Monday, February 14, 2011

Thankless Task at Turtle Bay

After more than six-months of squabbling, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Beitenu) have, at last, agreed to dispatch veteran diplomat Ron Prosor as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations. Meron Reuben had been saddled with the unenviable task of holding down the fort while the politicians bickered.

But what, realistically, can any Israeli ambassador hope to achieve at the UN where over 118 members identify with the farcically labeled "non-aligned" bloc, an interlocking directorate that includes 57 Organization of the Islamic Conference countries, 22 members of the Arab League, and Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and North Korea, states that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. As if this wasn't bad enough, the European Union nowadays rarely takes any initiative to defend Israel's right to self-defense. And even Washington has been known to express its diplomatic pique by occasionally throwing Jerusalem to the jackals.

From the beginning, Israel's first UN ambassador Abba Eban (1949-1959) essentially disregarded his immediate diplomatic audience to address his "language and emotion to the wider world beyond." Eban served concurrently as ambassador to Washington and to the UN. His successor Michael Comay (1960-1967) became one of Israel's leading representatives to American Jewry. In the lead up to the Six Day War, Gideon Rafael (1967-1968) transmitted diplomatic messages from US decision makers interpreted by the Israeli cabinet as providing a green light for a preemptive attack by the IDF against massed Arab forces.

Not much, however, could be done inside the UN. To PLO chief Yasir Arafat's gun-toting inaugural General Assembly speech in November 1974, Yosef Tekoa (1968-1975) could best direct his rebuttal to Israel's friends outside the auditorium. Similarly, Chaim Herzog (1975-1978) took to the General Assembly podium and demonstrably tore apart resolution 3379 which odiously equated Zionism as “a form of racism." But, he too, was speaking to the civilized world beyond.

Renowned jurist Yehuda Blum (1978-1984) bluntly declared that the UN had become an arena that "fanned the flames of Arab-Israel conflict." And while helping to fight off attempts to deny Israel's credentials at the General Assembly, Benjamin Netanyahu (1984-1988) focused his polemical talents at the American popular press. As chargé d’Affaires, Johanan Bein (1988-1990) could do nothing to stop the General Assembly from relocating to Geneva to again provide Arafat with a platform. "As I prepare to leave the post," he would later write in The New York Times, "I…ask myself … if my country's predicament at the U.N. is permanent."

Yoram Aridor (1990-1992) was fortunate to see the "Zionism is racism resolution" rescinded under US pressure, yet could then do nothing about, what the Times called "the harshest criticism of Israeli policies ever made at the Security Council" by the George H.W. Bush administration over Israel's deportation of 12 Palestinian terrorists to Lebanon during the first intifada. Gad Yaacobi (1992-1996) represented Israel during the Oslo-era but, he too, could not dissuade the US from joining the Security Council majority in a sweeping condemnation of Israel in the wake of Baruch Goldstein's massacre of Arab worshippers in Hebron.

The first US-born Israeli to be appointed ambassador to the UN, Dore Gold (1997-1999) was effective at public diplomacy, but could not sway the General Assembly against voting 131 to 3 to condemn Israel for housing construction in Jerusalem. During the barbaric Palestinian violence of the second intifada, Yehuda Lancry (1999-2002) endured shameless UN condemnations against "the excessive use of force" by Israel.

Dan Gillerman (2002-2008) was, arguably, the most thriving recent ambassador: Promulgating the first Israeli resolutions ever adopted by the United Nations; elected vice-president of the assembly one year, and impelling secretary-general Kofi Annan to speak out against the GA's ad nauseam attacks against Israel as counterproductive.

Finally, though she established rapport with a not unsympathetic UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Gabriela Shalev (2008-2010) was powerless as Judge Richard Goldstein led a lawfare campaign against Israel's right to defend its civilian population along the Gaza border.

Plainly, the labors of Israeli ambassadors take on a Sisyphean almost fatalistic character. So, why bother? Simply because the UN is where the family of nations, such as it is, comes together to make consequential collective decision.
In any event, Prosor's main role will be to represent Israel beyond the UN's corridors; most prominently to the global media and the U.S. Jewish community, a task he will partly share with Michael Oren, Jerusalem's ambassador in Washington (whose primary mission is focused on the US-Israel relationship).

Yet their public diplomacy roles have been made near-impossible because official Israel does not speak with one voice. Should Israeli ambassadors take Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan speech as their marching orders? Or the contradictory line articulated by Lieberman at his 2010 UN address? To further complicate matters, today's Internet offers a competing cacophony of dissenting voices all claiming to know what's best for Israel.

Prosor's advantage is that he is a compelling figure with superior communications skills and diplomatic heft to credibly present Israel's positions in both public and confidential settings. The rest depends on the two men who belatedly sent him. Not only must Prosor have unfettered access to the foreign minister and premier, he must be encouraged to provide them with unvarnished assessments of how their – sometimes incongruent – policies are affecting Israel's image in the media and support among American Jews.

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