Uriel Heilman - Gabriela Shalev: Israel's First Female U.N. Ambassador
Gabriela Shalev: Israel's First Female U.N. Ambassador Outlines Challenges

Gabriela Shalev: Israel's First Female U.N. Ambassador Outlines Challenges

UNITED NATIONS -- Prof. Gabriela Shalev, who last September left her job as rector of Ono Academic College near Tel Aviv to take up the post of Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, is the first female to represent Israel in that capacity.

Although she had no prior experience in diplomacy or politics, Shalev is a renowned jurist, who has also served as chair of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, as a member of the Jewish Agency's Board of Trustees, and on a committee for formulating ethics of cabinet members.

Shalev recently spoke to B'nai B'rith Magazine about Israel's negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, what Israel can expect from the Obama administration, and the Orwellian nature of her work at the United Nations.


Q -- A predecessor of yours, Dore Gold, famously referred to the United Nations as a "Tower of Babble." What is the goal of Israel's U.N. representative in a body that has expressed so much hyperbole against Israel over the years?

A -- The United Nations is like a mirror, or microcosm, of the world. As we live in an imperfect world, the United Nations cannot be perfect, and it is not. Our mission is on the one hand, taking care of the security and the peace of the people of Israel, and, on the other hand, we must show a different face of Israel-Israel beyond the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; Israel that can offer and contribute to the world so much in medicine, technology, and development.

We have a guy, one of our consuls, who is very much involved with what we call the positive agenda of Israel in the United Nations. He is always frustrated. He asks why we don't stress more that Israel has so much to offer to the world. We offer our help to people in vulnerable areas of the world. We recently signed a framework agreement with the United Nations Development Program to share our expertise and know-how in all fields of science, medicine, and agriculture with the developing world.

But I know this is not as sexy or as interesting for journalists [as conflict]. They-and we-are much more involved with issues of security and peace.

Q -- With a new president in the White House and a new U.S. Secretary of State, how do you anticipate relations between Washington and Jerusalem will change?

A -- Every American president since Harry Truman has been supportive of Israel.

We believe that [President Barack] Obama will continue [in] his administration to support Israel, to understand the problems we are facing, and to be as strong an ally of Israel as the American presidents were in the past.

I was at a meeting of AIPAC, and [Sen.] Hillary Clinton gave a speech [that] was very supportive of Israel. We know that she's a great ally of Israel and very effective regarding Iran, and how the world and the United States should react to the nuclear development of Iran.

But, of course, there are many other problems that the American president has to face. You know, he has Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the economic crisis. But I believe when Israel is discussed it will be in a very positive way.

Q -- Israel came under heavy criticism when it launched its military campaign against the Hamas regime in Gaza. How do you defend Israel's actions in the halls of the United Nations, where Israel is subject to so much criticism?

A -- Gaza is a difficult and sad situation, but we did not cause the situation. There is only the Hamas to blame. And the situation in Gaza is an outcome of what the people there elected. They elected Hamas, and this is the outcome of their own will and suffering.

The answer is not with us; the answer is with them. The first condition is dismantling the terror-and this is something that is very crucial and important: dismantling the infrastructure of the terror in Gaza.

I want to tell you a story about a young boy named Moshiko who is 10 years old. He lost his leg when a rocket hit his house in Sderot. He moved with his family to his grandmother's house in Ashdod, which is more than 15 kilometers away from Sderot and from the Gaza border. And then, a few days later, there were rockets firing at Ashdod. This young boy said: "Where shall I go from here? We went from Sderot to Ashdod; now where shall we go? To Tel Aviv?"

Q -- Israel has been pursuing intensive, bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians since the peace talks were renewed in November 2007 in Annapolis, Md. But the Hamas rejectionists in Gaza remain an obstacle to any settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. How can Israel pursue peace with one part of the Palestinian polity while another part refuses to negotiate or even lay down its arms?

A -- Even in Israel, there are people and parties that are claiming that the peace process has to stop as long as we are being fired upon and rockets are [being fired at us]. And the Palestinians are also very weak. But our partners-and they are our only partners-are the Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority. I hope the Palestinian people will understand that the only way to proceed with Israel is through their official government, which is the Palestinian Authority, with whom we discuss and have talks all the time.

Everybody was hoping that, by the end of 2008, there would be a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This did not happen, unfortunately, not because we did not want it-we want peace and we stress it all the time-but it so happened that even the Palestinian Authority had to back up because of what happens with the Hamas.

I think people have to understand that it's not a Swiss clock [that] ticks in the Middle East. We have our own clock, and it ticks differently. 2009 is a long year and we must be hopeful that something good is going to happen. What's the alternative?

Q -- What is the role of the international community in moving Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking forward?

A -- We in Israel welcome all support that we can receive from the international community and from moderate countries in the region regarding the peace process, but we want to remind everybody that all agreements and all negotiations are bilateral. This is something that has to be agreed and decided between the parties themselves. Only bilateral negotiations can bring, at the end, a comprehensive agreement in the framework of the Annapolis process.

Q -- Some Israelis suggest it would be easier and quicker to reach a peace deal with Syria than with the Palestinians, and that this is where Israel ought to be spending its energy. Should Israel be pressing ahead on the Syrian track?

A -- We welcome every country-every neighboring country, every Arab country, every country in the world-that is willing to make peace with Israel. We hope to have peace with all neighboring countries that still don't have peace with Israel.

I think we are reaching it-slowly, painfully, with many challenges, but we are reaching it-on a bilateral track of negotiations with the Palestinians.

Q -- For several years now, Israel has been trying to make the case against Iran. Three rounds of economic sanctions later, the Iranian quest for nuclear capability continues practically unabated. Does the solution to the Iran problem lie in the U.N., or does it lie elsewhere-in military action, perhaps?

A -- Iran is not a problem only [for] Israel. I mean, we, of course, will be targeted, but it will not end there if the worst-case scenario happens. We see Iran as our biggest threat. Iran is a convergence of Holocaust denial, threatening to wipe Israel off the map, developing nuclear capabilities, and arming and sending weapons to Hezbollah on our north and Hamas in our midst. We think Iran is really a very cruel enemy, but not only of Israel.

I think the United States understands this, I think the world understands it, and I think the Security Council now also-after all these resolutions and economic sanctions-will come to grips with it. We hope the carrots-and-sticks and the engagement, which the United States already announced, is going to help, but it is-to my mind and to our mind-not an Israeli problem, but a problem of the world.

Every international body, every government, every moderate Arab state that can be effective and help to stop the development of nuclear capabilities in Iran, and stop the incitement coming from them, and the hate of Israel and the Western world, is welcome.

Q -- You have said that representatives of moderate Arab states are cordial and sometimes friendly to you in the halls of the United Nations, but it's another matter entirely when it comes to official interactions and meetings. Is this what you expected before you went to New York?

A -- Somebody asked me if I'm disappointed, because, when we were kids, we learned that the United Nations represented the spirit of the world. At my age, and after so many years of [seeing] and learning what happens in the world, I was not disappointed, but still I found the United Nations to be a place of doublespeak. It reminded me of Orwell's "1984." You say something, and really you mean something different.

In the halls, delegates from moderate Arab states are always very nice and friendly and cooperative, and we have very good talks, but, when it comes to voting or even to sitting across from each other at a public forum, it's something else.

There is an ambassador from one of the half-moderate Arab countries with whom I sat one evening at a dinner hosted by the Turkish ambassador. We sat for two-and-a-half hours and we had a wonderful discussion. Some time later, we sat opposite each other at a public meeting for one whole hour and he avoided any eye contact with me-he wouldn't even wink, not to [mention shake] hands-because there were 60 or 70 ambassadors there, and some of them would not like to see any kind of handshake or even greetings between the Israeli ambassador and an Arab ambassador.

Q -- You are Israel's first female ambassador to the United Nations, [and] one of several women currently occupying major positions of power in Israel. Is this the age of women in the Jewish state?

A -- I should hope so. I think there's a great improvement, especially if you consider the situation just a few years ago. Women are really shattering the glass ceiling and I think this is true in the United States as well, and in the United Nations.

This is really the age of women, and Israel is really at the forefront. There's an improvement all over the world but, unfortunately, not in many countries in our region. So, when we speak about human rights, there are many human rights that are not respected. In Arab countries, there are places that women are not allowed to drive, not to mention places where women are stoned because of adultery or rape or things like that.

Q --You were appointed when Ehud Olmert was prime minister. With the change in government in Israel, do you expect another political appointment to take your place?

A -- I see myself as representing the State of Israel, and not Olmert, Tzipi Livni, or Binyamin Netanyahu. In the jargon of the Foreign Ministry, I'm called a political appointment, but I'm not a political person, and I'd rather call it an outside appointment because I'm not part of the diplomatic corps or the political scene.

I hope and I want to represent my country, and not this government or that government.