NEW YORK – Sanctions against Iran are likely to be a “watered down” and “diluted” version of the punitive measures Israel envisioned, according to Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gabriela Shalev.

With a month-long conference on nuclear nonproliferation under way at the United Nations, Shalev, in an interview this week at her office near the UN, defended Israel’s refusal to accede to the nonproliferation treaty and focused on the Iranian threat.

“Unlike our expectations and hopes, the sanctions are not going to be crippling… They’re not even going to be biting,” she said. “They’re going to be moderate, watered down, diluted.”

But Shalev added, “They will be achieved under the umbrella of the P5, the five permanent members of the Security Council, which is going to be a big achievement.”

During the 50-minute interview, Shalev reflected on a difficult year that saw Lebanon join the Security Council, Israel slammed by the Goldstone report, and escalating pressure to crack down on the Iranian nuclear program.

Indeed, the US came into the NPT review conference pushing for sanctions against Iran following months of negotiating with other members of the Security Council.

“China is still trying the diplomatic track,” Shalev noted.

As negotiations continue, several non-permanent members of the council are likely to raise objections, including Lebanon, Turkey and Brazil. Shalev said she hoped that once a consensus was achieved on moderate sanctions, the US and European countries would pass their own sanctions.

Israel hoped for punitive measures sooner, she said, as early as February. Now, she hopes they will be announced this month or next. Of course, there is the question of whether Iran will cooperate.

“This is going to be the fourth round of sanctions, and until now [Iran] was mocking the international community,” she said. “Ahmadinejad is trying to divert the attention of the international world, especially the United Nations, to other issues, while of course at the same time, we know he is developing nuclear capabilities.”

I met Shalev at her office, where the former law professor was listening to classical music in the background, on the second day of the month-long NPT Review Conference. Only three countries are not party to the treaty, including India, Pakistan and Israel, which is widely believed to possess a nuclear arsenal. By the start of the conference, Arab states were pushing for the implementation of a 1995 resolution establishing a nuclear-free Middle East. The resolution calls on Israel to sign the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state.

However, Shalev said Israel’s accession was not the main issue; rather, it was a distraction from the Iranian threat.

“The global threat now, not only to Israel and not only to the Middle East, is the Iranian race to reach nuclear capabilities,” she asserted. “Once the Middle East will be an area where there will not be any threat to Israel… then we can re-discuss the NPT.”

Days after our meeting, proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians were set to be announced. But several weeks back, there were rumors at the UN that the Palestinians might unilaterally declared statehood. Shalev said unequivocally that such a move would be a “big mistake.”

“The only way to reach an agreement and some kind of peace in the Middle East is through bilateral negotiations,” she said. “At the end, we have to sit together with our Palestinian colleagues, neighbors, friends and reach an agreement.”

Indeed, she characterized the proximity talks as a “corridor” heading toward bilateral negotiations, thanks to US intervention.

“The US is a good friend, and I think the US is now perceived, not only by us, but also by the Palestinians, as an honest broker,” she said.

Since Netanyahu’s government came to power, there has been a stalemate, she went on.

“Proximity talks is probably the only way to bring the Palestinians to the table,” she said, and quoted an Arabic saying: “In the mere movement there is a blessing.”

Yet recent weeks have seen an escalation in regional tension, particularly with Syria and Lebanon.

“Regarding Syria and Lebanon, we see the dirty hand of Iran, which we know for sure is supplying arms, weapons, missiles to Hizbullah via Syria,” Shalev said. The fact that Lebanon, where Hizbullah members are part of the government, is a member of the Security Council is nearly unbelievable, she said. “We are very, very concerned.”

But she dismissed the notion of a third war with Lebanon. She paused for a moment and removed her diplomatic hat.

“I don’t think any party has an interest right now,” she said. “I say it as an Israeli who knows what the cost of war is.”

Resuming the posture of an Israeli ambassador, she urged moderate Arabs to see the value in achieving diplomatic ties.

“The Middle East is really now the epicenter of so many conflicts,” she said, noting that Iran was a threat not only for Israel but also for many Arab countries.

As of early May, Shalev had four months left as ambassador, having served most of a two-year term that ends in August.

“The clock is ticking. Not only the Iranian clock,” she said.

She declined to comment on the political wrangling over her successor; recent reports said Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz had turned down the job.

“I hope there will be somebody good, that I can rest assured that once I go back to Israel, Israel will be represented by the best person,” she said.

Shalev, 68, an expert in contract law, assumed her post in September 2008, becoming the first woman to serve as Israeli ambassador to the UN. As she had no diplomatic background, pundits expressed concern, but Shalev brought impeccable academic credentials. The author of 10 books, she was a professor of contract law at Hebrew University and later served as president of the Academic Council and rector of Ono Academic College. In 2003, Shalev received the Israel Bar Association prize, honoring her for academic legal research.

“When I was first appointed, people raised their eyebrows and said, ‘Who is this lady… what are her capabilities or qualities that enable her to represent Israel?’” she recalled.

Shalev soon established herself as a moderate voice at the UN, not prone to dramatic speeches, but apt, as she has done, to quote Shakespeare during a meeting of the Security Council.

“I think you should speak more rationally than emotionally,” she said. “This is me… I can’t just bring myself to a different kind of rhetoric.”

Though she is convinced she has earned the respect of her colleagues, the new ambassador will face a hostile UN.

“As an Israeli ambassador, I feel the tension, and it’s not very pleasant to sit at the Security Council and to watch and to listen to the kinds of accusations and vile speech regarding Israel,” she said. “Sometimes, I must tell you that my heart breaks when I hear the way that our democracy and our judiciary and mainly our army, our soldiers, are attacked as war criminals.”

The Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of potential war crimes during Operation Cast Lead, was published in September 2009, sending the Israeli public, American Jews and human rights groups reeling. Israel did not cooperate with the fact-finding mission that published the report, charging a biased mandate from the UN Human Rights Council.

“I know that some people think that we, Israel, should have cooperated,” she said, but “I think if we would have cooperated, it would not change very much.”

Still, the report prompted months of hostility toward Israel. The report caused “a lot of damage,” Shalev admitted. “Not only public opinion, but moral damage because the Goldstone report is now channeling all kinds of anti-Israelism.”

She described the vitriol as a new kind of “politically correct” anti-Semitism. “They call it anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism, and it became just a label, a name for a lot of bashing Israel,” she said.

Of course, Israel is itself investigating the IDF’s actions during Cast Lead.

“We are not doing it as a reaction to the Goldstone report. We are doing it because this is our moral and ethical and legal standard; after every operation, the army is looking into its behavior and the events that took place, and this is the same,” Shalev said.

Though some have called for an independent committee to investigate, Shalev defended the Military Advocate-General’s Office in charge of the probe.

“He is the top legal authority in the army,” she said. “It’s not as if it is an army officer who is looking into his peers.”

What’s more, that is the standard practice among Western countries. “So why should we be different?” she asked.

Yet the fallout from Goldstone continues.

“It’s not over. Now, it’s a little reduced,” Shalev said. She quoted President Barack Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser Samantha Power, and said the report was like the game “whack-a-mole,” where you hit one puppet and another pops up.

“It started out at Geneva, it went to New York, it went back to Geneva. Now they are going to have some kind of panel; there is the universal jurisdiction that is still hovering, like a cloud, over our leaders,” she said. “It did cause us damage, and I hope that it will sink over time.”

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