By Yoav SivanIf you guess it was an Iranian official, trying to cynically contaminate western values with Holocaust-era symbolism, guess again.
The author is Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to the U.K., who was recently announced as the new Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Prosor said it in a meeting, in which I participated, in March 2008 in the embassy in London. He was speaking about Israel advocacy to a selected group of some 15-odd Israel supporters, mostly Europeans.
Prosor was trying to warn, I think, against blindly elevating human rights to the only standard of evaluation of a country. Even the noble ideal of human rights should be considered in a context. I believe the point he was trying to make was rather harmless, endorsed to some degree among the sympathetic audience. Remember, we travelled to London not because we wanted to know whether Israel was worth defending, but rather to learn how to do it best.
But why did an ambassador choose such an inappropriate, not to say offensive, expression?
I was not the only one who was taken aback. Among the participants, two were German friends of mine whom I recruited to join the program. I turned to look at one of them. She glanced at me back, equally puzzled: What could the ambassador hope to achieve by framing human rights with a Nazi symbol?
I emailed her now, double-checking my recollection. She wrote me: “I clearly recall that he said exactly this, because I was so pissed off.”
I’m asking myself, whether I’m making this into a bigger deal than deserved. After all, from the context of the conversation we had no doubt about Prosor’s good intentions and I can’t point any concrete damage. Moreover, diplomats are not angels, nor should be. Like all of us, they make mistakes.
But this is precisely why the diplomatic protocol prescribes rules of conduct. Yet, in diplomacy, likely more than other delegated responsibilities, one breach suffices to overshadow a career of good behavior. Prosor, a seasoned diplomat who served for four years in Bonn, should have known how improper his statement was.
So Prosor’s faux pas underscores a systematic concern: Israeli officials under-appreciate the fundamentals of the protocol, and don’t realize how detrimental to their country the violation of rules may be. Here is another example.
A few months before the meeting in London, I had dinner with a friend, a Swedish politician. She immediately brought up the 2004 incident with a former Israeli Ambassador to Sweden Zvi Mazel, who destroyed the art installation Snow White and the Madness of Truth in a museum in Stockholm. The installation, portraying a photo of a suicide bomber floating on a pool with blood-colored water, was offensive and distasteful, perhaps to the extent that the political provocation was inflating the artistic evaluation, rather than the other way around.
But the aesthetic evaluation, neither Mazel’s nor mine, is important, nor remembered. Mazel’s act is. The outraged ambassador vandalized the installation by tipping one of the lights into the water. The public echo was such that even after a few years, Swedes, who may know little on the current Israeli ambassador to their country, would vividly recall Mazel’s act.
With Mazel, as with Prosor, we may overlook a personal outburst and poor self-restrain. But Mazel represented Israel neither as a curator nor as an art critique. He should have known - and complied with the rules that dictate role and responsibility. Consider what Mazel told the Swedish news agency TT: “As ambassador to Israel I could not remain indifferent to such an obscene misrepresentation of reality."
If you ever watched Mission Impossible, you would recognize at once the repeated instruction that if something goes wrong, the government stays clean. But Mazel takes the opposite view by attributing a violation of the local law to the nation that dispatched him. With diplomatic hutzpa he maintains that he violated the Swedish law as an ambassador. If you will, Mazel rendered his personal audacity national.
Turning back to Prosor, if disregard of the protocol is so Israeli, I don’t know how to judge whether he is the right person for the job in New York.
And the Israeli diplomatic scene in New York is aching for a leader. The ambassador to the UN may need to navigate delicate challenges from Iran to a Palestinian declaration of independence. Moreover, the ambassador will be the highest ranking Israeli representative in New York, since the office of the Israeli Consul is not yet officially filled (Aharoni is still an acting consul). Both New York and the UN could benefit from a brilliant spokesperson who understands the audience as well as the rules. No person knows that better than Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who made a name to himself and to his state, serving in that key position.
The Master of Human Rights Ueber Alles might be a fairly seasoned diplomat, after all. I was so disturbed by his statement in London, that I asked around how faithfully he executed his office. I found out people generally approved his performance, particularly, in comparison with his two immediate predecessors in London. Prosor seemed to be engaged, well-informed, well-spoken, and cared to maintain a profile in the local media.
So perhaps Prosor’s recorded gaffe will end up making him a better Israeli official, one who learns from his mistakes. With his record of distasteful abuse of Holocaust-era symbols, Prosor will focus on diplomatic actions against Iran’s nuclear program, rather than engage in a public-relations battle on rating their rant; he will answer inflammatory rhetoric with the clarity of intentions and arguments; and rather than commending haughty words about Israel advocacy to Jewish American enthusiasts, he will spend his days advocating masterly for his state, according to the protocol.
Prosor will be the highest ranking representative of my country at my home at present. I will take pride in him when as an Israeli ambassador instead of being distracted by unhelpful comments, he will act in earnest, by the diplomatic maxim: Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.