: "Minister Lieberman said at the ambassadors' conference, 'The Foreign Ministry should not be only a ministry for Palestinian affairs' - and, in fact, as opposed to his predecessors, Minister Lieberman, in addition to fostering ties with our old friends, also works at developing ties with important countries that were neglected for years. In recent months at international forums, one can see their importance, and the importance of this activity on the part of the minister."

Shek does not question Lieberman's right to explain his philosophy everywhere - on the contrary: He believes Lieberman has honestly come by the mandate from the Israeli public to do just that.

"But here some threshold was crossed," he explains. "He entered a world where there are codes and norms, and he doesn't honor them. When a foreign minister goes to the UN General Assembly and exploits that venue to attack the government, and exhibits disdain for his own prime minister - that goes beyond the mandate and the freedom given to him by the electorate. In other countries, even before his return to the country he would no longer have been foreign minister. We try not to wash our dirty laundry in public, but it's somewhat problematic when the foreign minister is the washerwoman."

'Ignoring neighbors'

Even now, when he is officially leaving the Foreign Ministry, it's still hard for Shek to abandon the diplomatic language which he has used for so many years. But Lieberman, so it seems, is "helping" him to be weaned from it.

"Ignoring [our] neighbors is dangerous," continues Shek in his criticism of the foreign minister. "One of the issues that disturbs me today is our tendency to seclude ourselves and to say that in any case everyone is against us. But fortunately for us, his influence is far less than what people think."

How do you come to that conclusion?

Shek: "[Lieberman] is such a provocateur that ministers and heads of state very quickly understand that he doesn't make the decisions, and they're paying less and less attention to him."

How could you explain a policy that you don't believe in to people abroad?

"I tried not to overstep the bounds and to maintain professional decency. Foreign service [conducted] with a backbone and with motivation is essential in an eclectic place like Israel; that's one of the most important things we inherited from the British. I have respect for people who do that. My entire career was walking on the edge: Trying to find a balancing point between remaining loyal to those who sent me, not to overstep the boundaries and not to create sensations, not to say 'the foreign minister is an idiot, and 'the prime minister is a moron' - and on the other hand, not to be just a machine and say 'no comment' about everything, or to read out the text of messages you formulated with your colleagues before a press conference. When you serve abroad and represent the country, you're not representing only the government, but all of society, which also includes an opposition."

Lieberman's media adviser in response: "In Minister Lieberman's speech at the United Nations he diplomatically presented his viewpoint as the Israeli foreign minister, regarding the way to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. This is a way that does not contradict any other decision made or not made in the cabinet. Regarding the claim that 'heads of state are paying less and less attention to him,' to date Minister Lieberman has held about 500 meetings with heads of state and foreign ministers from all over the world, and from all the countries with diplomatic relations with Israel."

Shek, who is a member of the Kadima party, claims that adhering meticulously and totally to diplomatic protocol does not necessarily make a good ambassador.

"I believe that the measure of a good Foreign Ministry employee is the willingness to go one step further than what is required by protocol," he explains. "I'm talking about initiative, involvement and the courage to say things that your superiors, including the elected officials, may not like to hear. I've said such things and the world did not collapse. Sometimes they told me that it was wonderful, and sometimes they said I was an idiot. But if you explain yourself, nothing [negative] happens."

How is it that our hasbara (official public relations effort ) tries so hard and yet many Israelis are convinced it is unsuccessful?

"Because in Israel there are unreasonable expectations of hasbara. For example, nobody denies that the prime minister is a talented communicator and when he's in front of a camera, whether for 30 seconds or 30 minutes - he's powerful. He has been in the media arena for 30 years trying to explain our right to settle in the territories. Why isn't the world convinced? Because it's not a question of hasbara. It's like writing a letter of complaint to Elite's packaging department complaining that the chocolate isn't tasty. It's not the right 'address.'"

And what is?

"All the theories of communication and image-building say the ideal person to speak on behalf of a country is a woman, a citizen, who is attractive and speaks fluent English. Who was the most brilliant communicator in the history of the Palestinians? A rough, ugly man in a uniform, with a pistol and inarticulate English. Why? Because he had a good story, and he knew how to use it: an underdog, a persecuted nation without a country, whose rights were being denied by a foreign power. That's approximately the level of knowledge and sophistication of the average European. And then came the Israeli with tons of well-formulated messages and explanations, and they're all correct, but it's overloaded and too complicated for the declining attention level of the European, and it doesn't go over well."

What are you actually saying, that your work and that of other hasbara experts is doomed to failure in advance?

"To a great extent that's true. In every conflict, there has always been a military and a diplomatic dimension. In both of these dimensions, it is clear who is victorious: the one who is stronger. In the third dimension, the battle for public opinion, it's the opposite: The strong one always loses, and the Palestinians use the third dimension, and rightly so. There's no hasbara in the world that can explain away an Israeli tank confronting a fighter with a Kalashnikov rifle who is standing in a street with an open sewer, in a refugee camp in Jabalya."

Sarkozy is impatient

Shek changes the subject and goes on to discuss his role as ambassador in a less-controversial sphere: promoting Israeli culture in all its aspects. And that was not easy either, he adds, because some people believe that culture is nice, but that only aspects of it that are within the consensus should be advanced: "I tried to break the monotony of our image and to demonstrate that we're a democratic and pluralistic society, similar to European society."

At the initiative of ambassador Shek, on the occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations, Israel was invited for the first time to participate in the international book fair in Paris. Forty Israeli writers were invited, and for a week were interviewed about Israel and its culture from various angles.

"The French cultural world is very snobbish and spoiled, and it was wonderful to see its enthusiasm about the things being done here," Shek recalls. "One of the most highly regarded French magazines put out a special edition about Israel, with a portrait of [actress] Ronit Elkabetz on the cover. That is what I consider sophisticated hasbara, although we have to be realistic. It's impossible to hide the Jabalya refugee camp behind the Batsheva Dance Company. And there's also a bit of a risk: There will be those who say, 'If you're so wonderful, why do you abuse the Palestinians?' It's impossible to ignore the tough situation."

Dealing with a tough situation was Shek's daily routine during his first two years as ambassador, but that changed after the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president of the republic in 2007.

"He's a real friend of Israel and speaks openly and with typical passion about the fact that modern Europe should feel obligated to us," he notes. "For example, he's assumed the world leadership against Iranian nuclear weapons and on D-Day, when Israel is really in trouble, he'll be there. Where did we lose him? When it came to the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.

"Sarkozy entered the Elysee and said he had good relations with the Arab world and with Israelis as well," Shek continues. "He invited [President] Shimon Peres for the first official visit. When Netanyahu was elected, Sarkozy was the only head of a leading European country who publicly welcomed his election. They're friends from when they were both finance ministers. He spoke in praise of him in the salons of Europe, said he was a courageous man who would do important things. And I know firsthand that Sarkozy and his team said: 'This man intends to solve the conflict.'"

In spite of Sarkozy's criticism of Lieberman's appointment as foreign minister, Shek claims that "those years saw a revival of a kind of intimacy in the discourse with the French that hadn't existed since the days of de Gaulle in the 1960s. Many doors were opened. French is a centralized country and ... when they saw that he was cozying up to the Israelis - all his ministers knocked on my door and asked where they could carry out projects with Israel."

However, the lack of progress in the diplomatic arena lowered the degree of intimacy, says Shek: "What can you do if Sarkozy is impatient? He expected that it would take Bibi [Netanyahu] no longer to make a dramatic move and announce significant steps than the time that passed between [Sarkozy's own] first meeting with Carla Bruni until he proposed to her. When it didn't happen, and a year passed and then two, he changed his tune. I remember an event in which he awarded the Legion of Honor award to France's new chief rabbi. It was at the Elysee, many people were in attendance, and Sarkozy criticized us loudly and harshly. That was right after Dubai" - the assassination of leading Hamas member Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in February 2010 - "and Sarkozy called us fools and liars who are deceiving the entire world and think that time is on our side. In my opinion, he was very disappointed with Bibi and today there's clearly a change for the worse in the atmosphere in France [vis-a-vis Israel]."

The Prime Minister's Office responded that they do not intend to discuss Shek's claims here.

Lieberman's media adviser replied: "We can assume that if a senior position had been found for Shek in the Foreign Ministry at the end of his term in Paris, he would have kept his frustrations and his views to himself."

A parting and a romance

Daniel Shek, 56, was born in Jerusalem to parents from Czechoslovakia. His father, Zeev, came from a large and very religious family; his mother Aliza was from Prague's assimilated intelligentsia. They met for the first time in a Jewish youth movement, and for the second time in the Theresienstadt (Terezin ) ghetto, where they married in secret. His mother miraculously survived thanks to a Czech farmer who took care of her. His father experienced transports and camps.

"After the liberation he was very ill," says Shek, "and was hospitalized in an American hospital. When he awoke from his coma and heard English around him, he thought he had died and that there was a British Mandate in heaven too."

Zeev Shek was the personal secretary of Moshe Sharett and one of the founders of the Foreign Ministry, the first generation of Israeli diplomats who gave his all for the future. Even his sudden death was like that of a soldier on duty. "He was an ambassador in Rome and died of heart failure at the age of 58, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah," his son explains. "They had invited 30 people for a holiday meal. He went to sleep and didn't get up again."

Daniel's mother was an artist, worked at the Cameri Theater as a set designer and mainly was a diplomat's wife. His father was one of the founders of Beit Theresienstadt on Kibbutz Givat Haim (Ihud ) and his mother, who died three years ago, worked there as a volunteer all those years.

Daniel Shek's first "assignment" abroad was at the age of eight months when he moved to London with his parents, where his father was the first secretary at the embassy, and then to Paris, where his father was the political attache. When he was eight-years-old the family returned to Jerusalem. Shek attended the Beit Hakerem elementary school and four years later his father was appointed ambassador to Vienna, and the family moved again (Shek has two sisters: Ruth Shek Yasur, is a film translator; Rachel is a silversmith ).

"When I stopped traveling with my parents I had a feeling that I never wanted to do it again," he says. "The experience wasn't easy. It's hard to forget the moment when you enter a classroom, you don't know anyone, you barely speak the language and don't understand what they're saying to you, and every few years you have to prove yourself again, even when you return to Israel. I arrived in Vienna at the age of 12, and the first two years were a nightmare. I didn't feel like getting out of bed; today they would call it depression. Two years later I had a great time. I discovered a new world, wonderful music. Afterward, when I traveled with my own children, I experienced the difficulty more than they did. Today everything is more global and accessible. In the 1960s, when I was in Vienna, in order to have something to say for three minutes about Israel, someone had to have died."

Shek enlisted in the Israeli army and served as a photographer in Military Intelligence. After his discharge he studied general history and French literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"That was a program for children who didn't know what they wanted to do in life," he says. As a student he worked in television; he translated for the news department and edited foreign news for the nighttime program "Almost Midnight."

"I wasn't too sorry to leave the profession," says Shek, "in spite of the career they promised me. One day the news director, Haim Yavin, called me and offered me a deal. He wanted me to work full-time, but planned to pay me for 10 days a month, saying: 'You know how it is here, there's no job slot, there's no contract, but in the end these things work out, someone will leave and there will be a job slot.' I thanked him for the honor and gave up a journalistic career."

When he finished his studies Shek married his Tunisian-born girlfriend Marie, and the two went to Belgium for a year, to work at the embassy in Brussels. In 1984, when he was 30, he was accepted to the Foreign Ministry's cadets' course. "I had a lot of doubts about it," he explains, "and I thought I wouldn't do what my father did. I did it anyway."

After the course he worked in the office of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres; later he was appointed press officer at the embassy in Paris. When he returned from there in 1994 he received the job of ministry spokesman and director of the press department. In 1997 he was appointed consul general for the Pacific Northwest and lived in San Francisco. Three years later he returned to Israel and was appointed director of the department charged with dealing with Western Europe.

Shek's career seemed to be progressing nicely, but he thought otherwise and hoped for faster promotion. In 2004 he took a three-year unpaid leave in the hope of exploiting his abilities more fully. He moved to London, where he directed the Britain Israel Communications and Research Center - a nonprofit involved in pro-Israeli public relations, which is supported by private donations.

Shek recalls two wonderful years in London, where he had a great deal of satisfaction, and then being contacted by the Foreign Ministry: Tzipi Livni offered him the job of ambassador to Paris.

Shek didn't think twice. He took his walking stick and set out. "People like me live their lives in four-year chunks," he says. "I never lived anywhere for more than five years."

He went to France with his wife and son Michael, who is now a discharged soldier. His older son Yonatan was in the army at the time and remained in Israel (he is now 27 and doing a master's degree in business administration at Harvard ). Shortly afterward Michael, who was 16 at the time, said he was returning to Israel.

"We allowed him to do that," says Shek. "He lived with his older brother, and was a good and responsible student. El Al was very pleased with the arrangement. We all flew back and forth several times a month. People think it's great fun to travel around the world, that it's an attractive profession, but there's also something sad about it. I'm familiar with it from the point of view of a child, an adult and a parent."

About two years ago the Shek family fell apart. Already in 2008 his wife Marie, an artist and curator, spoke in interviews with journalists about her difficulties with the role of being the ambassador's wife - about waking up in the morning and finding all kinds of strangers in her living room, and making sure there were matching tablecloths and napkins at the dinners and cocktail parties.

"It's not certain that there's a connection [between that and our divorce]," Shek says, "and maybe there is. I don't know if anyone has checked the statistics and can say how many couples from the Foreign Ministry have divorced. Whatever the case, it's a profession that affects your entire life and your family. We had 30 happy years.

"You need a very strong team spirit in order to survive during those wanderings, but what can you do? Our relationship wilted and I think it's a good thing we realized it and made a joint decision to split up, not because of some dramatic event but with the thought that we're young enough to begin a new life and that we both deserve something better and there was a chance that we would find it."

For his part, Shek has already found it: Emilie Moatti, 31, who works in public relations and was married to the director of the Jewish cultural festival in Paris, where her two daughters, today aged five and four, were born.

Shek: "The decision to leave Marie came when we were in Paris, about halfway through, and from then on she spent more time in Israel, but we did it gradually, because I didn't want to spoil the perfect image of an Israeli ambassador."

But the Jewish community in France was rife with rumors about your affair with Emilie - they claim it began even before you divorced.

"That's true, it began before we divorced, because we divorced only after I returned to Israel. But Marie and I were separated two years earlier and the Jews in France didn't know about it, because I didn't publicize it. I wanted to continue to maintain a facade of respectability until I finished the job. It wasn't an affair that was conducted behind the back of my legal wife."

Shek declares he is very happy now. "I have a new relationship with a woman who is significantly younger than I am, but people who know her say that she is very mature and well educated. She is also very generous with her love and I'm happy to have been allowed to experience such happiness again."

Life together in a rented apartment in Tel Aviv involves frenetic activity and the tumult of two little girls who want love and attention.

"There are mornings when I would like to get up late, like a man of 56 who has finished raising children, and to read a newspaper in peace and quiet," he admits. "But that's not important. They're sweet and they're part of Emilie and I love Emilie. She's my partner and I love everything that belongs to her. It's one of the wonderful things in life; things develop and you don't know what the day will bring. I could have found myself separated, bitter, in some miserable apartment. It's better this way." W