What are the high and low points in Israel’s history with the United Nations?
I still remember the night my father woke me up at age six in Tel Aviv and we joined the dancing in the streets. The UN had voted to end the British Mandate and partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The UN embraced Israel at that time and cleared the way for its establishment. A year later, Israel became its 59th member. If the Arab or Palestinian side could only have adopted this decision as we did, reluctantly—the Jewish leaders were not very keen on partition, either—we would now be in a completely different situation.
Many years later, when I was ambassador to the UN, I would look back and ask myself, how did the relationship become so spoiled? How did we become the only country in the world everybody is against?
How do you explain it?
There are many, many reasons. Even aside from what happened 50 years ago—what people do not like to call the “Occupation”—there are now 193 members of the UN, more than triple the number when we joined, and there is an automatic majority against Israel. Now, there are some voices that say, “Oh, let’s leave the UN” or “Let’s create a UN of only all the democratic countries.” This is not only not going to happen, it should not happen. It’s important to have the UN as the parliament of the world. The world is not perfect, so how can the parliament of the world be perfect? It’s important for Israel to be represented there.
What was your experience?
I was appointed “out of nowhere,” neither a politician nor a diplomat, but from academia, and the first woman after 13 male ambassadors, so I was hoping to bring a different voice and attitude. At first I thought I had succeeded. With [U.S. ambassador to the UN] Susan Rice, who was so much younger and came from a different place, I formed a wonderful relationship, one that was not only helpful for me in dealing with the Security Council but, I think, good for Israel. Rice said the UN was “imperfect, yet indispensable,” and I agree.
But just two months after my appointment came the Operation Cast Lead Gaza conflict and also the Goldstone Report and Iran. There was almost no time for what I was hoping to accomplish in human rights, women’s rights, agriculture. I couldn’t represent Israel as a light unto the nations; I had to deal with the General Assembly!
We have to be there, to keep voicing our belief that Israel is a democracy and thriving.
Were there accomplishments?
There were little things, behind the scenes. When the General Assembly discussed the Goldstone Report—a report that was tainted and one-sided, and even Goldstone later retracted it—quite a few countries voted against it. We also accomplished some non-political things on education, water and sustainable development. I signed agreements on agriculture, gender and women’s empowerment. These things are not in the forefront, but they’re actually very important to our relationship with the world.
Have things changed since then?
It’s strange, but when Susan Rice was the U.S. ambassador, and later Samantha Power— both important friends of Israel—the U.S. supported Israel at the UN, even though in Israel, President Obama was the least popular president ever. Now it’s the other way around. President Trump is so popular in Israel, but at the UN, it’s [U.S. ambassador] Nikki Haley against the world.
Does the UN help uphold the rule of law?
The UN is led by interests. Every country has its own. Although the UN uses the language of the law, with protocols and so forth, it really functions according to these interests. It doesn’t have the features we look for when we speak of the rule of law, that is, principles of justice or equality.
Is there good work being done at the UN?
Absolutely. There are areas where it’s not helpful. Terrorism, for instance. But on many issues, such as the fight against diseases or its “millennium development goals”—on child mortality, maternal health, HIV/AIDS, environmental sustainability—the UN is doing great work. Israel has played a role, particularly in disaster relief, where we have been a leader. Even politically, it is helpful as a place where representatives of all nations can meet and talk behind the scenes. You have to remember that there is a huge gap between bilateral and multilateral relations between countries. Huge, important countries like India might have voted against Israel in the General Assembly. But we have good, stable bilateral relations with them.
What about groups like the UN Human Rights Council?
In 2009, when the United States rejoined the Human Rights Council, Susan Rice called me and said, “We decided to clean the tent from the inside, not from the outside.” For many years, the United States had stayed outside this body, which was always against Israel. I thought that was an interesting move, and it had some influence. I don’t know what Nikki Haley is going to do about it. True, it is a place that shows the hypocrisy of the UN at work—they never talk about human rights anyplace else, it’s always Israel. But still, we have to be there, to keep voicing our belief that Israel is a democracy and thriving.
Gabriela Shalev served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2008 to 2010. An international authority on contract law, Shalev is a senior faculty member at Ono Academic College in Israel. She was interviewed by Moment opinion editor Amy E. Schwartz.
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The magazine also published the views of Yair Lapid on this issue. Most of his comments were accurate and supported by good examples. But he did make the straw man argument that the UN was established “that protects freedom, democracy, liberal values, and world peace.” It is easy to lay out failures of those goals, because they never existed. NATO and later the EU did have such a mission.
In the early decades of the UN, Joe Stalin had 3 direct votes (USSR, Ukraine, Byelorussia) in addition to total control of votes of several East European satellite nations. Most Latin American nations were dictatorships, military juntas, or authoritarian. France, UK, Belgium, Netherlands were democracies at home, but colonial dictatorships over most of Africa and much of Asia. Spain and Portugal remained Fascist, also with colonies.