This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Israel's new ambassador embodies change at U.N.

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Israel has long had an uncomfortable relationship with the United Nations. But that prickly history may be changing, thanks in no small part to Gabriela Shalev. This past September, Shalev became the first woman ever to be appointed Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations.

“The U.N. doesn’t have a good history in Israel,” she said in a Nov. 14 address before a packed audience of students, faculty, staff and the public at the School of Law. But the fact that Israel is now represented at the international body by a woman, she added, is “part of the change I intend to bring to the U.N.”

shalev-lrgIn a talk titled “Israel and the World: A View from the United Nations,” Shalev said she hopes her ambassadorship will alter both the role of Israel in the U.N. as well as the way the U.N. is perceived within Israel. Her academic background may well be a catalyst: Until her early retirement in 2002, Shalev was a professor of contract law at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and she has taught at universities across North America and Europe.

Shalev’s talk was organized by the Los Angeles Consulate General of Israel, the UCLA Israel Studies Program, the School of Law, Hillel at UCLA and Bruins for Israel.

Shalev castigated the U.N. for fostering what she called an “Orwellian environment,” steeped in “double-speak, double standards and hypocrisy.” She pointed to an incident last September when, following what she called his “terrible anti-Semitic speech” to the U.N. General Assembly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was “applauded and then embraced” by the assembly’s president, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, of Nicaragua.

“Twenty years ago, he said Israel is a cancer in the heart of the Middle East,” Shalev said, referring to the Nicaraguan leader. “Maybe there are some things to condemn” about Israel, she added, but it should not be forgotten that the Jewish state is part of the same world in which the actions of many other nations, such as Sudan, do not receive the condemnation they deserve.

The arguably partisan role that the U.N. has played in the Middle East was criticized by none other than the organization’s former secretary-general, Kofi Annan, Shalev continued. “I don’t think he was known as a great friend of Israel,” but in his last speech at the U.N., Annan condemned the international body’s anti-Israel perspective, she said, quoting him as having stated, “This great organization is too one-sided to be allowed a significant role in the Middle East peace process.”

Israel’s international aid and assistance efforts are too often hidden from the international community, Shalev pointed out. To ensure food security, for example, Israel has initiated small-scale drip irrigation systems across much of Africa, offering “self-sufficiency to those who would otherwise struggle to survive,” she said, adding that Israel has also established community-based prenatal clinics in Ghana and other African nations.

Israel wants to participate in more United Nations initiatives to improve her country's perception in the world as well as to promote the rule of law and human rights, which are enshrined in the U.N. charter, Shalev said.

“But we are also against anti-Semitism and xenophobia,” which is why “we don’t miss any opportunity to mention the threat from the Iranian regime,” said Shalev, whose grandparents suffered during the Holocaust. “The Holocaust did not start with Auschwitz – it started with words that were anti-Semitic,” she added, drawing a parallel to Ahmadinejad’s threat to wipe Israel off the map.

Because the Iranian regime is Israel’s “biggest enemy,” she said, Israel is very keen to see what U.S. President-elect Barack Obama does about his stated desire to engage Tehran after coming to power. “I thought engagement is something that comes before marriage,” she said jocularly, evoking much laughter from the audience. “I never knew it meant dialogue.” 

But for all the threats that it faces, “pessimism is a luxury that Israel can never allow itself,” Shalev said, quoting Golda Meir, Israel’s first female prime minister. The Jewish people believe that “after a very difficult period, we shall witness the dawn of a better era … In this spirit, I call on you to remain hopeful before we reach a better dawn,” she said.

Asked by a member of the audience just how she had brought a new face to the U.N., Shalev recounted a meeting she recently had with d’Escoto. She had been pondering the advice of her colleagues to initiate a diplomatic overture to the president of the U.N. General Assembly when, to her surprise, she learned that he expressed a desire to meet her.

When she met d’Escoto, Shalev was even more surprised. “He kissed me!” she said, adding that “every time he sees me, he treats me like his closest friend.” Perhaps diplomacy of this sort, she quipped, will bring “a new face to the U.N.”

See a podcast of Shalev's talk.
 
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