Thankless in Turtle Bay

By Elliot Jager
Friday, February 18, 2011

After more than six months of internal squabbling, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Beitenu) have, at last, agreed to dispatch the seasoned diplomat Ron Prosor as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations.

But what, realistically, can any Israeli ambassador hope to achieve at the UN? This is a body in which over 118 members identify themselves with the farcically labeled "non-aligned" bloc: an interlocking directorate that includes 57 countries belonging to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, 22 members of the Arab League, and five countries (Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and North Korea) that have no diplomatic relations with Israel. As if this weren't bad enough, the European Union nowadays rarely takes any initiative to support Israel's right to self-defense, and even Washington has been known to express its pique by occasionally throwing Jerusalem to the jackals.

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

Not much, however, could be done inside the UN itself. In rebutting Yasir Arafat's gun-toting November 1974 speech to the General Assembly, Yosef Tekoa mainly directed himself to Israel's friends outside. Similarly, Chaim Herzog, in literally tearing apart the November 1975 resolution odiously designating Zionism as "a form of racism," was likewise speaking to the civilized world beyond.  

To the renowned jurist Yehuda Blum, who served from 1978 to 1984, the UN had become an arena that actively "fanned the flames of Arab-Israel conflict." His successor Benjamin Netanyahu alternated between fighting off attempts to deny Israel's credentials at the General Assembly and deploying his considerable polemical talents in the American media.

The subsequent tenures of Johanan Bein, Yoram Aridor, and Gad Yaacobi were marked by the growing tilt of the world body toward the PLO. Although the "Zionism is racism" resolution was rescinded under U.S. pressure in the early 1990s, Aridor could do nothing about the Security Council's condemnation of Israel for the deportation of twelve Palestinian terrorists to Lebanon during the first intifada. Even at the height of the Oslo era, Yaacobi was unable to dissuade the U.S. from joining in yet another sweeping Security Council condemnation—this, in the wake of Baruch Goldstein's massacre of Arab worshippers in Hebron.

By the time Dore Gold, an effective public diplomat and the first American-born Israeli to be appointed to the post, arrived in the late 1990s, the template had been set as if in concrete. A General Assembly vote of 131 to 3, blasting Israel for housing construction in Jerusalem, was followed, under Gold's successor Yehuda Lancry, by shameless condemnations of Israel's "excessive use of force" during the barbaric Palestinian violence of the second intifada.

Which brings us closer to the present. Dan Gillerman, arguably the most thriving of recent ambassadors, succeeded in promoting the first Israel-sponsored resolutions ever adopted by the United Nations and in impelling Secretary-General Kofi Annan to speak out against the UN's ad-nauseam attacks. But the attacks continued, as witness the powerlessness of Gabriela Shalev against the campaign, led by Judge Richard Goldstein, to eviscerate Israel's right to defend its civilian population along the Gaza border.

Plainly, the labors of Israeli ambassadors have taken on a Sisyphean character. If the country nevertheless persists in trying, it is only because the UN is still where the family of nations, such as it is, comes together to make consequential collective decisions. In any event, Prosor's main role will once again be to represent Israel beyond the UN's corridors—most prominently to the global media and to the U.S. Jewish community. This is a task he will partly share with Michael Oren, Jerusalem's ambassador to Washington.

True, the two men's role has not been made easier by the evident inability of Israeli officialdom to speak with one voice. Should an ambassador take Netanyahu's own public statements as their marching orders, or the contradictory line articulated by Lieberman at his 2010 UN address? Further complicating matters is the cacophony of dissenting voices on the Internet, all claiming to know what's best for Israel.

Prosor's advantage in both public and private settings is that he is a compelling figure with superior communications skills and diplomatic heft.  Much else depends on the two men who have belatedly sent him to the United Nations and whose sometimes incongruent policies exercise their own effect on Israel's image in the media and its public support, especially in the U.S. That support, in the end, counts infinitely more than any vote taken in Turtle Bay.


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