For Israel's UN envoy, diplomacy isn't always in plain view
Prof. Gabriela Shalev, who will be ending her term as Israel's ambassador to the UN at the end of August, talks with Haaretz about her 'challenging' two-year stint in New York.
NEW YORK - Prof. Gabriela Shalev will be ending her term as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations at the end of August, drawing close to a two-year stint she describes as "challenging."
How do you compare Israel's status in the United Nations from the time you started two years ago to its position today?
"When I began my term, I wanted to preserve and enhance Israel's image at the United Nations. On the eve of my return to Israel and my academic work, Israel's situation today at the UN is difficult; it has deteriorated, reaching one of its lowest ebbs."
You have won great respect and admiration among your colleagues at the UN. How does that jibe with what you have describe as a difficult situation?
"Israel's situation at the UN has always been complicated, and even difficult. First and foremost, that results from the automatic majority that consolidates against it, a bloc which new, undemocratic states have recently joined. The difficulty stems from the hypocrisy and double standards that rule the UN. Things that are said to us behind the scenes are completely different from what is uttered in public. Take, for instance, concerns about a nuclear Iran, which are shared not only by Western countries, but also by Arab states. The same thing applies to Hamas terror. Representatives of states that publicly attack our actions against Hamas make very different statements in private discussions. After the UN session about Operation Cast Lead, ambassadors from various countries who delivered speeches denouncing Israel came up to me and said: 'I wish Israel would deliver a mortal blow to Hamas.'
"With regard to appreciation of my work as an ambassador, it did not take long for me to grasp that I have to do what I regard to be right, and not what critics and commentators decree to be the truth. I have my own internal compass, and I acted according to it and my conscience."
When you were selected to serve as ambassador to the United Nations, you lacked diplomatic experience, and were a stranger to the labyrinth of international diplomacy.
"I think that precisely the lack of diplomatic experience helped me fashion discrete work procedures, and act in quiet channels, behind the scenes. To a great extent, I acted according to old rules of diplomacy."
Did anything happen at the start of your term to throw a spotlight on the challenges you would face?
"Decisive changes in Israel and the U.S. transpired during the first months of my term, and they brought about instant, expansive changes on the political and diplomatic map. They changed the rules of the game, particularly in the UN. In Israel, a new government took office, and the present coalition was perceived at the UN as a contrarian regime that gives little priority to maintaining good relations with the world organization. Around the same time, there was a changing of the guard at the White House, and [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama sent Susan Rice to the UN as ambassador; her main agenda is to implement the policy of reconciliation and rapprochement which President Obama favors, even in relations with intransigent, uncooperative states.
"What aggravates difficulties faced by Israel's representatives at the UN was the Palestinians' continuing refusal to renew negotiations, and the ongoing stalemate in relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Part of the hostility at the UN reflects anti-Semitism that simmers beneath the surface; and there is always a possibility of more [anti-Israel] denunciations. Sometimes all of this bursts into the open. Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone report in its wake, along with the humanitarian situation in Gaza and events of the Turkish flotilla, were aggravating factors. Everything that we hear in the world in the aftermath of such even is multiplied at the UN, even among friendly nations."
How did you manage to create and develop relations with Arab and Muslim ambassadors, despite the diplomatic situation?
"That is the secret of quiet diplomacy, and activity behind the scenes. One of my friends is Egyptian Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz, even though my first husband was killed on the Egyptian front during the Yom Kippur War. I have friendly relations with Oman Ambassador Fuad al-Hinai, whose wife is Oman's ambassador to the United States. I had good relations with Saudi Ambassador Khalid Alnafisee. Qatar's ambassador recently expressed regret at my departure. I am particularly proud of the genuine friendship and closeness that came about with the U.S. ambassador, Rice; that's a wonderful souvenir to bring back to Israel."
What can you say about relations between Israel's delegation and the American delegation?
"One cannot exaggerate the decisive role played by the United States as Israel's great, steadfast supporter at the UN, and this relationship sends a message to friends and foes alike. We have no stronger and more certain friend; there is in the United Nations and the international community considerable awareness of America's positions and outlooks, and many states follow the line set by Washington."
Were your years at the UN the most difficult ones in your career?
"It is true that I was often presented as the woman who has the hardest job in the world, but these were truly different sort of years in my career - but not 'difficult.' In English, one would say 'challenging.'"
What were your most trying moments at the UN?
"Whenever I had to sit and hear unfounded accusations against a state I love and respect, as in the case of the Goldstone report and the discussions which followed it, in which institutions closest to my heart were criticized and attacked: Israel's democracy, its judicial system and the Israel Defense Forces. When IDF soldiers are accused of being war criminals, that is a difficult, almost unbearable moment."
How do you feel toward the end of your term in New York?
"I am proud of the privilege given me to serve Israel, and I am happy about the opportunity provided to me to make a modest contribution to the state. I encountered an Israel here that transcends the dispute, and contributes meaningfully to the world, as in the example of the relief team for Haiti. I am happy to return home, after a fascinating period in New York."
What do you say to those who insist that Israel should quit the UN, since it is invariably hypocritical and hostile to Israel?
"From my first day, I heard this superficial demand. The UN is crucial because it facilitates direct contact with delegates from around the world, and it is, I think, inconceivable that Israel would quit the family of nations. Important things are done in the organization, and Israel has its contribution to make to the world."