'Our Voice Must Be Heard'

Gabriela Shalev, Israel's first woman ambassador to the UN, has experienced a trial by fire these past weeks. The ties the new envoy had begun to forge with representatives from typically hostile countries have begun to unravel, and all her energies are devoted to defending the military operation in Gaza

NEW YORK - The United Nations Security Council's emergency session was scheduled for December 31 and lasted deep into the night. Prof. Gabriela Shalev, the new Israeli ambassador to the UN, was tired but ready to rise to the challenge. Uzi Levy, her partner for 20 years, who first made his mark on the pioneering "Nikui Rosh" satirical television show and later became CEO of the Migdal Insurance company (a position from which he is now retired), waited for her into the wee hours.

"Suddenly, I come home and Uzi is waiting up," Shalev relates. "It's wonderful. Without him it would be pretty hard for me. He prepared a meal for me and we looked out the window at the New Year's Eve fireworks in Times Square."

Up until several weeks ago, Shalev's assignment looked almost like a dream job. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was far from the top of the UN agenda. Since her appointment in June as the first woman to serve as Israel's envoy here, she has already established good relations with a number of Arab ambassadors, has advanced initiatives to improve Israel's image, and has even managed to get representatives of usually hostile countries to breakfast with her.

But the operation in Gaza has toppled the fragile house of cards she had begun to build, and the new ambassador has been pushed into the familiar defensive position of her predecessors. Having come to the job from a career as a leading jurist, who specialized in mediation, the 67-year-old Shalev has now found herself in the eye of the storm, representing a party in the UN that is being criticized by quite a number of member states.

"I had prepared myself psychologically for the evil wind to blow down from Iran," says Shalev, looking put together as always, with a short coiffure and tailored suit. "And this danger has not passed. Both ideologically and physically, Iran is arming Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south."

Despite the holiday season, Shalev was not taking a break. Indeed, her office is bombarded daily with requests for interviews about the operation in the Gaza Strip, and she is preparing for an ongoing, excruciating battle of nerves in the Security Council.

"In recent weeks, ever since the tahadiyeh [truce with Hamas] ended," she explains, "we knew what was going to happen. I also sent several letters to the UN secretary-general, warning that we would not be able to sit back and let Hamas snipe at us like ducks in a shooting gallery. But was I prepared for this psychologically? Not at all."

During the first week of the Israel Defense Forces bombardments in Gaza, Shalev gave countless interviews to the local media. When she told CNN that the aim was to "destroy that terrorist gang," she was attacked on all sides with demands to explain what she meant when she said "destroy."

Shalev says the reactions to her statement "got completely out of control." Her interviewer, she explains, "pressed and pressed: 'What do you want to achieve?' And what I had in mind was to destroy the tunnels and the arms smuggling, and their ability to fire rockets and bombard a quarter of a million inhabitants of the State of Israel. Maybe I'm disappointing someone, but I meant the physical infrastructure - not killing people."

While she has encountered coldness in the corridors of New York's UN headquarters, Shalev, at least in her speech in the plenum and responses to the media, has evinced admirable composure. "In no way, today and also at my age, do I think that it is possible to give up. But this is a Sisyphean task, and is terribly difficult. I became very friendly with the Jordanian representative and the Palestinian observer, and then all of a sudden along comes Gaza. I go into the lounge on the evening of consultations that took place at the UN - and they simply avoid looking me in the eye. People who shake my hand in the corridors, drink coffee with me, invite me for meals, and whom I make a point of inviting. It isn't pleasant - as a woman, as a person - suddenly to come up against this. But I understand exactly what they are feeling."

Did you ever think to approach them, to tell them that?

Shalev: "I don't know, because I am a person who gets insulted quite easily. I wasn't used to this; apparently it's necessary to develop thicker skin. I am even insulted by [Internet] talkbacks. Mirit Cohen [the spokeswoman of the Israeli mission to the UN] and my son tell me not to read them. So I get anxious about the moment when I will approach them and my extended hand will be left hanging in the air. Because I can see the real pain in their eyes. What can I say to them? I have read that the inhabitants of Gaza are sleeping with open windows because of the shock waves from the bombs. I know what a mother like that feels. On the other hand, I'm saying to them: Get out of there, don't stay in a house where there are bombs stored underneath. My heart breaks when I think about what is happening there and when I see those pictures. And they show them, along with me, on a split screen. But there is no comparison between the State of Israel and an organization that puts its women and its children and its hospitals on top of stores of weapons."

Following your speech at the UN, they wrote that "even a leftist like Gabriela Shalev is saying this ..." Did you really define yourself as a leftist?

"Up until there were rumors of my appointment as ambassador to the UN, I was not aware of the existence of this image. I didn't know, for example, that I was 'a founder of B'Tselem [The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories].' Suddenly I learned that. Someone from [the right-wing newspaper] Makor Rishon phoned me, and I said that wasn't correct. What else could I say? Never in my life have I been a member of a political party, even though I've been approached by both the right and the left. I have never in my life signed a single petition.

"No one has ever known what party I vote for - something I learned from my parents. In the 1950s, when I was a little girl, they would take me to the polling station and leave me outside the booth. I wouldn't know for whom they were voting. That was something that wasn't talked about. Arik Sharon and Ehud Olmert approached me and asked me to join Kadima. I didn't. They could guess that I was somewhere in the center. But where did the leftist image come from? In my opinion, it's because I'm from academia, and the Jerusalem academia at that; maybe because of the image of a professor. A professor has to teach and do research, not make political statements. I have never thought that my opinion as a professor of law was more important than that of a doctor or a shoemaker."

Serving the country

On one wall in Shalev's office hangs a picture of Prime Minister Olmert; on another, that of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Shalev's appointment was accompanied by friction between, on the one hand, Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who wanted to advance the former consul in New York, Alon Pinkus, to the post; and, on the other hand, Livni, who insisted on the appointment of Shalev.

"Everything that was in the papers was the wrong way around," Shalev explains. "They wrote that I'm a friend of Tzipi Livni's and that Olmert objected, but it's exactly the other way around. I barely knew Livni, and she's certainly not a friend of mine. Ehud Barak was in the officers' training course with my late husband; it was that officers' training course from which they say two [potential] chiefs of staff would emerge. Barak wasn't my friend, but we know each other and it can be said that we are quite cordial. When he was prime minister, he invited me a few times. The fact that they supported a different candidate doesn't mean they objected to my appointment. Olmert told me he hadn't imagined I would take the appointment upon myself."

Why did you agree?

"It really came from outer space - I was very surprised by the offer. They gave me 24 hours to decide. I consulted with Uzi and the children, and above all I listened to my own inner voice. I said, I can't reject a suggestion to serve the country after years during which I did interesting and important things, lots of public things. I feel that life has given me many opportunities and I have taken them. I can say I have pretty much succeeded, in the very modest way that I dictated to myself, in realizing my abilities. This is what I've always told my children: Do the best you can. This comes from the home of my parents, who were yekkes [Jews of German origin] - that's where I got my values of industriousness, devotion and meticulousness. And at home they also always told me: 'You are the best.' I very much wanted not to disappoint my parents. My ideal was to realize my abilities, not necessarily to reach the top, and life has enabled me to excel in everything I have done."

Shalev says she derives a great deal of strength from her family history. Her grandparents on her mother's side perished in Auschwitz. Her grandparents on her father's side were uprooted from a comfortable life in Berlin and immigrated to Palestine. Lt. Col. Shaul Shalev, her first husband and the father of her children Narkiss and Eran, was killed after being hit by shrapnel near the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War.

Shalev: "I have a lot of support at home. With Uzi, we have eight grandchildren - a real tribe ... a very united and supportive tribe. I'm in constant daily contact with them."

At the height of the conflict between Supreme Court President Justice Dorit Beinisch and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, you expressed harsh criticism of Friedmann, who had been appointed by Olmert. Have you remained friends despite Friedmann?

"Yes. The wrangling between the justice minister and the Supreme Court was not good for the judicial system. But today I am in a different place; I don't see a need to go back to that. I said what I said. It certainly hasn't affected my friendship with Olmert, and the good relationship I have with the foreign minister."

When asked how she would sum up Olmert's tenure, Shalev is silent for some time. "I think that Olmert has been a good prime minister, what can I say? He is my friend. I am very sorry, I personally feel the hurt of his departure and hope he will successfully come out of all the affairs that have been associated with him."

A few months have gone by since she assumed her new role, but Shalev, a respected and widely published jurist of global acclaim, who in the past was mentioned as a candidate for the Supreme Court, is still trying to get accustomed to the new codes of diplomacy.

"If diplomacy is hypocrisy and double-talk, then those things exist here," she admits. "These are things I hadn't known, because in the world of law and academia, people seek the truth, even if it isn't pleasant or convenient. That's what I have always done, even if it isn't the truth that I personally came from. And I have seen here what George Orwell calls 'doublethink' in '1984.' On the one hand, [there is] a great deal of courtesy, respect for the State of Israel and for me as an older woman, who comes from the academic world. And then come the anti-Israel speeches. It's very difficult, from the personal perspective as well, to sit through such meetings at the U-shaped table in the Security Council, facing 15 men in dark suits, with glaring eyes."

'Important arena'

The hope that appointing a woman to the demanding position would help soften the rigid image of Israel was dashed at the very beginning. In September, the president of the General Assembly, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua, hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Later, Israel was the rotating chair of the WEOG (Western European Countries and Other Groups) bloc at the UN, and Shalev was supposed to have spoken on behalf of the group, but Brockmann, so it was reported, tried to prevent her speech.

"The few times I had met him, he was in fact a 'gentleman,'" says Shalev, "which is also indicative of doublespeak. The moment he learned that the representative of Israel would be delivering the speech at the ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, he tried to prevent not only our address, but also America's, as the host country. After the speech was nevertheless confirmed, he decided to absent himself from it and appointed someone else to sit in his place. The ceremony was scheduled for late at night, so it wasn't as impressive as it should have been. With the help of good friends like the Germans, we nevertheless had our say.

"And then Father d'Escoto invited me to a meeting. I was glad, because I haven't come here to quarrel, and certainly not at the expense of the State of Israel. But as I passed through my office, I found that all of the members of our mission were tense: They had called us from Reuters and asked for comment on a statement by Brockmann that 'in the wake of slurs bordering on the criminal from senior sources in the Israeli delegation' - you can guess who this was - he had received threats to his life. After that he retracted this [statement, and said] it wasn't connected to Israel. I said ... sorry, I am canceling the meeting. It's good there wasn't [another] woman there, otherwise they would have called it a cat fight."

Is this incident liable to cast a shadow on the attitude toward Israel at the UN?

"Now [Ambassador d'Escoto] doesn't have any role. The whole game has moved to the Security Council. But, when sitting in the first meeting of informal discussions of the proposal brought by the acting president, we saw d'Escoto Brockmann's statement. It wasn't clear what it had to do with the matter at hand, and who had asked him to respond - apparently Arabs had come and egged him on - by condemning Israel and supporting 'our Palestinian brothers.'"

Does this reinforce the common Israeli claim that no matter what Israel does it doesn't stand a chance of being viewed favorably by this "Um-shmum," as David Ben-Gurion derisively called the United Nations [in a play on its Hebrew name]?

"You can say 'Um-shmum' 10 times, but this is a terribly important international arena. Heaven forbid that we not have representation here. There are extremists, Jews and good Israelis, who hate the UN so much that they say, 'Go home. There's nothing for you to do here.' But I really don't accept that. I think our voice must be heard, even if it is a lone voice. Especially when you feel that you are right, and there is something real to say - not empty words. I also say that the ethos of the State of Israel is very similar to the values of the UN Charter. People sometimes forget them and think it's all just power struggles among the big powers. It isn't like that."

Do we have to court countries like Micronesia?

"Micronesia is important, too. This is not reflected in the Security Council, but it is in the General Assembly. When its president threatens to convene all 192 states, this doesn't have any real effect, but there is drama ... But we - Israel, the United States, the small Pacific countries - still have the same vote. Sometimes Italy also stands by us, and the Czech Republic has made a statement in support of us. Every one of them is just as important as Russia, Egypt, Jordan, Libya and Iran. There really are countries I had never heard of before I came here, but I've seen that each has importance in the General Assembly."

What are you expecting from the new administration in the United States and from the new U.S. ambassador to the UN, Dr. Susan Rice?

"Two days after the elections a paid advertisement was published by very important people, who called upon [President-elect Barack] Obama to be involved at the UN as well, even though the United States is also a country they don't love in the organization. When President Bush spoke here, he received less applause than Ahmadinejad. [The Americans] are the hosts here, they are the largest donors to the UN, and there some UN member countries where people are really hostile toward them. Now there is hope in America and in the world that there will be a tremendous change, and this is also shared by the UN. There will be a