My cousin, the ambassador to the UN

Could Meron Reuben be the new Abba Eban?

Meron Reuben (photo credit: Courtesy)
Meron Reuben
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Imagine naming a gifted diplomat from the professional ranks of the Foreign Ministry rather than the usual political appointee, someone who happens to be an excellent native English speaker, as ambassador to the United Nations? What an incredible idea! Not since Abba Eban has anyone dared to do something so logical. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it primarily English they speak at the UN?
Eban was Israel’s first and probably most eloquent ambassador to the world body. At the age of 34, he was appointed permanent representative when the fledgling Jewish state was admitted to the four-year-old United Nations in 1949. At the UN, who could forget his brilliant speeches rebuffing the Arab states’ rejection of Israel’s existence? “Whether they want peace or war,” he famously declared, “they can have it only with the State of Israel.”
When Eban died in 2002 at the age of 87, then foreign minister Binyamin Netanyahu said: “With his prodigious intellect and renowned eloquence, Abba Eban was not only one of Israel’s finest diplomats, but also was one of the great diplomats of his era. He was a powerful advocate for the Jewish state and for the rights of the Jewish people. Eban set the standard for defending Israel in the courts of world opinion.
“During many difficult periods, his voice was a stirring reminder of the justice of the Zionist cause and Israel’s eternal hope to live in peace with its neighbors. Through years of dedicated service, he laid the foundations for Israel’s foreign service and proved that even though we are a small nation, our moral voice can be heard loud and clear across the world.”
Over the years, I interviewed Eban several times for Israel Radio’s English News, and on every occasion was impressed anew by his uncanny ability to convince his interlocutors through his beautifully expressed arguments.
In one unforgettable exchange, after I outlined all the cons of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the dovish diplomat shot down each one like a master marksman at a shooting gallery. He answered every challenge with a punchy response.
“You have to consider the price,” he said. “If the price is a peace treaty with Syria, it’s a price we should be ready to pay.”
I HAVE no doubt that Eban would have smiled with satisfaction at the recent appointment of Meron (Marc) Reuben, 49, as temporary ambassador to the UN, in place of Prof. Gabriela Shalev, who resigned after two years in the post. Reuben has a lot in common with Eban. They were both born in Cape Town, South Africa, and educated in England, becoming smart diplomats with outstanding language skills. Like Eban, Reuben is a committed Zionist whose prime goal is to advocate Israel’s cause to an often unsympathetic international community.
Marc, as the family calls him, happens to be a distant cousin. Our mothers’ mothers were cousins. Over the years, he has always said and done the right things whenever we met. He is caring, considerate and sharp. I remember when he completed the Foreign Ministry cadet course after serving in the air force and earning his master’s in international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem thinking what a great diplomat he would be. He proved me right.
Despite having no knowledge of Spanish, he soon mastered the language when he was posted to the embassy in Chile. It was in Santiago that he met his wife, an attractive Chilean Jewess named Paola, with whom he later had two lovely daughters. He excelled as director of Mashav, the Foreign Ministry’s center for international cooperation, as well as in his exotic diplomatic postings to Mexico, Bolivia, Paraguay and most recently, Colombia.
During his visit to Israel earlier this year with Colombia’s charismatic foreign minister, I swelled with pride when Jaime Bermudez warmly praised my cousin before an interview in his King David Hotel suite.
When Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman named Reuben the country’s envoy to the UN last week, I was pleased that most of his colleagues at the Foreign Ministry welcomed the appointment from among their ranks, and peeved by the criticism of others that he lacked diplomatic experience and was not sufficiently media savvy. They seemed to forget that he had been an exemplary emissary in five different embassies abroad in a foreign language he had learned solely for that purpose.
They appeared to overlook the universal praise he had won for his deft defense of Israeli policies in countless appearances on Spanish-speaking media outlets.
BEING AMBASSADOR to the UN is the jewel in the crown for any diplomat. Reuben calls it his “dream” job.
But this, davka, is the right job for him, a position that demands a cool head, outstanding diplomacy and perfect English.
I believe that Reuben could become a new Abba Eban.
It may be a subjective judgement born of my familiarity with him, but doesn’t he deserve the opportunity to prove himself? Most of our recent ambassadors have come from outside the Foreign Ministry, and the majority have had little or no diplomatic experience at all. Shalev, like her predecessors – Danny Gillerman, Dore Gold and Yehuda Lancry – may have been extremely knowledgeable, but did they really make the grade for a plum posting which should be filled by a top diplomat? “The prime minister did know in advance about the appointment of Meron Reuben,” Lieberman said at a news conference last Monday. “Unfortunately we didn’t reach an agreement on the ambassador. Shalev is leaving and there are important events in September at the UN.
There was no other choice; we couldn’t have left the job open.”
Lieberman strongly defended his choice, saying, “Meron Reuben is an experienced diplomat. He has been an ambassador three times, he speaks fluent English and he has the skills. He will be there for six months and if he succeeds, he will stay.”
Israel’s most articulate diplomat at the UN in the six decades following Eban was arguably Netanyahu himself.
Netanyahu was appointed ambassador in 1984, and served for four years. The media-savvy, US-educated, rightist politician excelled as envoy to the world body, playing a vital role in enhancing Israel’s image on the international stage.
While Lieberman may have departed from tradition by bypassing Netanyahu in sending Reuben to the UN in September, the premier should be the first to welcome a fluent English speaker and talented career diplomat in what is arguably Israel’s most important foreign service position.
We need a fresh face and a vibrant voice to represent the country at the UN at a time in which its international image has been tarnished by both its declared foes and so-called friends. For Israel’s sake, let’s give Meron Reuben a chance.
The writer is managing editor of The Jerusalem Post.