As Israel makes the case for its military actions in Gaza, international attention is focused on the United Nations, where a newcomer to the world of diplomacy has been thrusted front and center.
Less than four months removed from a quiet academic life at home in Israel, U.N. Ambassador Gabriela Shalev, whose political leanings are perceived to be on the left, is defending her country’s air strikes on Hamas centers, noting in an urgent letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday night that Hamas “holds the sole responsibility for the latest events” and that “Israel is taking the necessary military action in order to protect its citizens from ongoing terrorist attacks.”
In the days leading up to Israel’s counterattack, Shalev issued written warnings to JTS the secretary-general that after enduring rocket attacks on its communities in the south for seven years, Israel’s patience was running out and that it would respond to the ongoing attacks.
“It’s a nightmare,” sighed Shalev, in a rare interview three days before Israel launched its air attacks, noting that the state of limbo at the end of a six-month Hamas-Israel cease-fire “won’t last long.”
“We are hoping Hamas will renew the state of calm,” she said, pointing out that Palestinians are being deprived of truckloads of humanitarian aid due to the increase in attacks. “Their children are suffering, too.”
Shalev, 67, acknowledges that she brings a maternal perspective to her post as her country’s first woman U.N. ambassador. She believes she was appointed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in part “to show a different face of Israel, that we are not just about war and terror” but rather about the effort to make peace, promote human rights and emphasize Israel’s expertise in areas like medicine, agriculture and high-tech, along with its willingness to lend assistance to other countries.
For now, though, her efforts are geared to insisting that the bloodshed the world is seeing in television footage is the sole responsibility of Hamas.
“It’s tough, very tough,” she said on Monday, having spent three virtually sleepless nights trying to convince fellow diplomats of Israel’s case.
“This is a diplomatic war and it’s not easy,” she said, expressing gratitude for White House support and the efforts of the American Jewish community.
Shalev spent most of Monday doing “eight or nine television interviews,” noting that a number of questions focused on why there were so many more Palestinian than Israeli casualties.
“But the issue is not proportionality,” she said she told reporters. “Let them look back at eight years of terror attacks” Israelis in the south have endured. “And we never target civilians; Hamas wants to murder our children.”
She asserted that Hamas, and Iran, are “not only enemies of Israel but of the Western world.”
Not A Celebrity
Shalev’s appointment broke the mold in several ways, in addition to gender. She has no professional experience in diplomacy or politics, but rather is a highly respected professor of law, with four decades of teaching at the university level in Israel and the United States, specializing in contract law. By temperament Shalev is modest, soft-spoken and direct — not the characteristics most associated with the U.N. post.
While well-known in the legal community, having taught and lectured at a number of universities in Israel, the United States and Europe — she was a professor for many years at Hebrew University and was most recently rector of Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono — Shalev acknowledged that she was “a private person” and that it has “taken me time to understand that the media is part of my job.”
Her appointment was a source of controversy in Israel, where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and others were said to favor Alon Pinkas, a popular former Israeli consul general in New York, and foreign ministry officials wanted to see a career diplomat in the U.N. post.
The Israeli press speculated that Livni, who made the appointment, wanted to show her independence by not going along with Olmert’s choice, and reported that she was close to Shalev.
In truth, Shalev said, she hardly knew Livni and was, in fact, a friend of Olmert’s.
“I see myself as the representative of the government of Israel, not of Livni,” she explained, “and it wouldn’t change for me if [Likud Party leader] Bibi [Netanyahu] was the prime minister. Israel is my beloved country.”
She said she is proud to serve in a post that was held by, among other notable figures, Netanyahu (“a great ambassador”), Abba Eban, Chaim Herzog and, most recently, Dan Gillerman, whom she acknowledged was an outgoing and highly popular envoy.
“That makes my job easier,” she smiled, and noted that each of her predecessors “brought their own personalities and views to the job, and saw themselves as representatives not only of Israel but of the Jewish People.”
She said that “you do diplomacy all of your life in your roles as a friend, spouse, mother and teacher. It’s about reaching out, explaining,” adding that her career in law prepared her because it is about “getting to the truth, communicating and negotiating.” Contract law, she said, “is about getting to a solution,” often dealing with adversaries.
Friends and colleagues give Shalev high marks for her intellect, her calm demeanor and her strong work ethic.
“She is very intelligent, focused, solid and articulate,” noted Abraham Foxman, national director of Anti-Defamation League.
“She does not have a celebrity persona and she doesn’t see her role as playing the public relations card. The feedback I hear from other ambassadors is that she is very respected and professional.”
(Gary Rosenblatt editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)