Gabriela Shalev: Peace Talks Can Change the UN's Stance on Israel

Israel's soon-to-be former United Nations ambassador on why cold peace and problematic talks are better than lack of negotiations.

This September, when New York hosts the 65th General Assembly of the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev will already be in Israel. Despite earning the title of ambassador during her two-year tenure at the UN, Shalev's next business card will simply read "Professor."

"The saying 'Once an ambassador, always an ambassador' makes me laugh," Shalev tells Haaretz in a farewell interview before leaving her post. "I'm not a career diplomat. I'll miss New York, but not necessarily the position. I feel fulfillment and pride at having had the privilege to represent our country. I also feel a great relief. I worked extremely hard these two years. I don't know if I lost innocence but I learned a completely different world, a gripping one, one that truly has all the double-talk I was not used to. But I also learned a lot about myself: How much I love Israel, how much I am a Zionist, how dear the nation is to me, but also how I rose to challenges. I would be very glad to go home to a situation in which all nations of the world are embracing Israel and praising her, but that is not the situation. I didn’t have the opportunity to cry, but I was on occasion very angry, offended, emotional. When they painted our soldiers - who are our children - as war criminals and placed photographs of injured children before me, when they asked provocative questions on television, it brought out things I didn’t know were inside me - extremely blunt answers."

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations Gabriela Shalev.
UN Photo

Shalev received many compliments during her tenure for her mild demeanor and personal charm. There were also those who asked if that would be what would help Israel during the raging days of deliberations on the Goldstone Report and Israel's raid on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla.

“On the verge of the end of my seventh decade I didn’t intend to change my style. Wise words don’t need to be spoken loudly.”

She has considered writing additional books in the field of law, but despite her unique position as the first woman to represent Israel at the UN, it is doubtful she will be penning a memoir about her experience as UN envoy.

“It's like what they say about the New Testament: that what is new is not interesting, and what is interesting is already written in the Bible. The interesting things, I don’t think I can write, and the rest are extremely dull. There are books written by past ambassadors that sit on library shelves at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But what I will do is give a course in academic reading on the legal aspects of Israel and the UN."

The General Assembly is expected to raise the issue of the Goldstone Report, as well as host the President of Iran during the forthcoming session, which Shalev describes as extremely problematic.

“I don’t want to sound dramatic, but we are in one of the darker times from a public relations standpoint between Israel and the UN, because the UN became the focal point for all the de-legitimization of Israel from around the world. I sat there for two years, and heard the speeches dripping with hate. It took me some time to understand that, behind the scenes, the words are completely different than those spoken at the assembly, but even in the Security Council some of the temporary members are not friends."

Did you have any confrontations with the other ambassadors on this hypocrisy?

“Sure. I have very good relations with the ambassadors of Qatar and Oman and Egypt and Turkey. But they receive their dictates from their capitols, and many times after the ritual deliberations on the Palestinian situation, they come to me and say they had to say it. I know that there exists much respect for Israel even from countries whose representatives cannot make this heard public.”

This week, the United States Ambassador to the UN, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Turkish envoy to the UN are all organizing farewell dinners in Shalev's honor, despite the flotilla incident.

“It was a sad, tragic event. Isolated, far out at sea. And what has happened since? It’s incredible how the world treats this occurrence, while other terrible events don’t get any attention at all. Five investigations about one isolated event, when it’s perfectly clear that there were terrorists present with obvious agendas. Whoever wants to bring equipment and aid to Gaza can do so in other ways. But I have excellent relations with the Turkish ambassador - he even visited my home - and I think this relationship also helped the goodwill we need when we have such a hostile man as Prime Minister Erdogan. The attention to this flotilla was totally out of proportion."

The pressure on Israel over its policy of nuclear ambiguity has grown recently, and Shalev denounces any attempts to draw a comparison between Israeli and Iranian nuclear ambiguity.

“To compare between Israel and Iran is a bad joke. I think even Iranians themselves wouldn’t even dare to do it. We never threatened any country. And in Iran, we have a dangerous country, a non-democratic regime, that develops the cruelest weapons, and they threaten us publicly. How could one compare between the two countries?”

Shalev is confident that peace talks to be launched next week in Washington could provide the opportunity to change the atmosphere at the UN.

“Even the cold peace and the talks that are so problematic and complicated are much better than the lack of the negotiations. We have spoilers on both sides, but since my first day here I told the Palestinians: 'Let’s talk.' But they procrastinated, hoping that the Americans would do their work. They say the Israeli public is indifferent to these talks. I am not indifferent. This is the right step. It’s true that in the UN we have an automatic majority of more than 100 Muslim and unaffiliated countries, but I am confident that these talks have the power to change the atmosphere."

Shalev is also certain of the strong bond between Israel and the U.S., and this confidence grew out of her numerous meetings with Jewish communities in the U.S.

“There is an utmost strategic importance in our relationship with the U.S. Jewry. They are the bridge between us and the U.S. government. The work AIPAC does is just outstanding. We need these friends, and we need to make them feel they are wanted. The recent conversions bill, unfortunately, hurt many good people here that contribute to Israel, and this bill made them feel they are not part of us. I am happy it was postponed and I hope it will be buried; today I can say that openly. It’s important to let American Jews feel that Israel is indeed a homeland for the Jewish people."