‘Oom Shmoom.” Ask any Israeli politician, university lecturer or taxi driver their opinion of the United Nations, and odds are that’s the response you’ll get. The pejorative term is Hebrew slang for “United Nothing,” and has come to epitomize the Israeli mentality toward the UN ever since it was coined by David Ben-Gurion 60 years ago.
For a select group of Israeli diplomats, however, the UN is not only the front line in the fight for their nation’s legitimacy, but a crucial venue for promoting age-old Jewish values of tikkun olam (fixing the world). They are the men and women of Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, tasked with waging some of Israel’s toughest diplomatic battles.
Utilizing a potent mix of expertise, experience and classic Israeli “chutzpah,” they often emerge victorious – even against overwhelming odds.
Members of Israel’s modest-sized mission (under 20 diplomats and advisers) can be found in nearly every UN committee, sponsoring resolutions, vying for top positions and promoting Israel’s interests on topics that range far beyond the Arab- Israeli conflict.
In 2007, the mission sponsored a resolution on agricultural technology which was eventually co-sponsored by more than 100 countries, an astounding feat for Israel. That resolution has since been reaffirmed three times. Other members can be heard sharing Israeli expertise in committees dealing with international law, counter-terrorism, global sustainable development and even the UN’s budgetary issues.
Recently, Israel was elected to the executive board of the UN Development Program, an influential agency which operates in over 170 nations with a budget of over $1 billion. The mission’s human rights expert was elected for a chairing position in within the Commission on the Status of Women’s communications working group. Other mission members currently hold leadership positions within the Economic and Social Council’s subcommittees on forests and activities of non-governmental organizations. In 2013, Israel will to ascend to the executive board of UNICEF, the UN children’s fund.
In the UN lobby, Israeli-sponsored exhibits and seminars are a common sight. On the 50th anniversary of the Adolf Eichmann trial, Minister Yossi Peled and Elie Wiesel spoke to the UN on the lessons of the Holocaust. The event came days after the mission hosted its annual autism awareness day seminar, inviting Israeli artists and experts to address the UN for the fourth straight year.
Whether above the UN’s radar screen or below, the Israeli mission employs a strategy that may as well have been plucked from playbooks of Israel’s old-school military generals: aggressively promote Israeli interests and values, while taking the offensive whenever the foes of the Jewish state cross the line.
The rants, tirades and outbursts against Israel can be heard from across the East River. The famed “automatic majority” formed by Arab and Islamic states remains firmly in place, never failing to cynically politicize Israeli involvement in every UN venue. Two weeks ago, Arab nations took a break from their boycott of the Assad regime to rally behind a Syrian bid to block Israeli NGOs from contributing to the UN’s upcoming conference on sustainable development to be held in Rio de Janeiro.
Moments before the vote, Israeli diplomats could be seen scrambling throughout the General Assembly, lobbying member states against catering to the political ploy. The drama culminated with a fiery speech by Deputy Ambassador Haim Waxman, drawing shouts and fist-banging from the Syrian delegation.
The vote failed and the mission emerged victorious. Yet, it was just another day for Israel at the UN.
WHENEVER THE Arab-Israeli conflict does take center stage (and it often does), Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor takes the UN to task. One of Israel’s most distinguished diplomats, Prosor never hesitates to use humor and cutting cynicism to name and shame Israel’s opponents. In the General Assembly, he branded Bashar Assad the “world’s most dangerous ophthalmologist” (for blinding his people’s vision of freedom). In the Security Council, he pointed out that “you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that when rockets fall on your head, your government has a right to defend itself.”
During the Security Council’s most recent debate on the Middle East, Prosor unabashedly exposed the five great myths about the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the rarely discussed plight of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Indeed, he is consistently able to keep all 15 Security Council members on the edge of their seats during every speech using a combination of telling facts, stirring anecdotes and revealing humor.
Despite the mission’s growing list of achievements, Israel still faces a daunting uphill battle. The Palestinians remain intent on pursuing their unilateral statehood bid to circumvent the peace process. Other nations seem determined to refocus attention from the Arab Spring toward isolating and de-legitimizing Israel.
Driven by the spirit of Zionism and the principles of tikkun olam, the diplomats of Israel’s Permanent Mission to the UN are up to the task.
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The author is a former intern-adviser at Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. You can follow him on twitter @Dannynis