When Gabriela Shalev arrived at the United Nations in 2008 as Israel’s first female ambassador, she was determined to launch a diplomatic offensive to improve her country’s international standing.
But the respected contract-law scholar says she ended up spending most of her tenure on the defense, coping with reactions to Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip, the subsequent Goldstone Commission’s inquiry into allegations of war crimes and the high-seas raid of the protest ship Mavi Marmara, in which Israeli commandos killed nine pro-Palestinian activists.
Now Shalev, who stepped down in October and is president of Ono Academic College outside Tel Aviv, warns that Israel’s image is about to take another hit with a Palestinian initiative to win statehood recognition from the U.N. next month.
She spoke with the Los Angeles Times about why she thinks the Palestinians have gained the upper hand in a brewing diplomatic war, but also why their U.N. bid could backfire.
What do you think we’ll see happen in September?
From the first time that Palestinians started to mention September, I thought, it’s a win-win situation for them. They’re holding their cards very close to their chest, but it’s almost certain that they are going to the U.N. General Assembly in order to get what we are calling a unilateral declaration of independence. We haven’t seen the draft resolution. They wanted to become a full member. But in order to become a member of the U.N., they need the recommendation of the Security Council. And there they face a veto.
From the U.S.? Can’t they get around that by using the special “uniting for peace” rule, which permits the General Assembly to break a Security Council deadlock and issue a binding resolution in some cases?
That can be used for collective measures, such as sanctions. But not full membership. For that they need the Security Council. There was a time when I thought the Americans would not use their veto. After February [when the Obama administration vetoed an anti-settlement resolution that Israel opposed], I thought they wouldn’t do it again. I said in the Knesset, “The Americans are not in our pockets.” Americans don’t want to be on the [minority] side again. We’ve become, I hate to say, a kind of burden to them.
But after that, President Obama said they would oppose any anti-Israel resolution. Though they haven’t used the word “veto” in public, we heard from Palestinian leaders that the Americans are going to use it. So I think the Palestinians instead will go to the General Assembly [where they are expected to upgrade their status from observer to nonmember state].
In recent weeks, some Palestinian leaders have appeared to be hesitant about going to the U.N. If you don’t think they can lose, why is that?
They are genuinely divided because they know what we know: They will not gain anything new except for a little public diplomacy. They already have legitimacy all over the world. They are already recognized by many countries in South America and other places. So they don’t really need this kind of declaration. But by doing so, they are risking antagonizing the U.S. and maybe others. I’m not sure that nowadays they want to embarrass the United States, because now it is also a matter of money. The Americans made it clear that it may affect their budget and the support they get. So I think there is some kind of disagreement.
What is the Palestinians’ endgame now? To force Israel back to the negotiating table on better terms?
I’m not sure anymore that Palestinians really want negotiations. They don’t trust [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. They know that peace talks will take a long time. They have a young generation that is sick and tired of what is happening in the region. So the strategy is to delegitimize Israel and launch a diplomatic war. They failed in all the other wars. In 1948, 1967, 1973, the economic boycott and in terrorism. Now this diplomatic war could bring them a lot of gains. The world has adopted their narrative, right or wrong. They see the Palestinians as occupied. Israel has not succeeded in bringing our story to the rest of the globe.
Has Israel done all it can to get out its side of the story or derail the September initiative?
It’s not enough. Israel could show by gestures that when Netanyahu talks about negotiations without preconditions, there really are no preconditions; that we are not only willing to speak about painful concessions, but show that we are willing to do it by not going on with building settlements; and by not putting new things on the table, like the requirement that Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of Jewish people, which to my mind is superfluous. Brazil didn’t recognize us as that. Egypt didn’t.
But Palestinians are also being very stubborn and not helping. What will happen after September is we will see more hostility and much less open dialogue.
You’ve said recently that you think Israel’s international reputation is at a low point. How do you quantify that?
It’s low and will move even lower after September. I can’t measure it, but I feel it was never as bad. I remember when we were the underdogs and the world embraced us. Even during the [2005 Gaza Strip] disengagement, the world loved us. Now I have the feeling that we are seen more like South Africa once was. It frustrates and upsets me because I know Israel is different from the way it’s perceived. This is a wonderful country. But people don’t understand what is going on.