'Thank God we don't need to be recognized again'

Outgoing UN Ambassador Gabriella Shalev laments anti-Israel bloc at General Assembly, but speaks of a growing kinship even with countries that have no diplomatic relations with Jewish state.

311_Gabriela shalev in chair (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Gabriela shalev in chair
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – When I talk to outgoing Ambassador to the UN Gabriella Shalev, it’s a bright August morning. She admits that she’s utterly exhausted, almost to the point of collapse. It’s the end of her tenure, one day before she’s scheduled to return to Israel, and she’s sick for the first time in her two years here. Maybe, she conjectures, she got sick on her recent flight to Memphis, Tennessee, while traveling for AIPAC.
“Being a frequent traveler is always very dangerous,” Shalev notes, referencing the modern traveler’s twin perils of airborne germs and fatigue.
Arguably, however, she has spent the last two years in a much more dangerous place for an Israeli: the halls of the UN.
Shalev was nominated for her position in 2008. It was a short time ago chronologically, but a political era away from the current state of the world’s affairs. Shalev was appointed by Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, the Kadima government, and George W. Bush was still president.
“Right after I entered my challenging position, the government and administrations completely changed, both in Israel and the United States,” Shalev recalls. “Here in the United States, there was a completely different administration – young, hopeful and Democratic, with a different attitude toward the United Nations and the world in general, which was very different from what I had expected in the beginning.
“Put on top of that Cast Lead, the Goldstone Report and the aftermath, the Gaza situation, this all made my position and my mission here much more – how shall I say it? – complicated.”
Ever the diplomat, however, she won’t comment on Israeli politics or the switch in the Israeli government during her tenure.
“I never felt any problem with representing my country and the government,” Shalev says. “It was a government elected by democratic process in Israel. I never perceived myself as representing Olmert, or Kadima, or Livni, or [Binyamin] Netanyahu, or [Avigdor] Lieberman. I represent my country, and I got all the support and all the help that I needed from the Foreign Ministry and the government. I always was aware of the government’s position and got all the information I needed.”
Has it been a lonely job for you, I ask her?
“Yes, very much so,” Shalev admits. “It’s lonely at the United Nations, but mainly at the General Assembly.” She cites the “automatic bloc” composed of Arab and “so-called nonaligned members” who are vociferously anti-Israel. “We can never, never win there.”
Again, the diplomat emerges, as she quickly qualifies her self-professed loneliness. She cites the “wonderful ally” of the US, as well as her personal friendship with US Ambassador Susan Rice. And she notes that things weren’t always as unpleasant as they might seem at first blush.
“In the corridors and the receptions, the meetings with diplomats, I never felt lonely,” she says, contradicting her earlier statement. “I felt a lot of kinship with other countries – not even only those that have diplomatic relations with Israel. People were supportive and very respectful.”
THE UN, Shalev says, is anything but a homogeneous place. This is a fairly obvious statement, but it quickly becomes evident that she’s talking about the fact that it’s not all anti-Israel all the time. Shalev speaks highly, for example, of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, with whom she was about to have a farewell luncheon.
“During my two years, we’ve had a very good, friendly and cordial relationship with the secretary-general,” Shalev says. “He managed to be fair and even-handed – and I must say, that’s not an easy job.”
After the May 31 Gaza flotilla incident, she says, Ban invited her to his office.
“When I left his office, there were 15 delegates from Arab countries waiting to be received by him about the same incident. He’d started with the Turkish ambassador, then me, then the Arab delegates. It was so tough for him to try to be even-handed, and I do think we were treated very fairly by him.”
In the secretary-general, Shalev says, “We felt that we have an open ear and a good friend of Israel. Personally and professionally, he was always telling me that he knows what Israel means – being a Korean, he knows the significance of being from a country that is threatened by a neighbor.
“The Koreans are the Jewish people of Asia. Their mothers push the kids to study math and music. That’s how we wanted to be and were 50 years ago, when Jewish mothers were so concerned with their kids’ education. [Ban] knows our ethos, and he knows our dangers.”
From talking to Shalev, one gets the sense that she enjoyed the unexpected moments of humanity that came away from the podium, in dealing with people face-to-face. In fact, she says, during her tenure, she enjoyed good relations with representatives of almost all the countries, not only those with whom Israel has diplomatic ties.
“I met most of the ambassadors and had very good, informal discussions – especially with the Arabs,” she says. “There were only two or three ambassadors with whom I did not speak: the Iranians, who were sitting very close to us because it was according to alphabetical order, Syria, unfortunately, and Lebanon, which I’m very sorry about because since I was a child, I’d thought Lebanon would be the second country to have peace with us.
“I had a more than good relationship with many Arab ambassadors,” she says, but adds that she won’t mention with whom because she is “not sure it would be helpful.”
In particular, Shalev says, she enjoyed a good relationship with the other women ambassadors.
Female representatives at the UN are an elite group – when Shalev served, only 25 out of 192 ambassadors were women. She said that the women had a “special kinship” and formed a caucus.
At a farewell party thrown for her by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Shalev recalls, Rice spoke, but not many other UN ambassadors came.
“There were a few ambassadors from important countries – France, Germany – but then there were two women ambassadors, from Kazakhstan and Romania, who came because they wanted to bid farewell to me personally.
This was a good relationship, and a good way to create bridges to countries with whom we may not have diplomatic relationships. This is what the UN should be about, in part – the kind of diplomacy that takes place behind the scenes.”
Over the course of her tenure, Shalev says, she has developed definitive ideas on how to combat a seemingly intransigent anti-Israel bias.
“If you are safe, secure and proud of your values and ideals, and you know that your country has the right to live in peace and security – though we’ve never had that peace and security – we know what Israel means to the Jewish people all over the world and to Israelis. Our judicial system is one of the best in the whole world. Our democracy is the only one in the Middle East. And if you know that, you can walk into these alienating, hostile forums with pride, knowing you represent the right values.
“We’re the only country in the world that is threatened from the podium of the UN – [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad threatens to wipe us off the map. On the one hand, how can the world take it? On the other hand, it gave me strength in the knowledge that Israel should be – must be – represented forcefully in this hostile environment.”
She’s unsure as to whether the UN would authorize force against Iran, “but for the first time, under the leadership of Ambassador Rice, the most powerful sanctions ever were established at the UN.
‘I think the UN showed for the first time that the Security Council, under the leadership of the US, can put very painful sanctions on Iran, showing that Iran is not only a threat to Israel, not only a threat to the Middle East, but it’s a threat to the entire world. I’m not sure that the sanctions will prevent the race of Iran into nuclear capability, but I am sure that they will delay, and hopefully prevent, it from reaching this terrible possibility, that the most dangerous weapon in the world will fall into the hands of this dangerous and terrible regime.”
WITHOUT QUESTION, money is also influential in the UN dynamic, Shalev says. “The Arabs, and the Iranians, and some South American countries are putting a lot of not only pressure, but money into grants flowing into African and small Pacific countries, because they realize their votes at the United Nations at the General Assembly are powerful, especially morally and in terms of the public media.”
What, then, did Shalev do about it? “We are trying to gain friends. I’m not ever going to make fun of Micronesia, or the small Pacific countries which are our friends. We put a lot of effort into this, such as working in African countries, where we help a lot with development, medicine and hi-tech. We must fight Arab influence by means of help and support.
“We are not such a rich country. But we are making friends. Panama has moved to our side. Small islands are with us. It makes me feel better when I see not only the US, Israel and Micronesia standing together, but also some powerful countries from the EU, and smaller countries from Africa and the Pacific.
But you know, Cuba and Iran are putting a lot of efforts into those same places – they give people grants to study medicine, and I don’t want to mention the names of the countries, but Cuba and Iran spend millions to push those countries over to their side.”
Shalev cites Iran’s failed efforts to win a seat on the Security Council a year and a half ago: “They were just bribing countries. Thirty-two countries voting for Iran at the General Assembly, just imagine! And for them to become a member of the Security Council, which would have been a disaster not just for Israel, but for the world.”
Over the course of her tenure, Shalev had to struggle with the Goldstone Report, which she said not only caused Israel “a lot of damage,” but also “tainted, or stained, the image of the UN and the Human Rights Council.”
“On the whole, it is a terrible report,” Shalev says. “I think it caused us a lot of damage because it became the platform for bashing and accusing Israel, and channeled all the anti-Israel or anti-Zionist declarations and accusations.” She noted that the report would doubtlessly be discussed again at this month’s General Assembly meetings.
SHE HAD FEW kind words for the Human Rights Council. “The HRC, which gave the mandate to this terrible report, does not deal with violations of human rights all over the world – the only country that is, over and over, discussed is Israel. We are the country that violates human rights – not Zimbabwe, not [North] Korea, not Iran. It’s a very one-sided and terrible council, which does not deserve the name of Council of Human Rights.”
She was optimistic, though, that Israel would not be “Goldstoned” again.
“To my mind, everything depends on what will come out of the peace talks. I think they will create a much better, more conducive atmosphere for progressing in the peace process. From the beginning, from the Bar-Ilan speech, the invitation was extended to come and conduct bilateral talks – nothing happened, which was bad.
“Now, we can show that we mean it, and it’s not just ceremonial. Goldstone and the international panel on the flotilla incident will be put in their place – isolated incidents. The Goldstone Report could vanish, but that all depends on the atmosphere that will be created in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah.”
In terms of the outcome, she says, “I think the Palestinians know that it all depends on their willingness to sit and talk. Now they understand that there is no way they can get anything by just sitting on their hands and waiting for others to do their negotiations. It must be between us and them, with the support of the Quartet, especially the United States, which has been so helpful trying to be an evenhanded broker.”
If the vote on independence were to be held today, do you think Israel would get the approval of the UN? She coughs, and it’s unclear as to whether it’s legitimate or feigned. “It’s an interesting question,” she says. “At that time, it was a great thing, because we embraced it. Just imagine, what would have happened if the Arabs had, like us, accepted the partition resolution? There would be a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace, security and, I can add, prosperity with the State of Israel, 62 years later.”
“Today’s situation is completely different,” Shalev says. She notes that Israel was the 59th state to be accepted and recognized by the UN.
Today, the UN has 192 member states – and the ones that joined since 1948 “are nondemocratic, liberated or so-called liberated countries with autocratic regimes. Most of them don’t recognize our values, and they do not share our values.
“So I’m not going to answer the question of what would happen,” she says, answering it without answering it. “Thank God we do not need to be recognized again – and I can say also, thank God for the US, who stood next to us all these years, not only with its veto, but with the fact that we share the same values with this great leader of the world, and the same ideals of democracy and dignity.”
SHALEV HAS PLANS for her return, but one of the top items on her to-do list is to talk to Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem about her experience – and about why his conversion bill, in her opinion, should not be passed.
“The Diaspora is a strategic asset of Israel. All Jews, of all denominations – Conservative, Reform, Orthodox – they’re all part of the Jewish people, and they all want to support us.”
Shalev speaks glowingly of the hundreds of events with American Jews she attended: “I saw the kind of warmth and attachment and importance that every Jew in the Diaspora accords to Israel. Sometimes, they have different views, but all Zionists think of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
“One Israeli policy which would be detrimental is the new conversion bill, which I hope will not be passed. I can say this now – I wouldn’t have said it a month ago. David Rotem, who is head of the committee in the Knesset, was a student of mine, and I think we have a very good relationship. I’m going to tell him what I heard here – how important all Jewish congregations are, and how important they are for Israel.
“They are the bridge between us and the United States – and surely I don’t have to reiterate the importance of the United States to Israel.”
SHALEV IS wrapping up our interview. “Yesterday, somebody asked me on a radio show, why don’t we just leave the UN?” Shalev recounts, with no small amount of incredulity. “Why doesn’t Israel just drop out? And John McCain, in the primaries, suggested that there ought to be a parallel UN of democratic countries, but this is an idea that I don’t share.”
Ever the pragmatist, Shalev answers my unspoken question.
“We have to see the world as it is, and the UN reflects the world nowadays. It reflects the world – the world is not a perfect place, and cannot be perfect in representation. This is the world we’re living in, and we have to fight and show our right to survive and live in dignity and peace in this world.”
I quote the outgoing ambassador back to herself: “I would rather lose in a cause that will someday win, than win in a cause that will someday lose.”
Do you think this cause of Israel at the UN is winnable, I ask? What advice would she give her successor going forward? “I would never give up because, as I said, I feel that our cause is just. Nowadays, we can’t win at the General Assembly. Israel is the only country whose existence is threatened and always in peril.”
Shalev’s voice assumes a new contour. “The world must allow us to live in this very small country. People ask me, how can we help? I tell them, come to Israel and realize just how small Israel is and what a wonderful place it is.
“I never think of this as unwinnable. I know this is the right cause, and I’m very proud of Israel. Not that we’re not making mistakes – no one is immune from making mistakes. But I know our cause is just, and I will tell my successor to go in with head held high and know that he’s representing a country that has the right to live in peace and security, after all these years, like any other county in the world.”