Flying the flag high: An interview with former ambassador Ron Prosor

“A politican needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen.”

Ron Prosor, then Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to the media outside the Security Council chambers July 20, 2014 (photo credit: AFP / STAN HONDA)
Ron Prosor, then Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to the media outside the Security Council chambers July 20, 2014
(photo credit: AFP / STAN HONDA)
TWENTY YEARS ago, I asked a senior official at the Prime Minister’s Office (whose job it was to help put the Israeli case to the world) why he and his department weren’t doing more to redress the damage Palestinian misinformation and demonization do to Israel’s reputation and to challenge much of the media’s biased reporting on the issue. He haughtily informed me, “We don’t need to do that – because we’re right.”
I’ve never forgotten that stunningly arrogant statement. There are moments in life when you are simply left speechless, so it’s best not to say anything. Time has passed, and to a great extent, Israel’s PR has improved over the last 20 years – it’s had to, with the worrying resurgence of global antisemitism and the rise of the odious BDS campaign.
Arguably, one of Israel’s highest profile advocates has been former ambassador Ron Prosor, whose tenure both as ambassador to the United Kingdom (2007-2011) and as the permanent representative of Israel to the United Nations (2011-2015) was characterized not only by the robustness of his defense of the Jewish state, but also by an amenable personality that often provided entertaining and unexpected moments of levity even in the gravest of circumstances.
Prior to his role in London, Prosor also held high rank in the diplomatic service in Bonn, Germany, and was director-general of the Foreign Ministry during the hugely challenging and controversial withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
The 58-year-old grandfather greeted me warmly in the lobby of the famous King David Hotel in Jerusalem and invited me to join him for a cup of green tea in an adjacent dining area. This led to an earnest discussion about the merits of the various options of afternoon tea available in London, which he’d become particularly fond of during his time in the UK.
Mr. Ambassador certainly understood that you only have to start talking to a Brit about tea and cakes and you’re already halfway to a lasting friendship. On learning of my dim and distant career as a horse racing journalist and commentator, our conversation galloped on to the merits of racing at Royal Ascot and to Mrs. Prosor’s fondness for the many best-selling racing thrillers written by the late Dick Francis.
I mention this chitchat for a specific reason, because it reflects an ability on the part of my interviewee to put people immediately at ease and find common conversational ground. It’s a real talent. In fact, I’d suggest it’s more than that; it’s a gift – a gift that when employed at the highest level by an experienced diplomat in a potentially hostile environment could readily ease tensions and pave the way for persuasive dialogue.
With his full, graying beard and solid build, the Kfar Saba-born Prosor strikes a distinctive figure, but one rather less rotund than expected having seen so many of his appearances on television news and in debates at the UN. Maybe it’s the famous adage of the camera adding 10 pounds, combined with the obligatory, bulky formal suits worn in the corridors of power.
I began by asking what it was that had drawn Prosor to his current role as the Abba Eban chair in international diplomacy at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya.
“I aim to help students acquire expertise in foreign policy that will make Israel more of a part of the family of nations,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “There are no simple solutions; no quick fixes. We need to structure and make sure the foreign service is developed to make it more effective in ‘Project Israel.’ I am concerned that the foreign service is not represented strongly enough. It is a major player that needs appropriate resources... but it has become less relevant.”
He betrays no outward frustration, his deliberate, considered speech presented at little more than a whisper throughout our discussion as he avoided sullying himself in internal Israeli politics, or giving judgments on those in power. But it was clear that Prosor is concerned at the direction in which the Foreign Ministry is headed in recent times. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is nominally in charge as acting foreign minister, but is apprently rarely seen on the premises. Morale at the ministry is reportedly at an all-time low, as demonstrated by a series of pay disputes and strikes in Israel and at its embassies in recent years.
“They have people who are ‘jacks of all trades,’ and young people are moved from place to place. Today, in order to be relevant, you have to have specific expertise that allows you to promote Israel in that particular geographic area,” he insists.
Prosor wants to educate Israel’s next generation of diplomats to be comfortable interacting with all forms of media, be they on TV, or on the various social media of choice such as Facebook or Twitter, etc. He is passionate about getting Israel’s message across, an attitude a world away from the indolent message presented to me two decades ago.
I suggested that the immediacy of reaching a vast audience via social media can be a double-edged sword, especially if the content of such short, powerful messages isn’t fully thought through before the “send” button is pressed. A certain US president springs readily to mind on that score.
“The bottom line is: ‘What is effective?’” argues Prosor. “If the messages are effective, you have to find ways to manage the risk. You have to adapt like an organism to the changing environment in order to survive.”
THERE ARE a number of high-profile, challenging diplomatic roles in the world, but it’s hard to think of one more challenging than representing and defending Israel at the UN.
The thought of walking into an institution where so many people have racist views against both your country and its religion, question the right of your people to have a state of their own, and brazenly support those who wish to wipe you off the face of the map, makes this a job most would surely shudder to even contemplate.
Prosor is certain there are many members of the UN whose sole goal with regard to Israel is “to demonize and delegitimize us.” However, he sincerely believes that engagement with the member states of the UN is essential.
“We must show them the remarkable talent Israel has and its solutions for people around the world in the fields of science, agriculture, medicine, technology, etc.,” he reasons, believing this has helped make a genuine dent in the seemingly never-ending tsunami of anti-Israel rhetoric heard from the floor of the General Assembly, and on the many committees that populate its corridors.
During his time in New York, he made arguably a more positive impact against all the odds than most that preceded him.
“Israel has only ever had four resolutions ratified at the UN General Assembly in its history, and three of those were during my time there, including resolutions on agricultural technology and entrepreneurial development,” he says, explaining how Israel has reached a place where, even if its position is often criticized, it is heard more at the UN than ever before.
He argues that you have to get onto the various committees to exert influence, and rather than snubbing those who target Israel at the committees, Prosor feels you have to play the game and get involved wherever possible.
“Until 2000, Israel was not part of a regional group, so it was not possible to get voted onto any committee,” he says. “Richard Holbrooke [US ambassador to the UN from 1999-2001] suggested we join the ‘Western European and Others group,’ which includes the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and now Israel, which finally happened in 2003/2004 [when Israel obtained a permanent renewal to its membership in the group]. My view when I was ambassador was that whatever position is open, we should run for it – so we did just that.”
And it was on that basis that on June 8, 2012, against all the odds and the predictions of those who cautioned it might prove embarrassing when he failed, Prosor was elected, unopposed, to be the first ever Israeli to serve as vice president of the UN General Assembly. He was in the chair when Netanyahu gave his infamous “cartoon bomb speech,” warning of Iranian nuclear expansion, back in 2012.
“Having an Israeli in the chair at the UN when an Israeli prime minister gave such a keynote address was a special moment for me – and for Israel,” Prosor recalls.
IN THE gravest of times, such as the 2012 and 2014 conflicts between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Prosor managed to display a deft touch in his speeches, balancing stern criticism of those seeking to undermine Israel’s right to defend itself against attack from a terrorist organization, with elements of irony, sarcasm and genuine humor. I asked if he agreed with me that in both politics and diplomacy, humor can often be the most disarming and powerful weapon of all.
“Yes it is,” he smiled. “I use sarcasm and a lot of humor. In everything I do, humor plays a huge role.”
Given the bias and racism aimed at Israel in the UN though, there must have been times when he lost his cool, felt obliged to raise his voice, slam his fist on the table, or walk out of a meeting.
“No,” he says, quite definitely. “The moment you raise your voice, you’ve lost.”
Prosor believes in making an impression, especially in a place where there are so many bland speeches and hours of tedium. Singing the words of John Lennon’s “Imagine” at the end of a May 2015 speech on human rights, he drew generous applause from the floor – even though any notions of a career as a pop star were soon dashed by his faltering tenor voice.
“During Protective Edge [the 2014 Israel- Gaza conflict], shortly before making my speech in the General Assembly, I came up with the idea to play the Red Alert siren app I had on my mobile phone to the gathered members, to give them a sense of how Israelis felt when they had only 15 seconds to run for cover and find shelter from incoming missiles. After that, many ambassadors asked to download the app themselves as it had made a real impression on them. I believe the stunt had a genuine effect on people.”
And at the time of the 2015 Oscars, Prosor came up with the idea of awarding his own Oscar-style gongs to UN members. Among the winners he announced were: “For Best Actor, acting like a peace-loving country while developing nuclear capabilities, denying the Holocaust and threatening the destruction of another member state, the Oscar goes to... Iran.
“And finally, for rewriting history, the Oscar for Best Editing goes to the Palestinian Authority... but the truth is, the Palestinian Authority has already received enough prizes from this institution.”
He concluded, “Oscars aside, if we want to pursue peace and security in the real world, it’s time to bring down the curtain on this ‘theater of the absurd’ and return the original values of the UN charter back to center stage.”
IN 2013, he invited Israeli pop star Rita – who was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel at the age of eight – to sing both in Hebrew and Farsi at the General Assembly Hall of the UN in New York.
“One hundred and twenty-one countries were there in attendance. I suspect that while the Iranians were not actually in the hall, they may have been peering through a curtain somewhere to see Rita singing in Farsi. You have to think out of the box, but it wasn’t just me, it was my whole team as well.”
On the silence and lack of support for Israel from countries themselves facing Islamic terrorism, Prosor asked why “the only ones to raise their hand in support of us were the US, Canada, Israel and Palau. Why do Britain and Europe not vote for us?”
I suggested that maybe the Europeans fear a backlash on their own soil from their growing Muslim minorities, among whom a certain number have radical Islamic beliefs.
Aren’t they mistakenly trying to appease those that could turn on them, but in fact are only kicking the can down the road instead of facing the problem head on? Prosor said he didn’t think that was the reason, but didn’t share an alternative theory on the subject.
I’ve always been intrigued as to how diplomats can honestly represent the view of their government when such a stance might clash with their own personal opinion. Had he found himself in this dilemma at any point?
“Well, there was such an issue, when it was announced that after a terror act we would build between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem. I thought that wasn’t good because the world was with us after the terror acts carried out against us. However, I defended this publicly. But at a meeting of ambassadors, behind closed doors, I expressed my own personal opinion, only to find [it had subsequently been leaked to the media].”
He suggested that on other occasions when certain issues have been sent to him to raise at the UN or in London, he, like other ambassadors, might suggest alternative wording or a slightly different approach, and lobby to have alterations made before delivering the speech or policy announcement in the public domain.
A couple of days before our meeting, an extensive poll of British Jews had suggested that as many as 37 percent are now sufficiently concerned about their future to be considering leaving Britain. Given Prosor’s intimate understanding of the situation on the ground and the privileged security information that doubtless crossed his desk, does the ambassador feel the poll exaggerates the current situation?
“I think the poll represents a real feeling within the community,” he warns. “There are some who feel that being Jewish is something you have to hide. I don’t see protection being needed in Britain for mosques. These worrying trends have been articulated by the likes of [former Bradford West MP] George Galloway and [former London mayor] Ken Livingstone, and to some extent, by [Labour Party leader] Jeremy Corbyn. Their statements give reason for the community to fear.
“I would actually suggest that the figures in the poll may have underestimated the level of concern felt by many in the British Jewish community. The Labour side has been vocal [against Israel], but on the Conservative side, more also has to be done.”
And one final question – as my time had run out (along with the green tea) – that of the rumors suggesting Prosor is seriously considering a career in Israeli politics. Is this going to happen?
“At this stage, I’m in the academy, and it gives me time to think. For 30 years I’ve been passionate about defending Israel in the public domain.”
I note that he appears to be indicating that a political career is likely, and if it is, where exactly on the fragmented Israeli political spectrum does he sit?
“I think it is important not to show your political colors,” he says, declining to give anything away. “Every day when I entered the UN building and saw the 193 flags, 15 with a crescent, 28 with a cross, and just one with a Magen David [Star of David], I felt proud to be representing my country. We have to fly our flag high.”
If he does enter the mire of domestic politics (as I believe he will), his participation will certainly bring a new dimension to the scene – although politics and diplomacy are very different beasts.
Winston Churchill, of whose wit and wisdom Prosor admits to being a great fan, once said, “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”
Ron Prosor excelled in that particular art, but does he have what it takes to succeed to the same degree in the arguably more cutthroat world of politics? A final word of advice from Churchill on that subject: “A politician needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist.
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