Undaunted diplomacy

Ambassador to the UN Gabriela Shalev is one of Israel's foremost legal minds, blessed with a contract lawyer's eye for tactical advantage.

Gabriela Shalev 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy photos, Shahar Azran)
Gabriela Shalev 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy photos, Shahar Azran)
The wood-domed meeting chamber of the UN was mostly empty of delegates when Ambassador Gabriela Shalev took the podium a few weeks ago at a session devoted to expressing solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians. Shalev, wearing her customary tailored black pantsuit, was undaunted. With aplomb, she began her retort to a series of speeches from Arab ministers decrying Israel as an apartheid state. "Some may feel satisfaction at repeatedly passing General Assembly resolutions or holding conferences that condemn Israel's behavior, but one should also ask whether such steps bring any tangible relief or benefit to the Palestinians," she said. "Has any of this had an effect on Israel's policies, other than to strengthen the belief in Israel, and among many of its supporters, that this great organization is too one-sided to be allowed a significant role in the Middle East peace process?" She looked up, narrowing her eyes as she gauged her audience, and then dropped her punch line: The words weren't hers, but instead belonged to former secretary-general Kofi Annan. Somewhere in the hall, someone coughed. Quickly, Shalev read through the rest of her address, pleading with her colleagues to stop "bashing" Israel and instead - in a sly reference to Barack Obama - "discard the politics of blame and engage in politics of hope." The message wasn't new: In a similar speech last year, former ambassador Dan Gillerman - widely known as a charmer with an almost Borscht Belt sense of humor - drew on Marilyn Monroe's infamous "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" performance to call on his colleagues to celebrate Israel's birth, rather than focus on the failure to redress the claims of the Palestinian people. But Shalev, frank almost to a fault and blessed with a contract lawyer's eye for tactical advantage, saw the opening to make a new point. At 67, she is old enough to remember dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv with her father after the newly created UN voted to support the creation of the Israeli state on November 29, 1947 - and, as one of Israel's foremost legal minds, she was canny enough to spot an opening to remind the gathered delegates that they had every power to help the Palestinians toward the same goal by backing the bilateral peace process. "This is diplomacy, but this is also lawyering," Shalev, who came to the UN after a distinguished career as a law professor, told The Jerusalem Post a few days later in her office at the Israeli mission. "You talk to people you don't agree with. Contract law is all about finding out what the other party is interested in, and then figuring out how to use it to get what you want." Though her speech didn't appear to have any immediate effect - the assembly delegates went ahead and voted to renew a series of resolutions condemning Israel - Shalev said she was undeterred in her goal of cultivating support wherever she could find willing partners. Shalev said her main objective in the coming months will be to broaden the scope of the country's portfolio at the world body, continuing a push to be increasingly vocal on issues from economic aid for Africa to women's rights, and find new friends along the way. "There are 194 countries in the UN, and there are so many whom we never reach out to," she said, naming New Zealand and other Pacific Rim countries among her first targets. Shalev's charm offensive has also included delegates of moderate Arab countries - Qatar and Bahrain among them - whose leaders are being assiduously courted by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and President Shimon Peres from Jerusalem for help supporting the bilateral peace talks with the Palestinians. "We can offer them help on different issues, and despite the image of the UN as just talk, it is important - they realize that we are just human beings, as they are," Shalev said. She quoted the novelist Amos Oz, who inverted the famous hippie dictum "make love not war" into "make peace not love." In many ways, it's a continuation of the strategy employed by Gillerman, a businessman who left the UN in July after five years as Israel's envoy during which he cultivated close personal friendships with his counterparts from hostile countries to lay the groundwork for progress in committee chambers. Gillerman's approach was a break from strategies employed by previous ambassadors - among them Binyamin Netanyahu, whom veteran UN-watchers described as a "clever, avuncular, funny" but "needlessly abrasive" diplomat. "That was a mixture of his style and his intellect and his stances," said Thomas Weiss, a political scientist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "But he was unwelcome in so many places and unwelcome negative publicity outshone whatever he did." Shalev, by contrast, is routinely described as polite and humble - and also as quietly brilliant. Lawyers recount the story of an exam she aced as a third-year student in a class taught by Aharon Barak, former president of the Supreme Court - despite finishing only one out of three questions in the time allotted. The tale has acquired the air of urban legend, but Shalev, when pressed, admits it is true - though she coyly claims it says more about the mind-set of the professor than about her own talent. Former students also describe her as relentlessly curious. One said he proposed a paper comparing Dutch and Jewish law, and found Shalev receptive despite her lack of expertise in either subject. "She knew nothing about it but she really was interested," said Raffi Kornitzer, now a lawyer in Jerusalem. "She is open-minded and always willing to hear and to learn new things." But the same spirit of curiosity that served her well as an academic sometimes looks a little like naivete at the UN, where last night's avid conversationalist can become a stone-faced stranger in the General Assembly hall. "I thought this would be much smoother and not so much double-speak - there is this difference between the small talk at the champagne receptions and what goes on in the chambers," Shalev said, noting an experience with one Arab diplomat in particular who would not be seen speaking to her in public. When asked whether there was anyone she would not want to try to speak with, she demurred, saying that of course she would not sit down with ambassadors from sworn enemies of Israel like Iran and Libya - but noted that it would be an interesting conversation to have one day, if circumstances changed. "Maybe one day - why not? It's engagement," she said. "Whom do you want to talk to, your friends? The ones who already agree with you? No."