Can Meron Reuben make the UN stop bashing Israel?

Interim envoy talks exclusively with the 'Post.'

meron reuben 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
meron reuben 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Nobody was more surprised to hear that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman intended to appoint 22-year Foreign Ministry veteran Meron Reuben as ambassador to the UN, albeit as a temporary one, than Reuben himself.
“Luckily I was seated at the time,” Reuben, 49, told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday, in his first interview since formally being appointed last week, relating how Lieberman broke the news to him. And it was a good thing he was seated, Reuben admits, because “I was pleasantly surprised, very pleasantly surprised.”
Reuben, a name familiar to only a few people outside of his immediate circle, the Foreign Ministry or diplomatic circles in South America where he has served for more than a decade, was thrust into the headlines this week when it was announced that Lieberman, in a tense political stand-off with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over a number of different issues, had decided to temporarily appoint him to the important and prestigious diplomatic post. Why Reuben? Because after months of speculation and discussion about the matter, there was no agreed upon candidate and the critical position was on the verge of becoming vacant on September 1, when current ambassador Gabriela Shalev’s term was set to expire.
The appointment was surprising on two different levels. First, because Reuben’s was not among the high-profile names – Alon Pinkas, Dore Gold, Ron Prosor, Yossi Gal, Zalman Shoval – which had been bandied around for months in what could be called the UN ambassador sweepstakes.
Second, because Netanyahu and Lieberman could not agree on a candidate to represent the country on the universe’s biggest diplomatic stage at such a critical juncture.
With Israel isolated in the world to a degree it has not been for years, with Iran lurking in the shadows, with both men constantly talking about the dangers of delegitimization and the need to combat it, one would have thought that a relatively anonymous diplomat would not have been pulled out of the hat, Band-Aid like, to serve as a stopgap measure. But, in the current political atmosphere, and following Netanyahu’s recent use of Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to run an “end around” past Lieberman to the Turks, one would have been mistaken.
All of which, by the way, is not Reuben’s fault. The personable, likable Reuben, currently ambassador to Colombia – an important ally in an increasingly hostile South America – is, as his colleagues attest, a very able diplomat. South African born, he speaks graceful, flawless English as his mother tongue, and having served in South America for 10 years, and with a Chilean-born wife, also speaks fluent Spanish, not a bad skill to have at the UN where some 21 countries speak that language.
In addition to Colombia, Reuben has served as ambassador to Paraguay and, after that embassy was closed in 2002 for budgetary reasons, to Bolivia, before that embassy, too, was closed because of a lack of finances. In addition he served as number two diplomat for four years in Chile and another two in Mexico.
In between, Reuben worked inside the ministry, and gained experience, on the Diaspora affairs desk, in the Center for International Cooperation (Mashav) and – as one of many “peace processors” between 1998-2000 – on the Palestinian autonomy desk (now also defunct.).
Maybe, one jokes, his being sent to the UN is a sign that it will also soon go out of business. “A lot of people would be happy with that,” he laughs.
REUBEN, OBVIOUSLY aware of the unusual circumstances of his appointment – as of Wednesday he had not yet spoken to Netanyahu – aptly deflects a question about whether he feels like a pawn in a Netanyahu-Lieberman power play, saying “I am not a politician.”
“Granted,” he says. “I played student politics in my youth, but I left it. I am a civil servant. My foreign minister has asked me to take on a very important post, the most important post in my 22-year career, and I will do it to the best of my ability.”
There is no doubt that Lieberman, who met Reuben on a South American trip last July that included two days in Colombia, was impressed by him, and the fact that he plucked him – Cinderella like – out of Bogotá and placed him at the UN shows that Reuben definitely has his minister’s confidence. But how about Netanyahu’s? By appointing Reuben on an interim basis, Lieberman did not need – or get – Netanyahu’s approval.
“I will have to build up that confidence, yes,” Reuben says. “But I have been temporarily nominated.
I underline the word temporary; it is for the moment a temporary position, and I see it as such, and I will do the best I can in that position. If that changes, it changes.”
An indication that the appointment is indeed temporary is the fact that Reuben will continue to hold the title of ambassador to Colombia, even though in his absence his duties there will be carried out by his deputy, and that he is not taking his family – his wife and two girls, 10 and 13 – to New York when he takes up his new post sometime in August.
Though he won’t say it, Reuben has to realize that there is often nothing more permanent than a temporary position. Indeed, a source close to Lieberman said this week that the expectation was that Reuben would prove himself in the coming months, and then be asked to stay on permanently.
YOHANAN BEIN was the last Foreign Ministry employee to serve as envoy to the UN. He served as deputy to Netanyahu, when he was the country’s UN ambassador, and took over on an interim basis in 1998 when Netanyahu left. Bein stayed at the post for some two years.
Bein was the only trained, Foreign Ministry diplomat to get this plum post since 1975, when Chaim Herzog was brought in from outside to serve at the UN.
While for the country’s first 28 years the position went to the upper echelons of the ministry – Abba Eban, Michael Comay, Gideon Rafael and Yosef Tekoah – since that time, with the brief exception of Bein, all the country’s UN envoys were political appointees from the outside: Yehuda Blum, Netanyahu, Yoram Aridor, Gad Yaacobi, Dore Gold, Yehuda Lancry, Dan Gillerman and Shalev.
This fact is not lost on Reuben.
“My success is the ministry’s success,” he says. “And that is very important to me. On my shoulders I will prove that workers in the ministry are up to it [this job] and are capable” That point is also not lost on the ministry employees, glad that this key position is finally staying inhouse.
But even there, some question why someone more senior – like Gal, the current director-general who has been appointed envoy to France, but made it clear that he would prefer the UN – was not selected.
As one ministry official says, it’s like taking the crime reporter of a newspaper and making him editor in chief. Or, as Haaretz editorialized, “It’s like posting untrained soldiers at the front because of quarrels between commanders.”
But to call Reuben untrained is, well, inaccurate. He has more diplomatic training and experience than any of his six immediate predecessors: Shalev, Gillerman, Lancry, Gold, Yaacobi and Aridor.
He has more experience dealing with the media, albeit the Spanishlanguage media – but still in front of the camera and under the hot lights – than most of those who immediately preceded him, and better English than all but Gold.
As to whether there are not better qualified candidates in the ministry, Reuben responds, “There are plenty of people capable of doing the job, and I think that I am one of those people who are capable of doing the job.” As to name recognition, that will come, he says. “I don’t think I really need to go into it,” he says of this particular criticism. “Name recognition comes to people. Sometime you put people in with name recognition, and it doesn’t always work.”
Reuben makes it clear he understands that the UN post is difficult and multifaceted. The envoy has to be able to deftly and articulately defend the country before hostile states and on the world’s largest media stage; maneuver through a cumbersome bureaucracy not favorably inclined to Israel; and – on top of everything else – adroitly deal with the Jewish organizations in New York.
It’s a lot to ask, with people expecting – based on previous performances – for the envoy to be able to deliver a speech like Eban and appear on television like Netanyahu.
“I will do my best and hope the abilities that I have developed over the last two decades have prepared me for what I will face,” he says. “I am not oblivious too the fact that what I am about to face is going to be difficult. That I understand.”
But, he stresses, he will not be there alone, and in a move that shows the diplomat is, indeed, diplomatic, he emphasizes a couple times during the 90-minute interview that this will be a “team effort,” and that he is a team player.
He praises Israel’s team at the UN as an “unbelievably good and young team of people who have focused in on the multilateral track, something that is very, very important, and something that most Israelis unfortunately don’t really understand.”
Reuben says that his more than two decades of diplomatic experience, especially his knowledge of and contacts in the Third World, as well as his knowledge of the First World by virtue of the fact that he was born in Cape Town, moved to London when he was 10, and then on to Israel when he was 13, gives him a good mix of qualities to bring to the world body. Reuben has a degree in international affairs from Hebrew University, was an air traffic controller in his army service – including being in the tower when IAF planes bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 – and joined the ministry through its cadets’ course in 1988.
Asked what he sees as the role of the UN ambassador, he replies simply, “It is to represent Israel’s polices. I don’t make Israel’s policies. I represent them; the politicians have to make them. I have been representing different governments for the last 22 years. I represented [Yitzhak] Shamir, [Yitzhak] Rabin, Netanyahu and [Ehud] Barak... they have different policies, and as a diplomat I have represented them.”
He has represented these polices around the world, he says, adding that “the majority of the world is not Western Europe or the US – the majority of the world is South America, Africa and Asia. I think I do understand how a lot of the Third World works and moves, and I think in that I have an advantage over people who don’t really [understand this], and have not lived in what we call, unfortunately, Third World countries.”
Reuben characterizes Israel’s position in the UN as a roller-coaster ride, with its ups and downs. While he agrees that Israel is currently on a deep down slope in that ride, it should not – he says – be exaggerated.
“I really do think our situation is difficult, but it is sometimes painted in colors that are not always true,” he says. “Yes, we are isolated, but people talk to us. We are not totally isolated.”
Part of the problem, Reuben says, is that other countries think they know what is better for Israel than Israelis. “Libya and Venezuela will not take the decisions about what our needs are. I think is very important to understand that every country has the right to make its own decisions” Quoting Golda Meir, Reuben says that Israel is the “canary in the mine of the world.” As such, he adds, “we have been correct along the way, and some time it has hurt us to be correct along the way.” He points to the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor as one glaring example.
Sometimes, Reuben says, “we have foresight that other countries don’t have because of where we live on this planet. I don’t want to go into clichés and say our neighborhood is not the easiest of neighborhoods. But we live on the front lines of the rewriting of history, and we have a different view of what goes on in the world.”
The world is changing significantly, Reuben explains; it is “no longer a bipolar world, it’s not a unipolar world, it’s a multipolar world. It is a world where Islam is taking on dominance it didn’t have in the past, and, yes, we are on that front line, we are in that front line.
Israel has a different vantage point than Luxembourg or Colombia.”
At the UN, for as long as Reuben’s new, self-defined “dream” job continues, he will be at the very tip of that front line, trying to explain this vantage point to the world, while at the same time determined to show everyone at home he deserves to be there and is very much up to the task.