Israel ‘gaining ground at UN’
The Jewish state’s envoy believes he has found unexpected allies against Iran, Hizbollah and extremism
THE UNITED Nations has never been viewed as Israel’s closest ally. But Israeli ambassador Dan Gillerman believes he has detected a fundamental change of attitude in many member nations previously among those most hostile to the Jewish state.
“A large portion of the so-called moderate Arab and Muslim world realises the real threat is not Israel but Iran” and Shia extremism, he says. “That awareness offers a real opportunity to reach a settlement with the Arab world and the Palestinians on much more pragmatic terms.”
The 62-year-old, in London this week for a JNF UK dinner, claims this phenomenon follows Israel’s summer war with Hizbollah and Iran’s continuing nuclear ambitions.
He describes a “moderate Arab” quartet aligned against extremism and composed of Egypt, Jordan, the Emirates and — perhaps surprisingly — Saudi Arabia. However, he stresses that Israel and the Palestinians can only solve their conflict bilaterally.
“We don’t need an international initiative. What we do need is the Arab world to give legitimacy, we need the UN and the international community to back it and finance it.”
That assessment hardly bodes well for the road map, instituted by the rather different quartet of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN itself, although Mr Gillerman is quick to insist: “It’s still the only plan on the table.”
Such tactful manoeuvring has helped make the father-of-two, whose term has been extended to an unprecedented five years, one of Israel’s most admired envoys. Mr Gillerman freely admits he has what is considered to be the hardest job in Israeli diplomacy, although he adds graciously: “A far tougher one is representing the UN vis-à-vis Israel. It doesn’t enjoy the greatest reputation as the fairest institution.”
For an ex-businessman who took up his current position in 2003, Mr Gillerman has certainly proved adept at such tactful finesse, and no slouch at thundering soundbites either, such as his description of Iran as “a mad regime led by a president who denies the Holocaust while preparing the next one”.
Sitting between Italy and Ireland — “Iran should have been next to Israel, but they decided to call themselves the Islamic Republic of Iran”— he has overseen breakthroughs including UN initiatives to combat antisemitism and institute a Holocaust Memorial Day. In 2005 he was elected vice-chair of the General Assembly, the first Israeli to hold that position since Abba Eban more than 50 years previously.
Yet in the political arena, the UN still proves awkward. Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians uses up an exorbitant amount of UN time and resources, and the body itself has long been criticised for being unwieldy and ineffective.
Mr Gillerman’s analysis is surprisingly upbeat. He views Resolution 1701, which ended this summer’s Lebanon war, as a mixed success, with Lebanese and international forces stabilising South Lebanon despite a continuing flow of weapons over the Syrian border. Pressure on Iran is continuing, and Mr Gillerman has high hopes for new UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon, who as a South Korean understands all too well the threat of a rogue regime with nuclear weapons.
And anti-Israel rhetoric is only part of the UN story. “There’s an incredible discrepancy between the very warm relations forged between colleagues and how they express themselves and vote,” he says. “I’ve developed very close, warm and intimate relations with countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel and even hostile ones. For their sakes, I won’t name names. But it’s done with the full knowledge of the leadership. Some of these contacts lead to remarkable results. I believe very much in personal diplomacy, it can bring many dividends not counted in the number of hands raised for a vote.”
There is still a long way to go. “My ultimate quest is to narrow the incredible gap between the real world and the glass building on First Avenue,” he says. “To see Resolution 1701 implemented, to see Iran stopped in its tracks on its quest for nuclear weapons and to turn the UN into a more hospitable and normal place for Israelis to be.”
Ambassador Dan Gillerman: “Personal diplomacy can bring many dividends”