Interview: Tendency towards multilateralism greater than ever

Dan Gillerman waxes diplomatic on the 'glass building' where he spent the last six years.

gillerman 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
gillerman 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
'I wear two hats here: one is representing Israel at the UN - which is difficult enough; the other, which is even tougher, is representing the UN in Israel," says Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman. He is sitting in his office a few hundred meters from what he often refers to as the "glass building" - the UN headquarters in New York City. It is an office he will be vacating at the end of the month, to make way for law professor Gabriela Shalev, Israel's first female envoy to the UN. Gillerman's nearly six-year tenure saw the Hamas takeover in Gaza, the Second Lebanon War and ongoing threats from Iran to wipe Israel off the map. "If I had to judge by winds and feelings that accompanied me, the UN was a place where I would be abused, attacked and criticized, and the feeling was that there wasn't much to be done about it," says Gillerman. "The only option was to lie back and take it. But I didn't come here to lie back and take it. I came here to make a difference." Making a difference included forging relationships with representatives from Arab countries that have no diplomatic ties to Israel. Indeed, a farewell event held last week at Gillerman's residence was attended by ambassadors from dozens of countries, including a large number of Arab envoys. Present were the ambassadors of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar and Oman - and even Palestinian Observer Riyad Mansour, who regularly butted heads with Gillerman at Security Council meetings. Among Gillerman's other accomplishments: a stint as vice president of the General Assembly (the first Israeli to be elected to this post in 55 years); the passage of a Holocaust remembrance resolution; and an agricultural technology resolution, the first resolution to be initiated and put forth by Israel. Though this hasn't made Israelis "fall in love" with the UN, Gillerman hopes the advances he has made have managed to alter Israel's perception of the international body. "One thing people have to understand is that when you talk about the UN being anti-Israel, basically you have to understand that the UN is only a building on First Avenue," says Gillerman. "It's as good as its member states, and its member states are only as good as the world we live in. And in the world we live in today there still is an automatic, immoral majority against Israel, so you are fighting an uphill battle. It's a slow, very difficult, sometimes sisyphian battle, but if you persist, you can achieve things that seem unachievable." It is this attitude that perhaps explains Gillerman's sheepish acknowledgement that he has enjoyed "every minute" of his service at the UN, despite its being widely considered the most difficult diplomatic post. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post mere days before leaving this post, Gillerman quips: "When you work for the government, you are not supposed to enjoy yourself. Had I said that before, I probably would have been recalled long ago." Has there really been any change at the UN with regard to Israel during your tenure as ambassador? The most interesting part of my job was the relationships I forged with Arab and Muslim ambassadors, some of whom still remain nameless, because my relationship with them is discreet, and some of whom are public knowledge, like the Pakistani ambassador. My relationship with him started in clandestine bars and dark hotel lobbies, and evolved into an open relationship. We managed to bring dividends to both countries, which far outweigh the significance of the number of hands raised at any vote at the UN. I also forged relationships with the Omani, Qatari and Moroccan ambassadors. These relationships were not reflected in votes, but I don't think votes are the most important thing. You can bring dividends to your country in many areas not reflected in votes. We [the Israeli mission] decided to stop being a one-issue mission. For too long, Israel has been accused of being concerned only with the conflict. We wanted to bring to the awareness of our colleagues and the world what a beautiful country of excellence and innovation and creativity Israel is, and to get into areas where Israel is contributing to the world and could contribute to the UN. We also decided to reach out to as many countries as we could - not solely to rely on the US mission for information, but eventually to be in a position where we could provide the US with information, and we did do that. The UN has long been perceived as ineffective. What is your view? There was a time when the UN was perceived as irrelevant, unimportant and ineffective. And in many ways, in different places, it still is very ineffective. The inability of the UN to act and have a serious presence in Darfur, for example, is shameful, horrendous and scandalous. On the other hand, the UN passed Resolution 1559, which put an end to the Syrian presence in Lebanon, and Resolution 1701 brought an end to the Second Lebanon War. And the UN adopted three different resolutions on Iran, some quite tough. In addition, the UN is marking the Holocaust for the first time in history in a very moving, significant and important way. One of the paradoxes today is that though we live in a one-superpower world, the tendency towards multilateralism is greater than ever before. Even the US is seeking consensus - is seeking this multilateral umbrella - maybe because of the Iraq experience. Even the Bush administration, which sometimes did not have the highest regard for the UN, is seeking this legitimacy of multilateral consensus on Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran more than ever before. In this respect, if anything, the UN has become more central and more relevant. I just wish it were also more effective. You refer to UN resolutions relating to Iran and Lebanon. But have they really been effective? Resolution 1701 was perceived as a major diplomatic achievement for Israel, because in previous wars, while we did have resounding and outright victories on the ground, they were never followed by political or diplomatic achievements. Here, while we may not have had a resounding victory on the ground, we did have a very significant diplomatic achievement, which not only put an end to the war, but also had elements of dramatically changing the situation on the ground... Until July 12, 2006, southern Lebanon was a Hizbullah land - a state within a state. Hizbullah could do whatever it wanted out in the open, and no Lebanese soldier would dare venture. Suddenly, there were 30,000 soldiers there. But Hizbullah has rearmed in the meantime, hasn't it? Resolution 1701 was supposed to limit the actions of Hizbullah and prevent it from rearming. It did not achieve that. Hizbullah today has rearmed to the point that it is possibly even better equipped than it was before the war. The resolution also imposed an embargo on arms shipments to militias in Lebanon - namely Hizbullah - which was a huge achievement, but that wasn't implemented either. 1701 also demanded the immediate release of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser who, tragically, were returned two years later in coffins. So the implementation of 1701 is far from satisfactory. In fact, it's very disappointing. But the elements were there, and still are. One of the things I keep telling the Secretary General Ban ki-Moon and others is that it is up to them to implement it. It is the Security Council who passed it, and the Security Council cannot afford for it to be just another piece of paper, because in the end, when there is another flare-up in Lebanon, and there very well may be, the UN will be to blame... What should the Security Council be doing? They should be much more proactive - more aggressive in going after Hizbullah in detecting and identifying arms depots. They should be going in there, not just relying on Lebanese armed forces to do so, who often work in collusion with Hizbullah. The UNIFIL soldiers were not sent there to give out chocolates to children or write traffic tickets. They were sent there to carry out a mandate which was very clearly defined... What about Iran? There is no doubt that Iran is the greatest threat to world peace and security and the survival of civilization as we know it. It is very important to stress that Iran is not just an Israeli matter. In fact, if you ask the Saudis or some of the Gulf countries, they are probably more worried about Iran than we are. There is a huge difference between North Korea and Iran, because while North Korea attained nuclear weapons out of desperation, Iran is seeking them out of aspiration. They want to realize their 2500-year-old dream of a Persian Empire, taking over the Arab and Muslim countries, exporting Shia extremism. The UN passed three resolutions with quite tough sanctions. I believe the Iranians are rattled by those resolutions, not indifferent to them. I think they are mainly rattled by the unanimity of the stand of the international community. I don't think Iran wants to be a pariah state, isolated and boycotted. Still, this has not stopped them from enriching uranium and from seeking nuclear weapons. Therefore, the international community should be much tougher. Frankly, I don't know whether we have time for diplomacy to make Iran stop. I hope very much that we do. I still believe in diplomacy; that's why I am here. But if diplomacy fails, Iran must understand that the world, not just Israel, will not stand for a nuclear Iran, and that all options are on the table. What do you make of recent claims that Israel is planning an attack? We are sitting a few hundred yards from the Security Council, and I am still very much engaged in a diplomatic effort. I also believe Israel should not be perceived as being at the forefront of this conflict with Iran. There is nothing the Iranians would like better than to turn this into an Iranian-Israeli conflict, or even an Islamic-Jewish one. This is so far a conflict between Iran and the rest of the world. We should make sure it stays that way. How is it that, despite having a Holocaust resolution, the UN continues to host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly denied the Holocaust and calls for Israel's destruction? I must say I was very disappointed when he came here the first time. I was more disappointed when he came a second time. And I am shocked that, after everything he is saying, he is allowed to come here again. I know that the UN has to allow everybody in, and that they have allowed butchers and killers and assassins in before, but I think that in the case of a person who publicly vows to wipe another member state off the map, and who denies the Holocaust while preparing the next one, the UN should not allow him in. On a different topic, why does UNRWA persist in perpetuating, rather than solving, the refugee problem? The refugee problem is a horrible one, and the fact that the Arab countries and the Palestinian leadership have kept these refugees as hostages for so many years, some of them wearing the keys of their homes they will never return to on their necks, made to believe that one day they may return - which is a total impossibility - and the very dire conditions in which they live, is a horrible testament to the cynicism and brutality of the Arab world which not only doesn't care about the refugees, but uses them. That's why we have third- and fourth-generation refugees living in such squalid conditions. I don't think there is any other people in the world who have remained refugees for so many years. Take Israel, which started with 600,000 people and today numbers over 7 million Jews. It absorbed refugees from all over the world, including from Arab countries. Even the Arab Israelis live in far better conditions and have many more rights and better education than any of their brethren in the Arab countries. But I think we should ask ourselves what would happen if there were no UNRWA. At the moment, the only organization that takes care of the refugees' basic health, food and education needs is UNRWA. So, though we may not like some of UNRWA's statements and activities, it is carrying out a very important duty that nobody else is doing. Is there no room for a change in its mandate? When people talk about a two-state solution, they mean that Israel is the solution for the Jewish refugees, and Palestine is the solution for the Palestinian refugees. The international community could easily solve the refugee problem, and I don't think it would take very much money or resources to do so. The real question is, where are the Arab countries? Some of the Arab and Muslim countries are the richest countries in the world. Some of the world's economies are undergoing very difficult times, while these countries are getting richer by the minute. They have unlimited resources. They spend billions of dollars on real estate and financial institutions all over the world, including in the US. If they care so much about those poor refugees, why don't they do something about the problem? The reason is because they don't really care, and because it suits them to hold this open wound as an alibi for their anti-Israelism. The same goes for the peace process. I believe we are at a point in time where we do have a chance to finally settle the Palestinian-IsraeIi conflict. Never before have so many different parties converged with this common interest. When I returned from the Annapolis summit, I was cautiously optimistic, because, to me, the most important thing that emerged there was the fact that so many Arab and Muslim countries seemed to form a coalition of moderates against Iran, and indicated support for the process. This was very encouraging, because for a very long time the most frightening thing to me was the eerie silence of the Arab world. What we are witnessing today is no longer what Samuel Huntington called a "clash of civilizations." What we are witnessing today is a clash of "civilization" in the singular, because when you look at world we live in, most of the bloodshed and violence occurs within Islam. Not only are most terrorists Muslims, but the vast majority of their victims are Muslims, as well. The frightening thing is that you don't see a single Muslim leader - secular, political, religious, academic - get up and say, "Enough is enough. What are we doing killing each other?" It's almost as though when Jews kill Muslims it's a massacre; when Christians kill Muslims it's a crusade; and when Muslims kill Muslims it's the weather channel - nobody cares. In Annapolis, I thought they finally started caring, not because they fell in love with Israel. They came out of fear - fear of Iran, of Shia extremism - and out of the realization that they had a chance, maybe for the first time, to be much more pragmatic and realistic about settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so that they could align against the real danger, Iran. Do you speak about this in your private conversations with other ambassadors? It comes up all the time, but there is this perpetration of the ritual of victimhood, which somehow they don't want to give away. I even told this to my Palestinian colleague, Riyad Mansour, with whom I have a very good relationship. We can go at each other's throats in the Security Council, but after that, we can also talk to each other as two human beings, which I think is one of the luxuries of the UN. Could the UN have done anything differently regarding Regev and Goldwasser? Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has a lot of sympathy and admiration for Israel and the Jewish people, and has done as much as he could. He had his own negotiator working on the case, together with the Germans. He has briefed the families many times, spoken to the prime minister and foreign minister several times, and was very deeply involved and committed. He had a picture of the soldiers on his table to remind him, and showed a lot of compassion for them. During one meeting, he had tears in his eyes when Karnit [Goldwasser] spoke. Is he more sympathetic to Israel than his predecessor? I had a lot of respect for Kofi Annan. He was a very able diplomat, and a very charismatic secretary general. Some Israelis had their misgivings about him. He made some mistakes and some unfortunate statements, but at times he was very helpful - and always very gracious and helpful to me. He was very instrumental in bringing about the Holocaust remembrance resolution, and on the whole I think he was very decent and fair. I think Ban ki-Moon has greater compassion and friendship for Israel, even from the days when he was the Korean foreign minister. There seems to be a lot of concern about your successor. Does it make a difference that she is a woman? I very much respect Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's choice, and have a lot of confidence in her judgment. I also respect her desire for the post to be filled by a woman. This may send out a different message, maybe even soften Israel's image a bit. I assure you Gaby Shalev will be a very successful ambassador, regardless of her gender. She is a person of extremely high intellect, very capable, very highly regarded within the legal community, and aside from all that, she is also very nice. She is of such high caliber and intelligence that she would never undertake this if she didn't think she could succeed. I believe she can do it, though she may do it differently. I will be happy to help her in any way I can, and am in close contact with her. What are the main challenges she faces? She is entering the post during a very difficult and interesting period. But then, for Israel, it's always difficult and interesting. She is coming when Iran is still very much on the agenda; when there is a change of administrations in Washington; when there are indirect peace talks with Syria; when threats and dangers of Hizbullah in the North and Hamas in the South are very real and sometimes existential - when the world is probably at its most dangerous since the Cold War or even World War II.