My Life at the U.N. (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A fly-on-the wall view of Israeli diplomacy in action reveals the farcical and unfunny sides of life by the East River Gregory Levey has written an informative, entertaining and even important account of his experiences working for the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, and later as a speechwriter in Jerusalem for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His memoir is like a light soufflé: though essentially superficial, it is sweet to the taste, unpretentious and fun to read. Levey was an ambitious, opinionated, upwardly mobile 25-year-old, who achieved his eminence by sheer chance. He originally applied for an internship at the Israeli Consulate in New York, but thanks to an unexpected vacancy at Israel's U.N. mission found himself drafted as its chief speechwriter. The inspiration and model for the book appears to be Ze'ev Chafetz's classic memoir of his life and times as chief spokesman for prime minister Menahem Begin after the Likud's surprise general election victory in 1977. But Levey's work is not remotely in that class. Even when he later moved to Jerusalem, he had almost no direct access to Sharon and his successor, Ehud Olmert. Levey acknowledges that Sharon "didn't actually know who I was" and admits "I didn't get much time with him." His observations on Sharon and Olmert never rise above the obvious. Sharon, he writes, "seemed like an invincible force of nature," while Olmert liked "fancy cigars and suits." No surprises there. Nor should it surprise anyone that Levey has so little face time with them. The popular impression of a speechwriter, insofar as anyone bothers to have one at all, is usually that of a brilliant and often (though not always) dignified amanuensis who is the right-hand man (or woman) and trusted alter-ego of the great statesperson he or she is serving. Theodore Sorensen lastingly imprinted this image upon the general public in his account of his years at the side of John F. Kennedy. In recent years it got a new lease of popular life, thanks to that exceptionally revealing television soap opera exercise in liberal pretension and wishful thinking, "The West Wing." Levey soon learns that the reality is very different. He is given assignments at the last minute, shunted around hotels, yelled at and ignored. He owes his proximity to the powerful and his most revealing insights to the simple fact that the speechwriter is so unimportant and taken for granted that no-one knows, or cares, that he is there. The book is not without flaws. There is a sense that a little is being stretched a long way to fill the author's allotted quota. The idea that braving anti-Israeli demonstrators kept at football-field length by the New York Police Department constitutes real pressure or adventure, as Levey seems to think, is dubious in the extreme. One tires soon of the ingénue style of being the Innocent Abroad that Levey affects. Further, there are far too many suspiciously well-remembered word-for-word dialogues. For all that, Levey does succeed in capturing the atmosphere of what life is like in Israel's U.N. Mission. It is frantic, disorganized, exceptionally neurotic, but somehow, the necessary things get done - a metaphor for all Israeli life in fact. Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.